The case for a screen-free childhood

Eleanor Barkhorn

Andy Crouch didn’t let his kids use screens until they turned 10 — and they thanked him for it.

Andy Crouch knows that he and his wife, Catherine, raised their kids in an unusual way. He calls it “radical.” They set strict boundaries around technology: no devices in the car. They can check their children’s devices at any time, for any reason. And before his children turned 10, they weren’t allowed to use screens at all.

The goal, according to Crouch, wasn’t to deprive his kids of technology. Crouch is a self-proclaimed “technophile” who’s owned nearly every gadget Apple has made. Instead, he and his wife wanted to give their family “incredibly rich, embodied, fun experiences” — the kinds of experiences you can’t have behind a screen.

And his children, now teenagers, are thankful for the rules their parents set. “Both of them say emphatically they would not have wanted it any other way,” Crouch told me.

Crouch, a senior strategist at the John Templeton Foundation, wrote about his philosophy on technology and kids in his new book, The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place. I talked to him about the awkwardness of the “no screens before age 10” rule, and how his philosophy can apply to adults as well.

Our interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Eleanor Barkhorn

I wasn’t allowed to watch TV on the weeknights when I was a kid. My parents’ motivation was that they didn’t want anything to distract me from my schoolwork — it was mostly about making sure I was doing well academically. Your motivation with your kids seems to be something different — more about formation of character.

Andy Crouch

I think if I had to choose the word for it, it might be “flourishing.”

Like, what is a very good life? What's a great childhood? It's a childhood that has these multisensory experiences of encountering the wonder of the world in other people and helps develop resilience and develop creativity, and it's the kind of upbringing that if you have it, you'll never be bored because you've developed strategies for discovering wonder and interest wherever you are.

We really believed and believe — there's a lot of research based on this — children in their early years, they are so primed to learn. They are so primed to explore. They are primed to do that in an incredibly embodied way, which is why they are so much more active than we adults are. They are just so wired to be physical, and we really didn't wantour kids' experience and learning to be reduced to something that was minimally physical and mostly mental.

Eleanor Barkhorn

The downside, though, is that rules like this can be difficult for kids socially — if there's an app all the kids at school are playing and your kid is the one who doesn't know anything about it and can't relate to his peers.

Andy Crouch

This has absolutely been an issue for our own children in that there are awkward moments when kids at school talk about television shows that my kids don't watch because our family to this day really does not watch any television. There are all kinds of moments when they become aware that they are missing out on something that's important to their peers.

Eleanor Barkhorn

You talk in the book about the awkwardness of your son's play dates when kids would come over and they realized you didn't have video games.

Andy Crouch

As near as I can tell, elementary school boys don't know anything to do together except play video games. My son's classmates just did not want to come to his house because they did not know what to do. I don't think it was too strong to say it was painful to watch the occasional friend of his who would come over and how poorly it went most times, how bored those boys were, how little engaged they were and how my son felt that on behalf of his friends and didn't quite know what to do to help. That was not easy.

Eleanor Barkhorn

How did you help your kids navigate that tension?

Andy Crouch

Our job as parents is to have the long view because children don't.

Most of this stuff is very evanescent. An app that's really big today is gone in a year. Club Penguin or whatever it is now that's a really big deal for 18 months and then kids are on to other things, because ultimately these entertaining and even social kind of engagements, they are pretty thin. I think all kids recognize that, not just kids who are parented in this relatively radical way, and so they tire of them. This is why our homes are filled with plastic toys and electronic toys that none of the kids play with anymore because they're not really that satisfying for anyone.

So as long as you can wait it out like for 12 months — which of course feels like a really long time in the life of a child, but it passes so quickly. Even whatever the television show that you don't know that much about or only vaguely know the names of the characters or the plot points, those things come and go pretty quickly.

The other thing I would say, though, is it cannot be all about what you've taken away. It has to be about what you put in its place. For every moment of awkwardly realizing we missed out on something, our children had so many other moments of being part of these incredibly rich, embodied, fun experiences, whether it was out of doors or my father this time of year is boiling maple syrup at my parents' home at Amherst, Massachusetts, and spending weekends doing that and smelling the syrup, collecting the sap in the snowy or muddy woods, whichever it is.

When your life is full of things like that, the thin things that you're missing are somewhat less crucial, I think.

Eleanor Barkhorn

Your children are teenagers now. How do they feel about the “no screens before 10” policy these days, with a bit of distance?

