Since our eldest child started secondary school this year, the use of mobile phones has become a hotly-discussed topic at home.

We handed him an old smartphone at the start of the year, primarily for him to text or call us, and for us to track his location. He doesn’t have WhatsApp or any social media on it for now. He told us that his friends laughed when they saw his phone.

“It’s so small!” they exclaimed.

Almost every teen at school has a mobile phone, and are connected via chat groups. Even teachers use WhatsApp to communicate with their students. Without access to WhatsApp, my son depends on his friends to pass on messages from teachers. This sometimes leaves him feeling left out of online class chatter.

As parents, we’ve thought long and hard about the best way to deal with this issue. We recognise that our children are growing up in a world so different from ours when we were their age.

As a teenager I spent hours on the telephone, talking to friends and chatting about anything under the sun. Today, those same hours are spent texting and gaming together online—also legitimate ways to bond and build relationships.

Still, the online world is a lot bigger and scarier, bringing with it new challenges. We naturally wanted to ensure that our son would be kept safe—so we certainly wanted to set boundaries and rules to guide him.

The Limitations of Limits

Before giving him a new phone and allowing him to use WhatsApp (but no other social media), I thought about the rules I wanted to put in place—choosing to maintain a stricter stance at the beginning, knowing that these rules could be loosened in the future when he would have grown in maturity and responsibility.

I wrote this list of rules for him to follow:

  • No using your phone . . .
    • in the morning before school
    • over meals
    • after 9 p.m.
  • Phone needs to be left in the living room (not in the bedroom) overnight
  • Chatting with friends on the phone only after . . .
    • completing your homework
    • revising for any upcoming tests
    • 15 minutes of reading
  • You must . . .
    • make known all your passwords to Daddy and Mummy
    • give Daddy and Mummy access to your phone at any time
    • only game when permission is granted
    • not create private windows

As I wrote this, however, it occurred to me that I didn’t want to make this simply a list of do’s and don’ts. After all, limits have their own limitations. We might install parental control measures on his phone, limit the amount of time he uses it, and restrict the types of applications he downloads. However, there’s nothing foolproof about these measures.

While this list might address his behaviour on the surface, it’s the heart that affects how we ultimately respond to our circumstances. Rules may not cover every single facet of life. Moreover, in our sinfulness, we are natural rulebreakers. We would rather live our own way than follow God’s way.

Now, my question became: When my child is placed in a situation where there isn’t an obvious rule, would he know how to respond in a godly and wise manner?

Helping Our Teens Make Godly Decisions

At the heart of the matter, I want to help my children not simply follow rules, but rather learn to make godly and wise decisions in any situation. I hope my children will realise that while they will one day become independent from me, they should remain entirely dependent on God. My children may outgrow our family rules, but God’s Word should always direct their ways.

As the writer of Proverbs 9:10 says: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” When we recognise who we are under God, we will learn to live God’s way, in God’s world, as God’s children. That is what it means to be truly wise.

In desiring for my children to grow in God’s wisdom, I made this next list—for his sake and mine:

    • You are a child of God—loved and redeemed through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving” (Ephesians 5:1–4).
    • Avoid gossipy, unkind, discouraging, and unwholesome words in your communication. Instead, be kind and encouraging, pointing others to Jesus. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29).
    • Guard your eyes and heart against words, images, or videos that are impure and dishonour God. Fill your mind with “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).
    • Use your time wisely and purposefully, not mindlessly. “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15–16).
    • Do not neglect studying and understanding God’s Word, so that you may discern what is good and evil, and be equipped for every good work. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16).
    • Even if you manage to successfully hide things from your parents, nothing is hidden from God. “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13–14).

God’s Word undergirds, informs, and affects all aspects of daily living. The Bible is not just a book of lofty ideals, kept on the top corner of our bookshelf only to be pulled out and dusted off on Sunday.

And so, these are applicable and relevant to me as a parent, as with my child.

When We Fall Short

As my son and I discussed both these lists, I reminded him that as his parents we were always available to talk things through and help him in any situation.

More importantly, I told him that there would be times when we fail and do the wrong thing. He might break the rules or make an ungodly decision, and we might fail in not showing grace to him when we are harsh and parent out of anger. But we wouldn’t ever fall into a pit too deep for God’s love, grace, and forgiveness to reach us.

In connection with this, we talked about a psalm we had read together a few weeks back:

  • The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
    slow to anger, abounding in love.
    He will not always accuse,
    nor will he harbour his anger for ever;
    he does not treat us as our sins deserve
    or repay us according to our iniquities.
    For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his love for those who fear him;
    as far as the east is from the west,
    so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
    As a father has compassion on his children,
    so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him.
    —Psalm 103:8–13

Here is assurance that God forgives us when we come to Him in repentance. He will give us wisdom to obey Him and do what is right and pleasing in His eyes.

We will continue reviewing our son’s phone use from time to time. I expect disagreements, battles, and even some heartache. But I also hope for more open and honest conversations as we navigate this new phase in his life together. May God grant wisdom to us parents.

This article was originally published in Adapted with permission.

For more, check out our Discovery Series booklet, Help! My Child Wants More Screen Time. Read online or request a copy today.
Ailin is a pastor’s wife, homemaker, and mother to five children. She enjoys cooking and trying out new recipes, but has not succeeded in getting her children to eat their vegetables. Most of all, she is thankful for the grace of God in her life, time spent with her family, and the invention of the washing machine.
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