Video Games: Gateway to Evil or Mother's Best Friends?

Video Games:  Gateway to Evil or Mother's Best Friends?

Video Games: Gateway to Evil or Mother’s Best Friend?

Much to the chagrin of my children, my history of video games is rather brief:
Intellivision → Atari → Computer Games → Handheld Nintendo Game Boy

Sure, it was fun playing Space Invaders, Pac Man, Pong, Centipede and Marble Madness. But I was never the child who spent hours with a controller in my hand, hypnotized by the screen in front of me and shaking with frustration hours later.

After about 15 minutes, I hated the unnatural electronic noises, flickering seizure-inducing screen and protecting my body from the eager hands of my siblings trying to steal my controller. Soon enough, I just stopped playing completely, preferring board games to electronic games.

I will admit that I did experiment with Tetris in my youth, which led to some dark months of addition. I would sneak the Nintendo Game Boy under my covers with a flashlight, lower the volume and play through the entire night. I spent months with the Tetris song repeating in my head, my hands stuck in a claw-like grip and constructing completed lines of peas, carrots and chicken on my dinner plate.

Hormones flooded my body just in time to save me from flunking out of school. Video game rehab was intense and required hours of stolen issues of Seventeen Magazine, innumerable phone calls to other boy-crazy friends and secret notes passed in my classes with one simple question: Do you like, like me? Circle: Yes or No

I was saved by my first kiss, kiss at the end of sixth grade. Thank you to the awkward, clueless boy who smelled like B.O. and tasted like Juicy Fruit gum. I was just as awkward and clueless and really hope that I smelled and tasted better than he did, but I could finally escape my geometric nightmare!

While I clearly was born without the video-gaming gene, my brother was given a bonus strand of Nintendo sponsored DNA. My brother has yet to meet a video game/computer game that he can’t master. Though my parents spent many years envisioning a future with my brother sequestered in his room playing electronic games, he surprised all of us when during his own sixth grade year he programmed his first computer game. (Yes, that was not a typo. Talk about pressure: during my sixth grade year, I was kissing Juicy Fruit/B.O. boy, while three years later my brother was computer programming during his sixth grade year! It is not easy growing up with a younger brother boy genius.)

Needless to say, my brother fluently speaks the video/computer game language. Lightening struck for him years ago, and he has a very successful career computer programming, creating apps, and participating in world-wide competitions. In short, my brother is living the dream. His name is spoken in hallowed whispers amongst gamers all over the world, and my own kids worship Uncle Jim.

Even though the video gaming gene skipped me, all three of my children were definitely born with it. In fact, there are days when I am pretty sure they should see a doctor before their left hands mutate into Nintendo DS’s with styluses morphing from each finger on their right hands. (I promise to post pictures when this happens! I’m already writing headlines for the National Enquirer!)

Computer games were introduced to my children as soon as they could sit on my lap at the keyboard. Jump-start Baby was the gateway game, which led to harder use from Jump-start Toddler, Preschooler, Pre-K, etc. Similar Leapfrog games were introduced, along with some others, but, yes, I was often greeted with grimaces and a great deal of head-shaking when Cassie would ask to play computer games the second I would pick her up from the tony Lincoln Park preschool she attended. Those children were only allowed to play with fancy European toys and Montessori-approved manipulatives.

I do have to admit that it was very hard not to stick out my tongue at those judgmental well-manicured and perfectly-coiffed mothers when the teacher exclaimed how my daughter at age 3 was teaching their children ages 5 & 6 how to read. And, I did really appreciate my hour of free-time each day while Cassie happily sang songs along with the computer.

In the beginning, I tried diligently to limit the time Cassie spent in front of all things that flicker electronically, especially when those reports about Japanese kids having seizures were all over the news.  Only 60 minutes a day of either video games or television — never both in the same day!  And I filled the rest of her day with creating art, reading, rhyming, and playing with those awfully-expensive-so-unnecessary-when-all-a-toddler-really-needs-is-an-empty-cardboard-box fancy European toys.  It was exhausting.

Phillip’s birth changed my rigid view of electronics.  Suddenly, the handy kitchen timer collected dust as I bartered a piece of my soul and most of my mommy morals to the electronic babysitting gods.

“Hey, Cass!  Why don’t we see what is on Playhouse Disney while I nurse Phillip?”

