David Eaton is the co-founder and President of Axis, a faith-based organization dedicated to helping parents and kids have meaningful conversations about important topics. Canopy’s own Matt Gore recently had the chance to sit down with David and hear about his new book, Engaging Your Teens World.
MG: You’ve joked that your organization, Axis, is the love child of Snapchat and C.S. Lewis. Tell me about Axis.
DE: C.S. Lewis, the theologian and philosopher, has timeless ideas, and Axis tries to draw on such timeless ideas and great thinkers. But we’re also keeping our finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the world right now, whether it’s Snapchat or TikToK or Baby Yoda. It actually takes a lot of diligence to do that because the world is always changing.
Parents and their teens live in the same home in the same zip code, but they are from different cultures because they come from different generations. At Axis, we try to help them speak the same language.
MG: Tell me a little bit about that divide, and whether you think it’s becoming larger.
DE: Not to be super fearful, but the divide between kids and parents is growing, and the reason it’s growing is the smartphone.
That is what I love about Canopy though, is that you’re trying to bring some level of sanity into this area.
The smartphone is so compelling. It’s in all of our pockets and it has a huge influence on how adolescents grow. Getting your first smartphone is a milestone that I’d put alongside getting a first car and hitting puberty, and you can see how smartphones are actually disrupting those other two milestones.
You’ll notice that kids are not as interested in getting a driver’s license on their 16th birthday as many of their parents were. Why? For the parent’s generation, getting a car represented freedom. Now kids are really interested in getting an iPhone because that represents freedom for their generation.
When it comes to puberty, if parents aren’t intentional about talking to their kids about sex – often before the parents feel ready – then the phone will do it for them. Unless parents take action, their kid’s smartphone will be the new sex ed teacher.
I had a friend whose young son was a baseball player. For that kid, romance just wasn’t on the horizon. And then as he went to a baseball game on a bus with his teammates, one of his friends pulled out his phone and introduced him to pornography. For the next 60 days, the son looked at pornography every single day. Now he’s gone from zero to a hundred miles per hour with no guidance from his parents. That’s what the phone offers. Your kid is only as safe as their friend’s phone.
MG: I really enjoyed your most recent book, Engaging Your Teens World, which is available on Amazon right now. What is your hope for parents who read the book?
DE: Our big hope is that parents would build trust with their kids and have hope. One dad said to me, “I always feel three apps behind my kids.” Another dad said, “I’m so tired of losing.”
What if you, as a parent, could be confident and ready to engage your teen’s world? What if you could be ahead of your kids? At Axis, we want to be your research assistant. We want to be your back office when it comes to Gen Z so you might only be one app behind, or you actually might be one app ahead sometimes and you don’t feel embarrassed when certain conversations happen.
We had a young woman say to us, “I’ve only had one real conversational with my dad.” I thought that was so sad and scary. Her dad is a pastor, a Christian university president, and an Axis board member. I knew this guy was really great, but for some reason, there was a huge disconnect between this man and his daughter.
But then his daughter smiled and said, I’ve only had one real conversation with my dad, and we’ve never stopped having that one conversation.
Parents get to have one, continuous, 60-year conversation with their kids. And there’s going to be plenty of secondary coaches that show up along that journey, whether it’s a great baseball coach or a youth pastor or a synagogue leader or a great English teacher or great friends, but moms and dads are going to be there for sixty years.
Parents, if you’re reading this, you are an unstoppable influence in the life of your child. And though you may feel three apps behind, you know that you’re always going to be there for your kid. And you’re going to be there praying for them, supporting them, and helping them because they’re your kid.
That’s what Axis is all about. We get to go down in their world and understand their culture and then guide them into adulthood because of how much we love them and how much pain they can cause us how much joy they bring us.
MG: You called technology, “good, cursed, and redeemable.” What do you mean by that?
