“So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”
Like many 80’s kids, I vividly remember a Partnership for A Drug-Free America PSA showing an angry father confronting his son about the drugs he found in his room. The young man’s response to what got him into drug use? “I learned it by watching you!”
The awkward scene was seared into my memory as a child. It resurfaced for me as a parent this week after reading this article from Time Magazine titled, “We Need To Talk About Kids And Smartphones.” It was one more voice showing the adverse impact omnipresent smartphones are having on the mental health of young people.
The struggle is real! Raising 11 and 8-year-old sons, my wife and I are just starting to navigate the technological boundaries that we want to hold with our kids. How do you help them engage their peers in the increasingly important online world, without letting them get lost in it?
As I think about the new addiction of instant gratification scrolling and ego-building retweeting, I wonder how many of our kids would shout out, “I learned it by watching you!” Kids see, and ultimately want to be seen. How much of their social media selves are built around the desire to be noticed and accepted? What does it mean for the adults in their life to help fulfill that desire offline?
As I wrote before, my favorite bible word is “compassion.” Jesus names that gut-felt emotion in his story of the prodigal (Luke 15:11-32). I’ve always loved the moment when the father catches sight of his wayward son “while he was still far off” and is filled with compassion. The father is waiting and watching. He truly sees the younger son and is able to help him see his true self beyond his worst impulses and biggest mistakes. The same compassion catches sight of the older son later in the story. While everybody else is at a party celebrating the younger son’s return, the father notices that his other son is missing. He goes searching, truly sees his older son, and tries to help him see his true self beyond his good behavior and rule following.
Compassion begins in the story by seeing the young men right where they are. That’s the kind of parent I want to be for my sons! It’s the kind of supportive presence I want to be for other kids in my community as well. I wonder how often those kids are looking for someone to truly see them, only to find an ocean of adult eyes glued to their own phones.
What compassion can we show by setting our digital distractions aside more often so we can wait and watch for those who long to be seen? How can we model the conviction that people are more important than things (even that Time article about kids and smartphones you’re in the middle of reading on your smartphone)? How can we ensure that when we someday ask our kids, “Where did you learn to look past the filtered photos and carefully curated online personas to truly see and accept people in real life?” they can respond by saying, “I learned it by watching you!”