Monday, September 25, 2023

Raising tech-healthy humans

Raising Tech-Healthy Humans, Daniel Sih (2023)

As a parent, how do you feel about technology and your kids? Do the statistics about addiction, risks of pornography or grooming, and increased anxiety in kids hooked on social media scare you?

Maybe you’re excited about the creativity technology offers—your kids design amazing things on Minecraft, or learn to code and play cooperatively with their friends. Maybe it’s a helpful extra babysitter—allowing dinner to be prepared, a bit more work to be done, or just allowing a breather for a moment.

For many parents, all of these things are true, all at the same time! We know that technology has benefits and risks, so we’re trying to figure out a way forward in this screen-saturated world. However, charting that path sometimes feels more like floundering. Questions abound around when to let a child have a phone, what boundaries are needed, how to manage screen time and so on.

Daniel Sih has written a very helpful, succinct and practical book helping parents to think through the main issues and then implement practices that promote healthy tech use. Raising Tech-Healthy Humans is aimed at parents of primary-aged children and under and is designed to be read in less than two hours. It will still have benefit for parents of younger teenagers, but many of these decisions are now being made long before that age. Sih is clear that the book is not aimed at parents whose teenagers are already addicted to their phones, although those willing to re-examine their household’s choices would likely still find much of benefit.

Sih sets the scene with three parenting philosophies that shape tech-healthy parenting. Firstly, we are raising adults, not children. So, our long-term goal is to train them for the real world, able to cope with the challenges of adult life, ‘building their character muscles for when they need them most’ (p. 6).

Secondly, we need to prioritise healthy brain development, particularly higher brain skills of thinking, processing and planning. Our lower brain systems are important for emotional responses as well as impulses and reactivity; they provide safety systems when we’re in danger (for example, the ‘flight or fight’ response). But the problem with technology is that it overstimulates the lower brain: ‘electronic media has a significant role in causing children to enter a state of hyperarousal, leading to chronic stress in the developing brain’ (p. 13). This is why kids are so grumpy when the screens turn off—they’re super-activated and full of adrenaline. This can then impede the development of higher brain function. Sih draws a distinction between passive and interactive media, which he terms ‘lean back’ or ‘lean forward’ technologies, encouraging more ‘lean back’ options, such as television. We all instinctively spot this difference— everyone’s usually satisfied at the end of an episode of Lego Masters but when you turn off Fortnite mid-game, uproar ensues!

Thirdly, Sih suggests that limits are essential and in fact, life-giving. He considers both screen time and content limits, as well as creativity with how you control or enable tech time in your home.

Next, Sih builds on these principles and offers practical strategies to set your kids up well for a lifetime of healthy tech use. He calls this the ‘STARTER’ framework:
  • Start with self: consider your own tech habits and make changes where necessary.
  • Take it slow when adopting tech. Sih busts the three prominent myths parents fall for regarding when to get their children various technology: safety, it will stop the nagging and that it’s educational.
  • Age-appropriate tech that can be ‘graded up’ as they grow up—with suggestions about digital contracts, filtering and parenting controls.
  • Regularly talk about tech and how your kids experience it—what they like, what they don’t like—and share in their interests.
  • Tech-healthy rhythms are important for families, including tech-free times (especially meals, sleep and car trips).
  • Encourage tech-free adventures and family time—provide a better alternative to what the screen offers.
  • Rely on others: parent in community and help each other out with these issues.
Over the whole book is a strong sense of grace. We are all imperfect parents, with real struggles and real mistakes. None of us parent perfectly, and in the tech space we’re all finding our way as we raise the first generation of true digital natives. Sih is honest about his own mistakes and there is no feeling of judgment as you read it—more a sense of ‘we’re in this together; let’s do better’. Technology has brought us some great gifts—we can video chat with extended family who live far away, we can play interactive games together, we can share music playlists and grow in our appreciation for each other’s tastes. Yet we can also choose to say no and reclaim time together in person which refreshes, relaxes and restores.

The version of the book I read was a ‘Christian parenting special edition’. I suspect very little was different from the original version, besides the addition of a preface and Bible verses at the beginning of each chapter. The preface encourages us to view this issue through a more biblical lens. Tech can create a massive idol, tempting us and confronting us with our sinful desires to be in control, to be always available, to seem important, to want to impress others and to promote ourselves.

