As I grow into the comfortable role of playing responsible parent for a second child who is nearly ambulatory and probably at this moment sneaking up Sam Fisher style on an unsuspecting cat, I, like many parents, use my first son as a case study in what not to do. My oldest boy, who I think of as Test Subject Alpha, has, I think it is fair to say, grown into a lovely, polite and smart child despite what I consider to be active if well-intentioned efforts on my part to sabotage his development.
I talk a lot about being a gamer, because frankly I think that’s what most of you come here for. I talk less about being a dad because most of the time it seems to be just demanding that your child do things that you probably don't actually want to do either like picking up clutter or eating Brussels sprouts. Most of being an effective parent seems to revolve around disguising your own rampant hypocrisy in a way that seems obtusely educational — fetching me a fresh glass of water will teach you the value of a hard days’ work and probably something about honor.
But, as I watch my son rip through the Hoth level of Star Wars Legos for the nine-hundred-and-sixty-fifth time, I must wonder if I haven’t burdened him with my own lifelong addictions.
We laugh about indoctrinating another innocent mind into the warped world of video gaming when procreation comes to geek-town, but the joke is only funny because it is so very true. It’s not just that my son is mirroring my pastime no matter what it is, because I notice quite distinctly that he hasn’t also taken to my other passions like eating Taco Bell while watching pre-season football.
No, if I’m honest, I was an active and at times irresponsible participant in his early gaming life. I realize this as I hand an Xbox 360 controller to my younger nine-month-old so he can play with the clicky buttons and chew on the thumbsticks. My first son has been exposed, actively, to games since he was probably a zygote. This in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
But, what I haven’t taken into account is how differently video games interact with a child. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not necessarily saying that the gaming bug I’ve given my son will warp him or impact his “development” in some meaningful way, but there are consequences to giving a person, particularly a very small person, something that feels more like an entitlement than a benefit.
At some point a few months ago I realized that playing a video game on any given day seemed more, to my son, like something he was owed rather than something he got as a reward. This was a pretty solid example of some bad parenting — not criminally negligent or anything, but just making the classic mistake of applying an adult mentality to a child. As a parent of a small person interested in video games, I have since realized I have to think about things a little differently.
What’s interesting to me about this, is that the real trick to being a good gaming parent doesn’t have as much to do with the content of the games as it does just having balance to the pastime itself. As I’ve adjusted my oldest son’s expectations without ever really worrying about what he’s playing (within reason), the difference is immediate and notable.
It's unfortunate, I suppose, that my first son is the beneficiary of countless rookie parent mistakes. At least I am providing him endless caches of ammunition for future therapy and blame sessions, but as I operate in the real world I realize that many people are talking about parenting video games in entirely the wrong way. Shame on me for being surprised, I suppose.