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  • The limits we set are for the sake of cultivating and rebuilding healthy relationships with our neighbors and places, friends and family, and the natural world. Tweet This
  • Teens need real relationships with real people, real places, living books, and living ideas. Tweet This
  • We set technology limits for the sake of a proper ordering of ourselves and our relationship with other people, places, ideas, and all things living and nonliving. Tweet This

Teach the children. We don't matter so much, but the children do. Show them daisies and the pale hepatica. Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen….Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit.—Mary Oliver

Perhaps at no other time in history have we both yearned for and been suspicious of “community"—all while social institutions continue to break down, and deaths by suicide continue to rise. Most disturbingly, suicide is the second-largest cause of death for 10-to-18-year-olds in particular. It’s an eerie statistic in a time when teens are far less likely to get in trouble in the tangible world—through car crashes, teenage pregnancy, daredevil stunts. Instead of clubbing and dancing all night, too many teens are safely home, logged into their online communities.

Physically safe, maybe—but incredibly lonely and vulnerable to deadly spells of depression.

Many parents, then, are alert to the dangers of the Very Online life, just as their own parents were cognizant of the dangers of too much TV (anyone else’s parents tell them that their brain would turn into a marshmallow from telly over-consumption?). So, they set limits.

According to a new report from the Institute for Family Studies (IFS), intact families—wherein teens live with their married biological parents—are more successful in setting and maintaining limits on technological use in the home. The results make sense: Intact families tend to not only have more support, but also more resources to set and maintain limits.

But though young people from intact families spend less time online than their peers, the discrepancy is not very large. And teens from both kinds of families report that their parents are themselves often distracted by technology. It seems that even when there are clear limits on their teenagers’ use of, say, social media, there isn’t often a corresponding limit to parental use of digital technology.

It’s a tough issue. Nowadays, so many items on a parent’s to-do list are mediated by the web. Banking, school forms, correspondence with teachers, meal train sign-ups, shopping, most kinds of jobs from midwives to scholars (even plumbers and piano tuners correspond online with customers)—all have some online element. And, of course, this doesn’t include leisure and entertainment—streaming music, podcasts, movies, audiobooks, etc.

To paraphrase Seneca, we must be the change we want to see in our children, students, and neighbors of all ages. If our children need clear limits, as the IFS report suggests, we need clear limits ourselves. The limits will be different, surely, but they must be thoughtful and purposeful. But no limits are made in a vacuum. The reason we set limits is for the sake of proper ordering of relationships.

Here the wisdom of the English educator Charlotte Mason (1842–1923) can help. The two fundamental principles of her philosophy are that every child is born a person, and that education of the person is “the science of relations.” That is, a human being is formed by his or her relationships, with things, ideas, places, other persons, and, ultimately, with the Creator.

The limits we set, then, will be for the sake of cultivating and rebuilding healthy relationships with our neighbors and places, friends and family, and the natural world. Mason was emphatic that every child—every person—deserved a flourishing life. Therefore, each child ought to be, as far as possible, presented with feasts of ideas and relationships on every level.

For example, she argues, there ought to be “dynamic relations” established in the tangible world: The child 

must stand and walk and run and jump with ease and grace. He must skate and swim and ride and drive, dance and row and sail a boat. He should be able to make free with his mother earth and to do whatever the principle of gravitation will allow.

The child should have relationships with the natural world on all levels, including with the birds and beasts.

So, too, the child who “makes sandcastles, mud-pies, paper boats” should “go on to work in clay, wood, brass, iron, leather, dress-stuffs, food-stuffs, furnishing-stuffs.” Working with one’s own hands, to make and to “take delight in making,” cultivates a relationship with the tangible world, giving new dimensions to a child’s life. Above all, a child should be formed by “the great human relationships” as Mason writes,"relationships of love and service, of authority and obedience, of reverence and pity and neighbourly kindness; relationships to kin and friend and neighbour, to ‘cause’ and country and kind, to the past and the present." 

A child should have a relationship with his grandfather, who may tell him stories of the past while teaching his grandson to whittle; with his neighbors, for whom he might shovel a snowy driveway; and with the people of history he encounters in books, paintings, and songs.

And what goes for the child, goes for the adult. Mason was insistent that education is a life: It doesn’t stop at an arbitrary age or when someone goes to college or gets a job. Education, rather, is growth. And to be a human being is to be always growing and learning. So, for instance, a mother has a duty to feed, not starve her mind—not only for the sake of her children, but for the sake of her own personhood.

To have an in-person community for our families, then, is not enough. As any parent or teacher knows, even when there is no online temptation to deal with, we are still faced with the challenge of giving our children good friends, and living relationships on all levels.

So then: Parents may disallow phones at the dinner table, not for the sake of a principle, but for the sake of a right relationship with our family, friends, and even the meal itself. We set technology limits for the sake of a proper ordering of ourselves and our relationship with other people, places, ideas, and all things living and nonliving.

The IFS report concludes with excellent advice for setting limits as a family, so that those relationships can truly flourish. Setting limits for ourselves and our families is a crucial beginning. Then, we must also help our children build relations—and there is an absolute abundance of things from which to choose. Learn an instrument or language together; garden, cook, clean together; make meals for those in need; learn clay working or watercolor painting or calligraphy; learn how to make a fire; learn the names of every tree and flower in the neighborhood. Team up with other parents and find creative ways of being human together.

Real-life community is necessary, but it’s not enough; we still need to cultivate good friendships and relationships with living things and ideas, for ourselves and our children. We are embodied persons, persons are made to be in relationship, and we are shaped by the company we keep. Just because our kid is at a brick-and-mortar school doesn’t mean he’s being shaped well. Just because we are physically present with a child doesn’t mean we won’t be tempted to be distracted by some device or other.

Online friends are not enough, and online parents and teachers are not enough. A lonely new mom can find encouragement from a mom blog, but her deeper need is for flesh-and-blood people to help with household chores and to be true friends and neighbors. In the same way, teens need real relationships with real people, real places, living books, and living ideas.

Tessa Carman is a writer and teacher based in Mount Rainier, Maryland.