“Mommy, can I have an Instagram account?” my daughter asked from the back seat of the van. We were on our way home from a retreat I’d led for a church in South Carolina. I’d decided to bring the family with me—the retreat was in Myrtle Beach; enough said—and they’d had a great time. The kids met all kinds of new friends and made plans to keep in touch. Apparently Instagram was the preferred method.
Unfortunately, my daughter is 11, and the Instagram terms of service specify a minimum age of 13.
What’s a rule-following mother to do? I don’t want to give her the impression that it’s OK to bend the rules, even in a trivial matter. And maybe this matter isn’t so trivial. Does an 11 year old need an Instagram account yet? I’d love to nurture these fledgling friendships, but can’t I keep her young and social-media sheltered for just a little while longer? Whom is she likely to encounter on these sites? Friends, of course, just like I happily do. But what about people who might do her harm?
I am confronted with these questions even as I work on my next book, Spirituality in the Smartphone Age, which is an attempt to examine this digital culture we all swim in. As I write, I’m trying to discern some spiritually faithful patterns and practices for engaging with technology. How much is too much? What does it mean to be “authentic” online? How can we be mindful of personal boundaries? What does meaningful community look like?
One of the challenges in writing the book is defining what I mean by spirituality, as opposed to the psychology or sociology of digital culture. Other authors have explored quite thoroughly the ways the Internet has changed the way we work, play, and relate with one another. What I’m after is something simultaneously deeper and broader: a holistic approach that integrates body, mind, spirit, and community.
But the other challenge in writing the book is that I’m so very confused and ambivalent myself about our technological age and how it is changing us.
I reviewed the book Mindful Parenting recently, and today I’m delighted to share a Q&A with Kristen Race, the author of the book. Thank you for your time and expertise, Dr. Race!
1. What first led you to research stress responses in the brain, and especially its effect on children and teens?
When I was working in schools I became increasingly concerned by the high level of stress that students were experiencing. I knew that this stress was influencing their attention, their mood, their behavior and their ability to learn. I want to learn more about how stress and these other symptoms were linked. When I first learned about the stress response in the brain it was like an “Ah ha” moment for me. I started sharing this information with students and it was as if I could see a weight being lifted off of their shoulders. They suddenly had an explanation for how they were feeling!
2. Your book is written primarily for individual parents to use in their own families. But I was intrigued by your “Hang Up and Hang Out” initiative that partnered with local schools to encourage parents to put away the cell phones and just focus on their kids. Are there other models or practices that you’d like see implemented throughout entire communities, rather than just household by household? (I see lots of potential in churches and other religious communities, for example.)
Absolutely. Hang Up & Hang Out is tailor-made for those organizations that you mentioned. During the Hang Up & Hang Out week we hosted a family fun night at one of the elementary schools. The theme of the night was “Ways to Engage without Technology.” We had a family yoga station, a dinner games station, a station where families decorated boxes that they would use to hold devices during family time, and we had a dance party station in the gym. We were blown away when we had 480 people attend the event! It was a blast!
3. My favorite chapter of the book is “A Guide to Creating a Mindful Family,” which has tons of activities and practices that parents and children can do together. I can’t wait to try the Praise Pancake! Is there a particular practice that’s your personal favorite, either for your kids or yourself?
We love Rose Bud Thorn in our house. We play it around the dinner table, and every person gets a turn to share their Rose (something good that they experienced over the course of their day), their Thorn (a mistake that they learned from today), and their Bud (an act of kindness that they witnessed or initiated.) It is a great conversation starter, and there are tons of elements to this activity that benefit brain development, including teaching kids that struggles are ok.
4. In my work around Sabbath-keeping, I’ve found that it’s easier for parents of young children to envision making changes in their family’s behavior, whereas parents of teens feel like it’s too late, that the patterns are already set. What advice or encouragement would you give specifically to parents of teens who want to take your message to heart?