Andy Crouch

Both of them say emphatically they would not have wanted it any other way. They feel like they were given a much richer set of experiences and richer relationships with other kids who weren't as dependent on those things, and that their lives were full in a way that they don't see in a lot of their classmates and peers.

You don't get many moments of triumph in parenting, but one of them was when our kids were probably 15 and 12 or 14 and 11. We were driving somewhere and they were talking in the back seat, and they somehow got to talking about these very odd choices we made when they were young about limiting screens and video games in particular. Timothy said to his sister — this is a 14-year-old talking to his younger sister — "Yeah, Amy, it's hard at the time, but our parents aren't like other parents. They're actually intentional about what's good for us."

And she's like, "Yeah, and in the long run, it's really better because there's more satisfying things to do."

Overhearing your children kind of processing what their single-digit years were like at that slightly older stage is just one of the happiest things that could happen as a parent.

Eleanor Barkhorn

Hanna Rosin wrote a cover story for the Atlantic in 2013 about toddlers and iPads. She came to the conclusion that if you give your toddler an iPad, at first they'll be obsessed and use it all the time. But then they'll learn it's a toy just like anything else and drop it behind the couch and forget about it.

Andy Crouch

That's sort of the desensitization theory that they'll indulge and then get tired of it or maybe sick of it. There may be some truth to that.

I will tell you one thing in the original research that we did for this book: When you ask teenagers the thing they would most like to change about their relationship with their parents, “I wish my parents were not on their screens and would have paid attention to me or were not on their device and would have paid attention to me.”

What this suggests to me is that we adults haven't done a very good job of getting desensitized enough. We've got access to these things, and we haven't thrown them behind the couch. We're really stuck. We are overly dependent on those sort of intermittent reinforcements that these devices give us, and our kids know it. The kids are very dissatisfied with this and don't want that to be the case for their parents.

If it's not working for us adults, why do we think it's going to work for the toddler? That would be my pushback to that line of thought.

Eleanor Barkhorn

In our office we use the app Slack, and people feel a lot of anxiety about it. They feel like they want to stop checking it all the time, but they’re afraid of missing out on important things if they step away even for a few hours. How do we have a proper relationship with Slack? Do you have advice for a “tech-wise office”?

Andy Crouch

I worked at Christianity Today magazine, and we did a lot of collaboration on Slack like a lot of media companies do. We had all the same challenges, maybe only slightly better because we're a little bit smaller of a team than a Vox team is.

We're all discovering with all these technologies that the promise of scale is deceptive. This happened first with email. The promise is, among other things, scale and speed at very low friction: that is, lots of people can reach me and I can reach lots of people very quickly and very easily. That sounds like a wonderful promise.

The Slack version of that would be [that] the whole office can listen in and participate in conversations about what's going on and what stories are developing, and it'll be so easy. So it turns out that's all true. But what comes with that is just a deluge of information and a kind of constant drip of reinforcement for my need for novelty that is actually the enemy of real creativity.

Real creativity requires small-scale focusing, attending to a relatively small domain. It requires doing it slowly, which is to say to be really creative, I have to have enough time to patiently work through the difficulty in a particular domain or with a particular idea. Real creativity comes with a certain amount of resistance. Real creative work pushes back against something.

Of course, we've done everything we can to get rid of all this resistance. All the more so with communication. The best moments of human communication are with a few people at length really listening to each other. Now the thing is, our brains do not like this. We love novelty. We love that stimulation of that notification arriving. I'm getting notifications right now of Outlook messages coming in and my brain is like, “Ooh, something new, I'm getting a little tired talking to Eleanor and someone else wants to talk to me.”

And that is such a powerful, deeply rooted [idea] in our evolutionary history, that drive for changing focus, for novelty, for new stimulation that it makes it almost impossible to do deep, creative work.

Eleanor Barkhorn

So what’s the solution?

Andy Crouch

Often the answer is some kind of Sabbath, which is a routine of disengagement, whether it's an hour a day or at minimum or a day a week or whatever. Maybe in a workspace where a lot of the work is creative, the wisdom would be half the day or three-quarters of the day.

So I would try to attend to my email only two times a day, in the morning at the beginning of the day and at the end. The middle of the day is for much thicker, deeper forms of collaboration than these friction-free tools actually make possible.

Correction: This article has been corrected to reflect that Crouch’s parents live in Amherst, Massachusetts.