This parenting gig is a lot more difficult than advertised.
Before my oldest child was born 12 years ago, what did I know about raising kids? I figured you cooked some breakfasts, packed some lunches, drove carpool, played catch, cooked dinner, checked homework and put them to bed. That’s all there is to it, right?
It isn’t until you learn that – aside from being a personal assistant to tyrannical little people – your real task is to create responsible, sensible and well-adjusted members of society that things get complicated.
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At the moment, I’m mulling over a couple of truisms about parenting. First, generally speaking, parents want their children to be happy. And second, most moms and dads accept that it is their job to protect their children from harm.
So how are parents supposed to react when what makes their child happy also might be causing harm?
That’s the question that has been bothering me since I meandered into the emotional and never-ending dialogue over video games and the effect they could be having on our children.
My son likes books, so we buy him books. He likes baseball, so we buy him equipment. He likes Legos, so we buy him those too. No harm done. The problem is that my son also likes video games. And, if I buy him that commodity, I feel like I’m enabling a bad habit.
We’ve certainly come a long way from the video arcades of the 1980s. Back then, during junior high school and high school, my friends and I dropped our fair share of quarters into game machines that were as big as refrigerators. But what kept us in check and encouraged moderation was that, well, eventually we ran out of quarters.
These days, not only are the games more exciting and sophisticated than they used to be, they’re also more compact and readily available. So it’s easy for them to eat up time as effortlessly as Pac-Man devours yellow pellets.
And I’m not even talking about the mobile games that can be easily downloaded onto your phone and tablet.
Let’s focus on the video game consoles that find their way into your living room – and never leave. We have had such a visitor in our home, ever since my 8-year-old son got for Christmas a popular video game system that quickly became his best friend and favorite playmate.
He has no ability to self-regulate. Why not? See above: He’s 8. If my wife and I were to let him play video games all day, and all night, until he passed out on the carpet, he’d gladly comply and look around for a soft spot to land.
And when we force him to turn off the game before he’s ready – and he’s never ready – he usually gets angry.
That part, we’re fine with. We’re used to our kids being angry at us for one thing or another, and consider it part of the job at this point.
What’s more troubling is that there appears to be a mood-altering quality to video games. What do these things do to a child’s brain? The research isn’t conclusive, and much of it is limited to the study of violent games and how they supposedly make children more aggressive. That seems logical.
But my son doesn’t play violent games, and yet his mood still changes when it’s time to shut off the game.
A friend told me that he’s been down this road with two of his sons, one now in his late teens and the other in his early 20s. He thinks that one of the reasons video games have such a hold on kids is that they’ve become a new “social interaction tool” that allows them to relate to their friends around a common experience. With his younger son, my friend had to resort to imposing a monthlong sabbatical, requiring that the gamer log in and out to keep track of how much he plays, and insisting that the boy spend one hour reading for each one hour of gaming.
These all sound like good ideas, and I’m willing to give them a try. A lot of it may come down to simply setting expectations and holding the line. And, of course, it’s always a good idea to improve how we communicate with our kids.
Still, in the tug-of-war between making our kids happy and keeping them safe, their well-being has to take priority.
Reach Ruben Navarrette at firstname.lastname@example.org.