[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”0801018668″ locale=”US” src=”https://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/41Vj8HQRNkL.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”238″]Forming Character
A Review of
The Tech-Wise Family:
Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place
Hardback: Baker Books, 2017
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Reviewed by Marci Rae Johnson
As parents, we all struggle with setting appropriate limits on technology use for our children, and there’s no scarcity of related advice; it seems that hardly a day goes by without an article on the topic showing up in my Facebook or Twitter feed. With this little book, The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place by Andy Crouch, the good advice appears in one handy volume. I like the size of this book: not only does it feel good in the hand, the small pages lead me to believe that the subject is not as overwhelming as it often seems.
And while this is mostly a collection of common advice on technology limits for kids, there are a few major points in here that were new to me. One is the premise of the first chapter, titled “Choosing Character.” In this chapter, Crouch wants us to consider the family as an environment for the building of character, and he tells us that we should keep this idea at the forefront as we engage with technology: “technology is only very good if it can help us become the persons we were meant to be” (63). How will we interact with technology in a way that increases our kindness, our ability to forgive, our creativity, our wisdom, etc.? This goes beyond just a list of dos and don’ts and allows us to think more deeply and philosophically about our interactions with technology, which is vital not only for our own development as persons, but for explaining to our children the reasoning behind our rules. This chapter is also a refreshing break from the “don’t do this, don’t do that” format of much advice on the topic.
Chapter Nine also present a new take on our interactions with technology: “Why Singing Matters.” In this chapter we are reminded that “every other generation of human beings, in every culture, … cultivated … the ability to make music on our own” (186). I may not agree completely with Crouch on the subject that to sing well is to know wisdom (191), nor that we’ve really forgotten how to make music, but the chapter made me think, and I appreciate how Crouch brings one of the fine arts into the discussion. And here Crouch does admit that “there is no way to deny that this easy-everywhere abundance of music is a gift.” Indeed, throughout the book we see him stating that technology is wonderful and miraculous and useful – which creates balanced and reasonable advice for all of us who can’t just purge technology from our lives completely.
Another aspect of the book that creates balance is the little section at the end of each chapter titled “Reality Check,” in which Crouch admits that even he cannot follow his own rules to the letter all the time. This gives us hope that we don’t have to be perfect; that this is a struggle, and we are all in it together, and it’s often a process of trial and error.
But while it’s enlightening to see how Crouch’s own family has struggled with technology use, one important struggle seems to be missing from this book, and that has to do with the fact that the book seems geared toward middle-class to upper middle-class two-parent households, a demographic that is becoming increasingly rare. According to the U. S. Census Bureau, in 2016 there were 12 million single-parent households in this country (https://singlemotherguide.com/single-mother-statistics/). As a member of that statistic for several years, I found myself thinking things as I read the book like, “great advice, but what if my child spends 40% of his time at his father’s house, where there are no limits on technology and I have no control over that;” or “what if I have to work in order to put food on the table, and some days I can’t pay for a babysitter other than the television?”
And his advice that even restaurant workers get a day off (a Sabbath) per week seems unrealistic (88). How many restaurant workers can afford to feed and clothe their families, pay the rent, etc. and also enjoy a day off? Even Crouch’s list of “Spaces without Devices” (74) seems geared toward the wealthy. Some items: original art, a grand piano, (including a section on page 80 about how it’s important to have an acoustic piano rather than a cheap keyboard), a cabinet full of board games, a fireplace, etc. I found myself frustrated at parts of the book such as these that assume people of faith who want to encourage their children to interact with technology in a healthy manner are wealthy and are always part of two-parent families.
Another frustrating aspect of this book was the periodic and unrealistic nostalgic for the past. For example: “A peasant family in the Middle Ages had none of this technologically uniform pleasantness. They would not have had a lawn, or possibly even a yard. Their children would have wandered out into meadows and perhaps the thing edges of forests” (145), which does not take into account the fact that the lives of peasants in the Middle Ages were short and brutal. The peasant children weren’t out wandering “lonely as a cloud” in fields, picking flowers and using their imaginations; they were working hard from a young age (if they even lived long enough to do so), and struggled with disease and starvation, etc. in ways that we can’t even imagine today. And that fact that every home “once had a hearth, the fire that gave warmth, light, heat for cooking – and entertainment too with its dancing flames and distinctive glow” (71-72) doesn’t consider the long hours women once spent cooking over hot, open flame, nor the large amount of children who fell into the fire and were burned, nor the freezing cold conditions that people lived with before in-home heating. (Remember the Little House on the Prairie books, where Laura would sometimes awaken in the morning with frost, ice and snow on her blankets?)
Amidst Crouch’s nostalgia and other moments, I longed for the inclusion of just a bit more research. There are plenty of research-heavy books on technology use, so a large amount of research isn’t necessary here, and is generally beyond the scope of the book; however, some statements such as these could have been qualified with a little research (or indeed, avoided). The research that does appear in the book is mostly based on Barna surveys and isn’t particularly useful; first because the research simply shows people’s habits. For example, on page 96 we see that a survey discovered 60% of respondents never take a regular break from social media, and 21% take a break “for a while,” and so on. I’m not sure how knowing these statistics helps us create better habits for ourselves and our children. Also, these statistics are never interpreted for us – they simply show up in graphs and pie charts without comment.
The frustrations I experienced with the book may be mirrored by other readers, but they don’t keep the book from being an important and useful read, and even single parents and/or parents who are struggling financially can find plenty of techniques in here to put into practice if they are able to overlook these flaws. Indeed, Crouch’s evident humility, along with his willingness to show us his own brokenness and imperfections go a long way toward making this book an appealing read.
Marci Rae Johnson is an editor and award-winning poet. Her latest collection of poems is Basic Disaster Supplies Kit (Steel Toe Books, 2016).
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com