As parents, our primary role is to disciple our children to Jesus. Our technology habits, however, can make it really difficult to be as present as we need to be if we intend to disciple our children well. 

If we aren’t prayerfully pursuing our children’s hearts, this season of soft soil will pass us by. 

Are we available? Are we present? Or are we functioning in a chronic state of partial attention to the detriment of ourselves and our children?

What is partial attention?

Linda Stone, former Microsoft researcher and founder of The Attention Project, coined the term “continuous partial attention.” She defines it as this: “to pay partial attention— CONTINUOUSLY.” It’s an “always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention.”

When we split our attention, as Stone describes, our brains are impacted:

“In large doses, [continuous partial attention] contributes to a stressful lifestyle, to operating in crisis management mode, and to compromised ability to reflect, to make decisions, and to think creatively… it contributes to a feeling of overwhelm, over-stimulation and to a sense of being unfulfilled.” 

Can I get an amen?!

The frazzled, frenetic pace at which your mind is operating is not how it was designed to operate. And the lie that we must check in, be connected, and be engaged ALL the time contributes to this never-ending state of frenzy. 

Our tech is designed to keep us coming back for more, and in doing so, contributes to this state of chaos we might be feeling.

Following Jesus and making disciples… halfway

How does partial attention affect our ability to make disciples?

The temptation here is to compartmentalize— to think that our tech time is ours. That really, our time is ours and that our ability to focus or concentrate doesn’t impact our parenting. 

But friends:

  • Reading the Bible— an ancient, complex text meant to be studied over a lifetime— takes an ability to focus and study well.
  • Sitting quietly with God in prayer means we need to be okay with silence.
  • Meditating on and memorizing Scripture requires regular, routine practice and recitation.

None of these things happen by accident. They’re not particularly easy and they don’t align well with the current state of split digital attention.

My point is this: If we aren’t following Jesus well ourselves, we won’t be able to model or instruct others to do the same. 

When we give way to continuous partial attention, we condition our brains to be halfway engaged— in all things. Including disciple-making.

As every coach I ever had liked to say, “How you do anything is how you do everything.”

If we aren't following Jesus well ourselves, we won't be able to model or instruct others to do the same.

Developing a habit of partial attention

Research backs this up: to paraphrase the Hebbian Theory of Learning, neurons that fire together wire together. 

Basically the stuff we do repeatedly gets easier to do— and not just the good stuff. 

Every time I put my AirPods in because I “just need a minute” means the next time I feel stressed, the temptation to escape with partial attention will be that much easier to do. In fact, if I do it enough it can become more like a reflex— an unconscious mechanism I’ve developed to cope with stress. 

Each time we partially engage with God or people or the task at hand, we make it easier to choose that option next time. 

Raising kids takes focus

We need to engage fully with whatever work has been set before us if we desire to do it well.

Deuteronomy 11:19 instructs us to disciple our children as we go about our day to day lives: 

“You shall teach [these words] to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” 

We don’t know when these big parenting moments will come. We can’t anticipate when a kid will be ready to chat. If we’re constantly otherwise occupied (especially with our tech), we will miss these moments. 

So far in our parenting journey, our “big moment” talks have taken place:

  • In the car
  • While we’re actively trying to get out the door
  • When we’re making dinner 
  • When the baby is crying

We didn’t plan for these conversations to happen when they did. We never know when the conversations or confessions or questions will rise out of their little hearts. We can and should plan for discipleship; but we also need to expect that these conversations will take place in the very folds and rhythms of life.

Like a child shouting out from the back seat, “Mom, how does Jesus get in my heart??” 

If I’m always only halfway engaged— if my attention is constantly split among a million things because I’m trying to squeeze in a podcast or show or a few texts— then I will miss these moments.

My attention will be split, my mind in a chronic state of overwhelm (as Stone describes)— all in the name of what? A few minutes of escape?

If I’m always in artificial crisis-management mode— stressed and overwhelmed— will my children risk bringing their deep, heartfelt questions to me? Or do they already know the answer will be, “Not now. Can’t you see I’m busy?”

Be vigilant to keep first things first. Guard your heart against the lie that what’s “out there” is better than what’s in front of you— for your sake and for the sake of your children.

How can we choose something different?

One way to combat the desire to be always connected is to batch our tech time. There are great things happening on the Internet. We just want to make sure we’re controlling our tech, and our tech isn’t controlling us.

 Batching tech time might look something like this:

  • Removing email from your phone and checking it on the computer instead at pre-appointed times. 
  • Turning off text notifications and establishing a time (or times) of day to check and respond to messages.
  • If you must check social media, set up times for doing so and do it on the computer. It’s a lot harder to scroll mindlessly this way.
  • Set a timer for your tech time so that when you hit your limit, you receive an auditory reminder to put the phone down. 

Setting aside intentional time for our tech use helps us go deeper in our work— whether that’s doing the work of meeting with Jesus or sorting out what’s for dinner. 

This is work that requires— and is worthy of— our full attention. Let’s be sure to give it.