So, if you have younger children and are struggling to know how to chart a healthy family path in the tech space, Raising Tech-Healthy Humans is a great book to help you out. In addition, let’s take Sih’s advice and be communities that talk about how we use tech, how we make decisions about it, and where we struggle. Let’s walk alongside one other, as we all seek a healthy balance:
‘Let’s enjoy the best of the online world but not be diminished by too much technology, and raise a generation of healthy, faith-filled kids who love God and love others in beautiful, life-giving ways.’ (p. xv)

This review first appeared on Growing Faith
I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Monday, September 18, 2023

My spouse was unfaithful

My Spouse was Unfaithful: Finding Strength in God's Presence, Robert D. Jones (New Growth Press, 2023)

This new book in the Ask the Christian Counselor series by New Growth Press is quite specific - addressing when a spouse has been unfaithful. It is aimed at Christians, who wants to process this in light of God’s word and with a biblical framework, including concepts of forgiveness and repentance.
“As we begin our journey, we must recognize that God doesn’t promise you restoration with your spouse. He only promises to be with you as a Christian—to help you know, follow, love, and enjoy him, however your spouse chooses to behave.”
Jones recommends reading it through first to get the big picture, and then turn to consider personal application. He also strongly recommends both counselling and pastoral care, and a group of supporters who will walk this road with you.

I’ll outline each section in brief:

1. Moving forward with God-given hope, which means recognising the hope that we do and do not have. So, we do not expect God to remove troubled feelings, for the Lord to restore the marriage, or to undo the consequences of a spouse’s sin. We can however hope in “the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit [who] promises to be with you, watch over you, and walk with you through the entire aftermath of your spouse’s infidelity.”

2. Identifying your hardships and temptations. This encourages exploration of what has happened through a biblical lens, including the various emotions one might be feeling (e.g., confusion, despair, anger, jealousy, regret, shame, vindication or freedom). There is encouragement to pay attention to your own response (e.g. beware of bitterness, vengeance, rash decisions, gossip, cynicism, etc.)

3. Drawing near to your gracious, compassionate God. Believing that God is present to help you, trust that he hears you when you cry out, and to recognise your core identity is as his beloved child (not as someone’s spouse). 
“My brother or sister in Christ, God has not abandoned you just because your spouse did. God is with you amid your marital crisis. He is ever-present, always available, on call. He is your refuge, strength, and fortress. He stands by your side. Begin your path by striving to believe this.”
4. Humbly responding to God - seek to obey God, embrace his purpose in your suffering. Here Jones includes seven ways God uses hardship to make us more like Jesus - which have much broader application than this book’s topic:
  • to enhance our relationship with him, 
  • to help us experience Christ’s sufferings, 
  • to expose our remaining sin, 
  • to engage us in the body of Christ, 
  • to exhibit Christ’s work in us, 
  • to equip us for wiser more compassionate ministry, and 
  • to elevate our eyes longing for Christ’s return. 
5. God’s way to view and treat your spouse - cultivate mercy and attitudinal forgiveness, confront them to encourage repentance and reconciliation, and deal biblically with the sin in your marriage.

6. Responding wisely to your spouse’s decision - which will depend on whether they repent or not. His options seem to be: if they repent - you commit to rebuilding your marriage, if they do not - you demonstrate Christ-like love and mercy. He addresses separation and divorce, suggesting separation is probably necessary for a season, and divorce is an option, especially if they are unrepentant.

Sections 5 & 6 raised some issues - mainly because they are such large, complicated and individual circumstances and this approach, by virtue of being short, seemed to leave some gaps in terms of the reality of dealing with this. I’m not sure that one’s response will be entirely dependent on what their spouse does and whether they are repentant. The wronged spouse has more agency than just waiting to see how the other acts. There is also a brief reference to ‘make’up’ sex which trivialises the deep pain and significant healing that would need to occur before intimacy is considered.

The Gottman Institute has some helpful (secular) research and therapy for couples experiencing infidelity. They suggest that a spouse that has been cheated on is often found to have symptoms of PTSD). They also note that at the point of an affair marriage #1 is over, it’s now up to the couple to decide whether to proceed with what will become marriage #2. They also note the important of rebuilding trust and hope. Jones takes it further (noting this is not a promise):
“Jesus can not only restore your marriage but make it stronger than it was before. We don’t want to merely revert to the pre-infidelity state of your marriage. In Christ, God provides something better. Here’s why: Our God delights in making broken things better than they were.”
In this book, Jones has explored the need for grace, mercy, repentance and forgiveness after adultery - not just between partners, but also with God and with ourselves, with the overall goal being maturity in Christ, whatever happens with the marriage.

I was given a ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, September 11, 2023

Down, Not Out

Down, Not Out: Depression, anxiety, and the difference Jesus makes, Chris Cipollone (The Good Book Company, 2018) 

Lots of books about depression and anxiety are about understanding it, or helping those around us who are struggling, which are very helpful and needed. However, this offering by Chris Cipollone is much more for the person living with depression and anxiety. It’s gentle, loving and honest as he shares his own journey, and guides the reader through the gospel truth that God loves them and is with them through it all.