I am asked all the time, “Is it too late to start?” The beauty of practicing mindfulness, informally or formally, is that it benefits the brain for a 2 year old as well as the brain of a 92 year old. MRI scans demonstrate this. We need look no further than the Google campus, and the waiting lists for mindfulness classes that their company is offering, to see the demand for these types of support by adults. My single piece of advice for parents of teens is to start small, with one or two activities. Starting a ritual of a family adventure can be a great place to start with teens. And remember, modeling still matters when you have a teen! Think about how you manage your stress (do you go for a run or run for the liquor cabinet?), your teen is watching.
5. How have you changed your own parenting as a result of your research, and what aspects of mindful parenting do you still struggle with?
I have become much more compassionate towards myself as a result of my research. I am a recovering perfectionist:) I now realize that I AM going to make mistakes as a parent, that I can learn from those mistakes, and that modeling that mistakes provide opportunities for growth is incredibly important for my children!
So thankful to Dr. Race for her thoughts. Folks, do check out her book, it’s worthwhile.
Race speaks as an authority on what’s happening in the brain in today’s high-stress world—and especially what happens in children’s brains when they are overscheduled, short on sleep, and inundated with technology. But she also speaks as a parent and as a classic overachiever, who sadly developed an autoimmune disease in the wake of the stress of working on her doctorate, remodeling their house, caring for a toddler, and gestating a baby. (Oh Kristen, my sister… let’s you and Brené and I have virtual coffee.)
You can view Race’s TEDx talk here:
I appreciated the mix of solid brain research as well as stories and anecdotes about the consequences of what Carrie Newcomer has called our “culture of perpetual motion.” From the book’s description:
Research has shown that mindfulness practices stimulate the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Regular stimulation of this part of the brain helps us feel happier, healthier, calmer, less anxious, less stressed, and makes it easier for us to concentrate and think clearly—the very behavior we are hoping our children will display.
Race’s work is informed by folks like Jon Kabat-Zinn, an MD and practitioner/proponent of mindfulness meditation, and includes lots of exercises and practices that you can implement right away with your kids—or by yourself. She points out that if we want our kids to be grounded, centered and free of stress, we have to start with ourselves. I say this all the time to parents who want to incorporate Sabbath into their lives but can’t figure out how to convince children (especially teens) to go for it. Don’t let that stop you from doing it.
The exercises in the book are categorized for different ages of children, which is a nice feature. I liked the sections that model how to talk to small children about this stuff. She also addresses some of the naysayers in effective ways (“But I watched tons of TV as a child and I turned out fine!”)
This year I’m trying to see as many of the big Oscar nominees as possible. Last Friday I checked off my first film: Philomena, which is about an Irish woman’s search for her son, who was adopted by American parents some 50 years before. Philomena was one of the Magdalene girls, unwed mothers who were essentially incarcerated in various Catholic institutions and forced into unpaid labor as payment for their shameful mistakes.
It’s an excellent movie, though devastating to watch. It brings up any number of issues related to faith. Here are a couple:
The importance of forgiveness. I wished for a more nuanced portrayal of the topic, however. Near the end of the movie, there’s a scene in which a roomful of religious people practically cluck in disdain at the character of Martin Sixsmith (the journalist who’s been helping Philomena), who is livid at the injustice and secrecy that has persisted for decades. The implication in their response (including Philomena’s) is that he needs to let go of his anger and forgive because such negative feelings serve no purpose.
Forgiveness is indeed a gift of grace. And simmering resentments can corrode our lives. But Martin’s anger in that moment was appropriate. Given the magnitude of the injustice, it was more than that. It was righteous.
I’d wager that any anger the real Martin felt provided motivation for the writing of the book, which after all, served to bring this important story to light. Anger, properly harnessed, is a powerful fuel, and it bothers me when religious people are portrayed in such a milquetoast manner in popular culture.
But pop culture didn’t invent that image out of whole cloth. The Church, if I may be so monolithic, has offered plenty of inspiration for such a portrayal.
But it’s not just the anger and forgiveness thing…
Issues of the body and sexuality. We are still so primitive when it comes to talking about sex and our bodies. The young Philomena is doubly disadvantaged: she was not taught enough basic anatomy to understand how to prevent pregnancy. But she wasn’t taught anything about her body and its own pleasures, either—she admits with some chagrin that she enjoyed her “sin,” and exclaims to Martin Sixsmith, I never even knew what a clitoris was!