“Mama needs a shower while Phillip takes his nap.  You can play another game on the computer!”

Thankfully before the petition could circulate to expel our family from preschool as I’m sure the lengthy handbook explicitly detailed such electronic infractions, we moved to the ‘burbs where my meager monitoring (I really hadn’t abandoned all of my parental responsibilities) was laughable.  As my children didn’t have personal computers, televisions or video game consoles in their own bedrooms, I was quickly labeled the strict mom.  The label bothered me at first because I surely would have preferred carnival mom or cute mom or mom of great snacks and clean house.

However, I learned to appreciate the label and in one of those cartoon light bulb moments as my own children were whining about how strict I was and that I never let them do anything, I finally realized that I had inadvertently given myself the ultimate currency with my children.  I could finally abandon those dreaded marble jars and sticker charts cluttering up my kitchen — I could bargain with video game/computer/television time!  Electronic stimulation had become my children’s drug of choice, and I would happily supply them with their fix… for a price.

My life became so much easier, and my children quickly learned how to negotiate.  Magically the bedrooms were cleaned, toys were picked up, and behavior was modified.  My life shined vivid technicolor, and I learned to tune out the awful background Pokemon video game music.

Not every day is as magical as those early days.  As the children get older, they learn new ways to manipulate the system (me).  Sure, they still whine and fight and occasionally refuse to put their dirty clothes in the laundry basket until they have absolutely no laundry left and are forced to wear fancy clothes to school, but ultimately when the misbehaving child realizes that his/her siblings are in electronic utopia, the child is willing to change at least until (s)he earns electronic privileges again.

Now, sure, some would call my new form of parenting bribery, but I prefer to think that I am only teaching them life skills in a language their digital culture understands.  Good behavior is rewarded with privileges.  Exemplary behavior is rewarded with additional privileges.  Poor choices/behaviors have consequences.

For those interested in trying this approach, here is a basic synopsis:

Child A has age appropriate expectations, such as cleaning room, making bed, feeding a pet, putting away laundry, using respectful language, etc.

If Child A does these things, Child A gets 1 hour of video games/television/computer time (along with additional privileges such as hanging out with friends, etc.) every day.

Child A can earn additional electronic time and privileges by completing a specific additional task, helping a sibling or parent without being asked, etc.

If Child A is not meeting the basic daily requirements, they do not earn any electronic time nor time with friends, etc.

All children are given only 1 warning each day.

Full disclosure:  The above is a very rudimentary outline.  This is actually a part of my children’s level plan, which works brilliantly, but it is more complex and completely off topic.  I finally have a system that totally works for me and my family.

I never imagined all those years ago that I would willingly place a controller in the hands of my child or that video games would be so vital to my life with a teen, tween and 7 year old, who thinks he is a tween, but they are.  And I’m okay with that as long as I can finally have some peace in my house, even if it is only for an hour each day.

For more information on my brother’s app, which is fun for adults and kids of all ages, please check out sketchclub.  It is really brilliant and fun for the whole family!


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  • I have been hiding video games from my 5 yo for about a year now and he finally was exposed. I was surprised at how easily he shuts it off and wants to play or go outside! I have never been a huge fan of video games, although I did have a love affair with the original Super Mario Bros when it first came out...Great post!

  • Nice article very interesting to read

  • Thanks for the great comments. It is a struggle to find balance, especially as they get older. My boys had physicals with the pediatrician yesterday, and they both told him that playing video games was their favorite thing to do. I was mortified. I did ask my boys to explain our rules to the doc, so he would regain his respect for me. It worked. Doc said everything is fine in moderation. I was very happy when he shifted the conversation to asking my boys about sports. What a relief that they easily shared all of their outside interests, too!

  • I like your system! A lot of parenting involves bargaining and bartering--you really figured out a way to use the kids' love of video games to your advantage! And I am really glad no one in your family has stylus fingers!!!!

  • I never bought our kids video games or a system. Not for birthdays or Christmas. Their friends would bring their systems over to play occasionally.

    When they were in their late teens and had jobs, my sons bought X-Box or PlayStation (I can't remember which.) They played with them for awhile and they were done.

    Since I was an only child, I spent a lot of time playing solitaire card games. Now I play them on my computer. ;-)

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