DE: As a Christian, I believe that God made the world “very good”, and I think that’s the first conversation that we need to have with our kids. We need to be careful to not just complain about how bad something is, but actually celebrate what’s awesome about it and what should be cherished. Celebrating what’s good in teen culture can transform you from being a nagging dad or nagging mom to someone who has insight, who has something to contribute to the conversation.
But then, according to the biblical story, our “very good” world becomes fragmented and broken. As a result, the next conversation to have about anything is about how it’s cursed, how it’s not good. Take TikToK. If you’ve already asked your teen what’s great about TikTok and really engaged in that conversation, you can ask your teen what’s wrong with TikTok. What’s missing? What’s confused? What’s broken? That adds nuance to the conversation. You’re not just condemning their culture, you’re engaging it.
That takes us to the idea of redemption. You can ask how can we use this very good piece of technology that’s also cursed in some ways and redeem it as a family? How can we redeem it as a creative community? We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
MG: In Engaging Your Teen’s World, you stated that teens are more likely to talk to their grandparents than their dads about almost everything. What is the role of dads in all of this?
DE: If you have a Gen Z kid in your house, between 12 and 18 or so, they actually have more in common with their grandparents and they have with their parents. They’re both children of recessions, they’re both children of protest, and they both like Fleetwood Mac. For some reason, Zoomers and Boomers are more similar to each other than they are to Gen X or Millennials.
Grandparents play just a beautiful, unique role in the life of a kid. As one grandfather said to me, “I am not in charge of discipline and I’m not supposed to be, so my tool is to love this kid as God loves them. And I can love them into a better place and their parents can sometimes.” Between teens and parents, it just feels like an ongoing war, but grandma or grandpa can be a little bit removed from that, but still utterly invested and can help along the way.
MG: I think the stats about the burgeoning mental health crisis among teenagers are just really scary to parents. What do you think is driving the rise in mental health problems and what can parents do?
DE: The smartphone is to the brain as the cigarette is to the lung. There’s a lot that comes from that, a lot of stimulus, a lot of insecurity.
For instance, think about what Instagram is like for a teenage girl. They’re just going to see lots of different body parts of different women that are edited, perfected, or worked on really hard, or are filtered. Instead of comparing herself to a whole woman, a teenage girl is comparing herself to just the hips or just the arms or just the eyelashes of different models. And, of course, it’s been adjusted using apps like Facetune. That teenage girl is just going to see a lot of images that reinforce how inadequate and imperfect she is.
I don’t want to just totally throw a smartphone under the bus, but there are some challenges that come from that.
MG: David, how can parents connect with Axis? I think your resources on how to navigate the digital world as a parent are some of the best out there. How can parents learn more about what y’all do?
DE: The best thing that a parent can do is sign up for the Culture Translator weekly email. It’s an awesome, simple, weekly email that comes out on Friday and just says, “here are three new things in your kid’s world this week and how to have non-anxious conversations with them about it.”
We even have a podcast version of it, which is just six minutes long, so you can listen to it in the car driving your kids to school in the morning. It’s designed to not alienate parents or teens, but to spark a conversation about what’s happening in your teen’s world.
You may think that if you show interest in your teen’s world, they’re going to scoff at you. Well, if you’re showing interest in their world so that you can control them, they’re not going to like you for it. But if you’re engaging just because you are interested in them and interested in what’s going on and you want to be a part of the conversation, they’ll respect you for it.
And there are going to be many opportunities where you need to ask them for input because they know the tech better than we do.
We also have an app on the App Store. For a $10-a-month subscription, parents get access to over 400 different resources. On our website, Axis.org, we also have some great free resource sources. There’s a “Start Here” path that just gives you a sample of some of the different resources that we have that can help you stay connected to the heart of your kid.
MG: Thank you so much, David. The book discussed today is Engaging Your Teen’s World. I highly recommend it. Their first book, Smartphone Sanity, is another one that I would highly recommend. Thanks again, David. I really appreciate your time.
*Edited and condensed for clarity.