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cyber-tormentIn a recent edition of Comment magazine, James K. A. Smith marvels at the achievement of our educational institutions and the privilege we have in benefiting from so many opportunities to grow and learn. Then, he makes an observation:

"As someone who spends countless hours on airplanes, I never cease to be amazed at the number of professional, college-educated adults who, when presented with a three-hour stretch of downtime, proceed to spend that time playing video games. Our countries invest 5 percent of their GDPs in universal education; teachers invite us into the labyrinths of history and the imaginative worlds of literature; parents make sacrifices for us to attend Christian schools and colleges. And we play Angry Birds. We’re not educated for this, surely."

He goes on to warn his students:

"If I ever see you on a plane playing a video game, I will accost you, and I will be disappointed, and I will forthrightly remind you: you weren’t educated for this. The world needs your (continuing) education, and your soul is starving for it. We are remarkably well-educated dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants who could only dream of what we enjoy. Let’s not squander our inheritance."

With Smith, I'm also disappointed when I see people fail to fully appreciate just what a privilege it is to receive an education, own a library of books, and have access to so many resources in the English language. But I'm afraid this squandering is likely to get worse, not better. The generation coming after us has never known of life without video games, electronic devices, and iPhones with countless apps.

Teaching Your Kids to Use Technology Wisely

What can we do as parents to shape the habits of our children?

What can we do to help them make wise choices regarding the time they spend on electronic devices?

Do we ban devices and games? Do we set limits? What is the best way forward?

Many parents wrestle with these questions. I know, because my wife and I have discussed this issue with other couples on many occasions.

Our family has implemented a system that works well for us. I realize our way isn't the only way, so I've asked a few Christian leaders and thinkers to share how they approach this issue. Below are some principles to consider.

1. Instead of banning electronic devices altogether, train your kids to discipline themselves.

The assumption among every family I spoke with is that there is a legitimate place for video games and iPhone apps and other forms of entertainment. Like watching television or listening to the radio, we can enjoy entertainment and leisure time in moderation.

Trillia Newbell, an author friend of mine, explained her family's view:

"We think devices are fine as long as they are monitored and have clear instructions, and restrictions."

In other words, it is better to help your children order their time wisely than to take away the opportunity to show self-control. Never use a device as a babysitter.

Aaron Earls, online editor of Facts and Trends, sees value in using video games for family time. On Friday nights, for example, his family will have a Wii family game night and everyone will play together. Electronic devices, in their proper place, can bring the family together instead of causing everyone to drift to separate rooms with separate screens.

2. Never allow your children to be alone with unfettered access to electronic devices.

Kevin DeYoung, pastor of University Reformed Church and father of six children, confesses that it is difficult to keep up with everything all his kids are doing. But there is one rule his family won't budge on:

"No TV, computers, phones, or tablets in the bedroom. Screens are used in public areas, not in private."

In the Wax home, our kids have limited access to our old, no-longer-in-use iPhones. But we set restrictions on those phones. That way, the kids are unable to unlock the phone, access the Internet, or make purchases. Take advantage of the restrictions settings on phones and tablets.

3. Set the timer. 

When our kids play the Wii, they have to set the timer in the kitchen. When they play on our old iPhones, we set the Timer feature to "Stop Playing" so that the game shuts down and the phone locks when the timer goes off. Our rule is 30 minutes a day during the week, and an hour a day during the weekend.

Dan Darling, an author who works at the ERLC, limits his children's screen time to an hour a day, with some give-and-take on holidays, special times, etc.

For Trillia Newbell's family, the timer has been a huge help:

"The kids know exactly what to expect and it helps eliminate confusion. It also gives them something to look forward to. They enjoy their time on devices much more now than before we implemented to timer. They focus on playing because they realize they’ll need to be off for the night/day otherwise."

4. Use electronic devices as motivation for reading.

A few years ago, I asked one of my favorite authors, N. D. Wilson, how parents can instill a love of reading in their kids. He told me that he and his wife allow their kids to stay up at night as long as they want, as long as they are reading. We tried that a few times, but our kids like to go to bed early.

What has helped them develop a love for reading is what we call "reading for time." Our kids have the opportunity to earn more than their 30-minute-a-day allotment of electronics time by matching that time with reading. If they want to play games for 30 more minutes, great! But first, they must read for thirty minutes.

Our kids love this system. They've both taken to reading books they enjoy, and it helps them see electronic time as a privilege, not a right.

Aaron Earls' family does something similar. In 30-minute segments, they can earn additional time on an electronic device. Using this method, his boys have already read classics like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.