We in the Church are still dealing with the aftermath of that old Greek dualism in which the Apostle Paul and other New Testament writers were steeped: spirit good, body bad.But as Martin’s character asks Philomena, what kind of God would create us with these natural sexual urges and then saddle us with such screwed-up, shame-filled religious baggage at the same time? How can something that feels so good be so very very bad? (Secular culture is not much better. Yes, the contours are different. But body image issues, self-punishment to fit an unattainable ideal, the rise of cosmetic surgery in the age of Photoshop—it’s not like the Church is a lone dysfunctional voice.)
We can rejoice that the Magdalene laundries are a memory (though not a distant enough one; the last one closed in the ’90s). But it’s still hard for us to talk about the body in a mature and meaningful way. The spiritual resources are there; we just have to embrace them.
Last week I wrote an endorsement for a book of spiritual practices for families. It’s a wonderful resource, full of ideas for parents to bring their faith into everyday life, whether it’s offering blessings at bedtime or welcoming a new pet to the family. It was one of the easiest endorsements I’ve written, and you’ll be hearing more from me about the book when it’s released.
But as I reflected on the legacy of Philomena, I realized with a start that there’s nothing in the book about children’s physical and sexual development. And I’m not saying this to knock the book at all—I myselfdidn’t see a thing missing until the movie prompted me to think about these things.
An obvious one: there must be a way for families (or at least mothers) to mark the occasion of a girl’s first period from a spiritual/faith perspective. My eldest daughter is excited because I’ve promised to take her to Spa World to celebrate this milestone. But there must be more that could be said or done. I’m not talking about a big show or an embarrassing display. I’m talking about some language celebrating God’s good gift of creation and the beauty of our bodies, fearfully and wonderfully made.
How about a teen’s first date? Or a first breakup? Surely the Christian tradition can offer more than a pint of Ben and Jerry’s…
What about a young person’s coming out?
And the real kicker. According to Wikipedia, the average age for a young person to have sex for the first time is 17. That means they’re living under our roofs when it happens. How do we respond to this from a faith perspective?
Can I envision what a faith-filled ritual would look like between parent and young person after she loses her virginity? No, I really can’t. Does such a thing sound easy? Do we need to consider the young person’s privacy and autonomy? No and yes. But that’s all the more reason for the church to be a resource for parents. Don’t we want the kind of relationships with our children such that they could share news of that milestone with us? If so, then we should be ready, with the best our tradition can offer them. (See Tami Taylor’s conversations with Julie on Friday Night Lights—some great stuff to build on there. So simple and authentic.)
I’m not talking about a lecture on abstinence. Parents should communicate their own values, though lectures aren’t terribly effective in my experience. I’m also not talking about the contraception/condoms discussion, though such a conversation is essential; it’s borderline parental malpractice not to have it.
No, I’m talking about making it clear to our kids that their sexual lives are not divorced from their faith, but an essential part of it. I’m talking about repairing the body/spirit duality such that our lives are one integrated whole.
Does a resource containing such rituals exist? If so, I hope my readers will alert me. If not, maybe my friend will write a sequel.
Hey, I’d love for you to join my email list for further inspiration and content. And if you haven’t already checked out Sabbath in the Suburbs, the price has dropped on Amazon! And of course it’s available from Chalice Press, my publisher.
Image: The Dench and Steve Coogan in a still from the movie. If you’re interested in discerning fact from dramatic license in the film, here’s a place to start.
There are parents who refuse to participate in the Santa myth because they don’t want to lie to their children. That stand has integrity in its own way, I suppose, but it seems unnecessary to be so draconian about it. Myths are tales that give meaning and texture to our lives.
As an adult Christian, for example, Christmas invites me into the mystery of a God who refuses to remain at an aloof distance but would participate fully in human vulnerability through the incarnation of Jesus. But that’s kind of abstract for a kid. The Santa myth is much more relatable. As much as some of us chide our kids about lumps of coal and Santa keeping a list (and setting aside the reality that Santa showers more gifts on wealthy homes than poorer ones), the fact is that Santa embodies grace: no matter who you are or what you’ve done, you will be remembered on Christmas morning.