With 15 very short chapters, it’s very readable in small chunks, purposefully designed for the person who doesn’t have a long concentration span. Again and again, there were messages of hope and encouragement:
“I still live with depression. But life has seasons, and in God’s grace it is possible to press on. Your life has dignity because God gave it to you.” (p.13)
“We are beloved children of God, and this, more than any other truth, must impact how we navigate mental illness.” (p.15)
“You may live with mental illness for a while, or for the rest of your life. However, the extent to which this affects your daily life will fluctuate. When you are having a good day, praise God for this mercy. When you are having a bad day, know that God is still for you and not against you. His love never changes, and salvation is not dependent on our ability to function how we would like.” (p. 23)
While the chapters are short, they are not light. He addresses feelings (which do not change our reality in Christ), sin (how mental illness is the result of sin in the general sense but not necessarily specifically), and how Satan could be at work in this space (yet God is always more powerful). He encourages the pursuit of maturity rather than happiness, and warns us to be aware of idols that underlie our struggles. 
“It could be that your depression or anxiety reveal something about the ways in which you become dissatisfied with God. If so, your gospel identity tells you that you can bring your heart to him with honesty, and rest in the grace the he has shown you in Christ.” (p.73)
He openly addresses suicide: “It may not look impressive but the act of not succumbing to suicidal thoughts is in itself a reliance on God’s strength” (p.79)

He encourages seeking wise help, both Christian and secular, and utilising what is helpful and available in terms of medication and therapy. Our prayers can speak our pain and longing honestly to God - we can groan, mourn and wail, but we hold back from cursing God. We continue to be involved in our Christian communities, despite the challenges.
“However, we who wrestle with mental illness must also remember to be gracious to ourselves for we have a Lord who is wonderfully gracious with us. We may find that in our darkest moments worship simply looks like getting through each day that God has given us.” (p.66-67)
He finishes with the encouragement to carers and supporters to just keep patiently loving - when people are struggling and when they are not.

In the end - the framework to persevere is found in Jesus:
“Your identity is in Christ, and you’re loved by God, who you worship each and every day” (p.134)
If you are struggling with anxiety or depression (or someone close to you is), and you want to explore it through a compassionate and understanding Christian lens, this is an excellent choice.

Monday, September 4, 2023

Someone I Know is Grieving

Someone I Know is Grieving, Edward T. Welch (New Growth Press, 2023) 

I’m pleased to have the opportunity to review the new additions to the Ask the Christian Counselor series published by New Growth Press. They are very short books that aim to explore life’s common challenges, but not overwhelm the reader.

Someone I Know is Grieving is a gentle and compassionate offering by Edward Welch. Welch is prolific writer in the biblical counselling space, and he always has a kind and wise perspective (see his other books I have reviewed here.

It is structured simply and effectively, in four easy to read chapters:

Responding wisely to suffering - we all want to help rather than hurt people, so our goal is “to care very well for those who suffer; to bring life to those who are hurting. As we grow in this goal, the body of Christ will be drawn both toward Jesus and toward each other.” He encourages reflection on what you have found helpful in times of suffering.

Consider Christ our wisdom - who reshapes our hearts with love and humility. From here he springboards into the two our care should be offered:

Care shaped by compassion means we want to know people, and we understand that life experiences and emotions are complex.
"Compassion means that you love the person and are affected by his or her hardships, no matter how transient those hardships might be. They leave their mark. You remember them and are changed by them. Such a response takes you into the very heart of God, who chooses to place compassion at the forefront of how we know him."

Practical tips here include: say something, do something, avoid stories about you, and remember the details and the dates.

Care shaped by humility means we listen to what people want and need, and don’t assume that we know better.
“For us, humility knows its creaturely limits and persuades you that your comforting skills need work. You don’t always know what is helpful to say or do, and you can’t fully understand another person’s pain.”
Tips here include: prayer for and with them, don’t over interpret grief and suffering, hold your advice, and be careful using bible passages and responding to theological questions.

The end of each chapter has questions to prompt further thought and consider how it personally applies (the book is really acting as a counsellor at this point).

Welch has combined the theological realities about God’s care, sovereignty, and love for his people with thoughtful application about how to apply that to those who are grieving. The humility perspective adds a dimension of self-awareness - we must know people well before we can speak to them helpfully. We cannot think we have the answers to their concerns. And while God’s word speaks to all situations, sometimes silence, prayer and companionship is the more compassionate response in the immediate moment. Theological reflection on how God has been present in the moment will likely come later, as people process their experience. So, we walk alongside people as they grieve: learning, supporting, encouraging, and showing them Christ’s care.

I was given an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review.