In 1974 the hit song "Cat’s in the Cradle" was released by Harry Chapin, reaching the number one spot on the Billboard Top 100 list. The catchy tune and storytelling lyrics sing the tale of a busy father who loves his son but never has time for him. Each verse recounts a new stage of life with the chorus faithfully repeating:
And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man in the moon
"When you comin’ home, dad?" "I don't know when"
But we'll get together then
You know we'll have a good time then
The ballad ends with the retired father longing to spend time with his son, who is now a working professional and too busy to carve out time for his dad. The final verse ends with deep regret.
And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me
He'd grown up just like me
My boy was just like me
Regret is a universal enemy to every soul. It is never enjoyed, longed for, or celebrated.
Many years ago, before my first child was born, I told myself I never wanted to be that storied old man on his deathbed regretting he had worked too hard and neglected his family. However, reality punches harder than I could have known. Life is busy and so fast! Kids jump from infant to middle school way faster than the 11 years that actually ticks on the clock. All in all, I have worked hard to protect family time and weekends. I have worked on the skill of saying “no” and I prioritize discussions with my wife about schedules and time management.
Yet, hidden in the fog of the daily battle to prioritize my family, a first-cousin to workaholism has arrived: my phone. In the middle of our family dinner, my silenced device vibrates in the living room, still whispering a low buzz for my attention. Discipline keeps me from standing up to check it, but the moment of distraction is enough for me to miss a vulnerable moment my child just shared.
On the floor, playing with my kids, when I remember a forgotten email, I pull out my phone and add it to my Google Keep list, leading to an unintended email check. Ten minutes later I’m on the floor by myself. These are examples of digital regret. Small moments that compound to mimic the missed moments likened in Harry Chapin’s song "The Cat’s in the Cradle."
Digital regret, in this context of parenting, is defined as being physically present, but allowing technology to distract you from emotionally, relationally, and spiritually engaging with your spouse and kids.
Regret, by definition, is an emotional response to a past action. Most of the time, like the old man on his deathbed, the poor decisions of yesteryear are not made in defiance or ill intent. Rather, the busyness of the moment and the lack of anticipating the consequences ends up writing our history, resulting in an accumulated outcome of missed moments that causes sadness over what could have otherwise been done.
So, in this new age of omnipresent technology, how can parents thwart digital regret? Here are four suggestions.
Consider Your Deathbed
Many pastors have found that funerals present a profound opportunity to present the gospel because everybody present is considering death at some level. By considering death, most people also consider how they’re living now. Jesus called his followers to consider eternity as a way of aligning their hearts to gospel living on earth (Matthew 6:19-21). Paul encouraged the Corinthians to consider heaven in order to view life’s struggles in the proper context (2 Corinthians 4:16-18). In order to prioritize being fully present with your family, a good meditation session on the end of life can build within us a healthy reminder that those emails are not that important, the news feed is missable, and that life is a vapor (James 4:14). Therefore, be faithful and be present in the in-between moments of child rearing.
Consider setting aside some time to journal. Reflect on the end of your life and what you need to do now to thwart regret later! This is a noble endeavor.
Commit to Community
Your ability to parent in a wise and intentional way will increase when you are in gospel community. When swimming with the current, you swim faster and further. When flying in the air stream, you get to your destination more quickly. When running with a crowd, your pace increases. God has created us to thrive in community. Find, plant, and invest in the community of godly people that is the local church! Double down on your church involvement. Be the initiators in your community group. Reach out to believers who are older than you. Make yourself available to those who are younger. Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm (Proverbs 13:20). Christian community builds within you habits of godliness while also identifying areas of weakness and sin that you need to address. God has designed us to thrive in the right kind of community.
Take a Short Term Loss for a Long Term Win
Thwarting digital regret will cost you something. An example: putting your phone in the mudroom drawer means that you won’t get and respond to that customer email until tomorrow. The loss is a certain level of customer service excellence. The gain is another brick in the tower that is your child’s understanding of what an engaged and present parent looks like. As parents, we are both the mirror for what a present and engaged Heavenly Father looks like, as well as the blueprint for what we want our children to be when they are parents one day. We are called to faithfulness at home before we are called to excellence at work.
Limit Your Access. Proximity Is Paramount.
I love oatmeal cookies. They are not innately sinful. But if I can’t control myself when there is a whole plate in the kitchen, I need to take measures to be healthy and self-controlled, or else I will fall into sinful habits. After all, self control is a fruit of the Spirit. As I pursue nutritional discipline, I am best served by limiting access to junk food. If I had a plate of cookies in my bedroom, car, office, bathroom, and living room, I would be fighting an uphill nutritional battle every moment of every day. At some point, the cookies need to be removed.
Technology is here to stay. It is not realistic to devolve back into using a bag phone. However, the creation mandate commands us to exercise dominion over the created order (Genesis 1:28), including our technology. Spirit led living is displayed through self control (Galatians 5:23), which includes our screen time. And we are commanded to be mastered by nothing (1 Corinthians 6:12), whether its cookies or news feeds. Unfettered access is a downhill road to regret with no off ramps.
Here are a few ideas to take dominion over your screens:
- Assign times when your screen is put in a drawer. Maybe your first waking hour or the two hours after you come home from work.
- No screens in bed. You will sleep better, and you and your spouse will laugh more, talk more, and have more sex.
- Craft screen free spaces, like the dinner table and car time with the kids (long trips excluded!). Maybe even the toilet! Do you need to watch that cat video again? We must have space to ponder!
We are navigating an unprecedented and historic moment in parenting. At no other time in human history have parents had to fight with such vigilance to rightly discern the use, role, and dangers of technology in nearly every moment of the day. As Christ followers, may we thwart digital regret by being a people of self control and determined presence as we raise our precious children to understand the goodness and sweetness of the Gospel.