But if you participate in Santa, you need to be ready for some messiness later. There will come a liminal time in which younger siblings still believe in Santa but older siblings know the whole truth. Or what to do with classmates at school whose awareness may not match up with your own child?
Our middle child asked for “the truth” about Santa last year, and Robert shared it with her. Interestingly, this year she’s acting as if the conversation never happened. There’s not always a clear before and after with these things. Sometimes there’s a willful forgetting, or a benign sense of denial. And that’s OK.
Still, if you’re truly concerned about your kid landing in therapy someday to work through their betrayal once they discover the truth about Santa, you could start by downplaying the Santa thing from the get-go. Don’t insist that the guy at the mall is the “real” Santa. Don’t answer a kid’s critical thinking questions with ever wilder explanations about the physics of flying reindeer, or how Santa can deliver so many presents in 24 hours. The appearance of presents on Christmas morning, as if by magic, is wondrous enough. Glitter and fake hoofprints in the snow are just gilding the lily.
When my children ask questions about Santa, I usually preface my answer by saying, “Well, the story goes that…” This puts me in the role of the communicator of a folktale rather than some perpetrator of a fraud. If they’re inclined to continue believing, they will accept this framing. If they’re ready to push further, they will.
In fact, though there are many ways to have the Santa conversation, this is the one that makes the most sense to me—to approach it as a story. Here is the gist of what I said to our oldest daughter a few years back. Her questions had turned from idle to insistent (and trust me, you’ll know when it’s time for this conversation). I’m recreating it here as a single commentary, but this unfolded over a series of halting conversations—in fact, it continues to unfold.
The story of Santa is just that—a story. It began a long time ago, with a man named Nicholas, who was a bishop in Myra, in present-day Turkey. Nicholas was a humble man with a special fondness for children. He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him. There are many other examples of Nicholas’s generosity that were told. Over time, Nicholas became Saint Nicholas, which is the church’s way of honoring him.
And his story spread, as beautiful stories tend to do. It was such a beautiful story that everyone wanted to be a part of it, not just in Greece and Turkey, where Nicholas was from, but all over the world. People changed the story somewhat and called Nicholas by other names: Father Christmas, Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, and so forth. Just as Nicholas gave gifts in secret, so do parents and other adults give secret gifts to children.
The story of Santa has continued all of these centuries because it’s a powerful story that helps give our lives meaning. And that story has not ended with you asking the “truth” about Santa. Santa is as real now as he was the moment before you asked the question. And the story will continue as long as there are people willing to tell it and live in it.
Yes, the story goes on—it’s just that you’re in a different place in the story now. Before, you were in the part of the story that received gifts as if by magic on Christmas morning. Guess what? You still get to be in that part of the story. But now you also get to be in the part of the story that shares those gifts with other people. (Maybe you’d like to help pick out stocking stuffers for your younger siblings, for example.)
There are all kinds of characters in stories like this. There are characters who think the whole thing is silly and a waste of time. That’s OK. There are also people who go around telling their siblings or their peers the “truth.” You can choose to do that if you want. But then you’ve taken away their choice to be where they want to be in the story. I hope you won’t take that choice away from them. They’ll come to another place in the story when it is time.
When I said earlier that the story began with Nicolas of Myra, that’s not really true. Because Nicholas was part of an older and deeper story, the story of Jesus. Jesus’ life was one of giving to those around him, living simply, sharing good news with hurting people, and asking others to follow his example. Nicholas decided that he wanted to dedicate his life to living in that story. So many of us, when we participate in the Santa story, are also participating in Jesus’ story. For others, the Santa story is not connected with Jesus, but with the spirit of giving. That’s OK too.
Over time, you will have questions about Jesus’ story as well. How can a man die and come back to life? Are all of Jesus’ miracles really possible? What happens to us after we die, if anything? I have all of those questions too, and probably always will. But the bottom line for me is that the story of Jesus has grabbed ahold of me and won’t let me go. It’s the story I want to live in, as best I can, for as long as I can.