I want my kids to enjoy the Nintendo and the iPhone and the creative worlds of Minecraft. But I also want them to enjoy playing outside, reading good books, and growing up as well-rounded kids. I'm thankful that my parents limited my access to Nintendo when I was growing up, and that's why I can't imagine setting them loose to play devices for hours on end.

The challenge for parents is to be consistent in the principles we put into practice in our homes. Make sure your kids understand why you're setting limits. Discuss why certain games and shows are inappropriate. As Dan Darling says,

"Try to instill in your kids a sense of discernment that will help them when they leave the nest."

That's right. Discernment and self-control, where you can take time for leisure without letting leisure take over your time.

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7 thoughts on “4 Principles for Parenting in a World of Video Games”

  1. Mike says:

    Thank you for this post, Trevin. As a parent of a young boy I appreciate all of the recommendations given. However, as someone who grew up playing video games (and still plays), I sometimes fear that there is a great misunderstanding of them by those who don’t play. While there are certainly games (Angry Birds) that are made of mindless mechanics, there are also games that contain narratives that the Gospel Coalition would instantly write posts about if they were aware of them. I’ve found that many modern games contain better stories than modern novels. Also, there are Christian people using video games in unique ways to communicate to a largely unreached demographic (gamers) the hope that they have. I’d recommend people read the following article from Wired magazine about a game called “That Dragon, Cancer” that just came out yesterday.

    Thanks again!

  2. Emily Lightner says:

    Something to add…I have noticed that my kids are very creative in the mornings and almost always play well together then. We usually don’t let them have screen time until the afternoon, otherwise it will take away the best time for creativity and play and also makes them grumpy the rest of the day.

  3. Nate says:

    The practical portion of this article is fantastic – really helpful ideas!

    The introduction is hard for me to take. Smith extols the apparent virtues of “the imaginative worlds of literature” and then is baffled when professional, college-educated adults are drawn to video games for entertainment.

    Not all video games are Angry Birds. But, heck, even Angry Birds is more of a physics-based, brain-engaging puzzle than a mindless exercise like tic-tac-toe. Where should we stand on crossword puzzles or sudoku (seen more frequently in the hands of older flyers)?

    But the point is that many video games are stories that take hours to tell, that respond to your choices, that can involve and incorporate your friends (or strangers from around the world) in real time, and that have no physical limitations in terms of what they can represent. These stories can take place on the moon, in historical settings, or in someone’s dream or in a donkey’s ear.

    Take your favorite book or movie and imagine you can jump inside and explore. You aren’t limited to the points of view of the narrator, or the pace of the author’s progression. You can go where you want, interract with the characters, even change the story as it unfolds. It is an amazing tool for telling and experiencing stories.

    It is a powerful storytelling medium that literary-minded Christians should learn to respect. It would be an enormous error to dismiss them all as child’s play or mindless entertainment. Games can present a story so well that it can challenge your worldviews. That’s powerful, for good or ill.

    When Christians decide to write about video games, they should consult another Christian who is sympathetic to the medium first.

    But, again, the practical part of this article is so good. I’ve got an 8-year-old and we are following these already. Limiting the time and giving him the ability to budget that time has been a mostly great experience. It’s better when kids know what to expect in terms of time limits. Thanks for writing this.

    1. Mike says:

      Amen, Nate.

  4. M. Joshua says:

    I completely disagree with the framework of this article.

    Instead encouraging people to accost students and kids for playing video games instead of self-educating, the first thing you should do is tell parents:

    “Play games WITH your kids.”

    I mentor countless teens through and around games, but it always starts with one central action: spending time with them. Video games are the fishing of our day, and the time spent with that activity should be seen as a bonding opportunity, not a waste of time.

    There’s lots of games like That Dragon Cancer, Journey, Never Alone, This War of Mine, Papers Please, Dropsy, and other educating games that are powerful and formative. I mean, Gosh, I even worked with some of those games. Those will subvert your ideas of what games can be, but it can’t be emphasized enough how any video game should be an opportunity for dialogue and time spent together with parents.

    I feel super uncomfortable when teens tell me that I’m the “best father figure they’ve ever had.” Please forgive me if that sounds like I’m tooting my own horn. I’m really not. It’s just that they only say that because their real dads don’t spend time with them.

    Time together is always point number one.

    This video is a little out of date, but it shows some of what I’ve been doing with young men and teens if you’re interested. It’s called gamecell:

  5. Nate says:

    Trevin, you probably already saw this, but just in case (or in case others are interested):

  6. Janet Devlin says:

    Thank you Joshua for sharing a video. It’s a great help! Thank you for this post, As a parent of my two kids, I appreciate all of the recommendations given.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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