Sins of a Gaming Father

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.

Comments

Thanks, Sean. I always enjoy and appreciate that you write with honesty and clarity. Any geek with influence over a little one is going to be inclined to pass on their particular hobbies and loves - the important thing, of course, is to not elevate that passion to the point of gluttony. Any joy overindulged in, can become an impediment to happiness. Keep up the good work!

Also - let's teach the kids to breathe through the nose while playing games. If we can eliminate "mouth-breather" from the list of adjectives applied to gamers, that's one big step for Goodjer-kind.

I don't think you need to worry about imprinting your son with your 'pasttime' Sean. While its true that children tend to mimic what their parents do, they continue to do so because they find enjoyment in it.

There are many instances where while a parent likes sports, their kid might not. Trust your son to know his own mind. You might have opened up the world of gaming for him but its his decision if he wants to continue the pasttime.

Also, you're a parent not his friend. Children need rules and guide lines. Part of that is knowing that they have to do their home work before playing games. This is no different from being glued to the TV all day long and having that privilege taken away if their grades suffer.

I come from a family that tends to be traditionally 'hardest' on the eldest child, reducing the boundaries with each subsequent offspring.

Bedtime at 7pm when i was 8? (i've no idea what time it was) Well, when i was 10 and going to bed at 8pm my younger sibling at 8 years old was going to bed at the same time.

No sweets when i was young except for parties and special occasions? When i was older my younger siblings were having sweets because i was as well.

Gaming is a strange thing because it didn't really exist in an external part my early life cycle.... none of my elder relatives played games and so i remember playing games, infrequently, each and every day after school and on weekends. There was no 'limit' to how much i played - other than i couldn't watch TV or play sports at the same time (homework came first though)... at least not that i remember.

Fast forward to my god son and his younger brother... at similar ages to when i was playing games their parents do not allow them to play any games during the week....none (though they make an exception every now and again for when people come to visit). The weekend is their gaming elysium.

It makes me wonder how i'll manage the pastime with my kids (assuming i have any)... I do wonder.

emyln wrote:
Trust your son to know his own mind.

My eight year-old nephew can barely remember his address let alone "know his own mind" .....

Along similar lines, I've been thinking about my own gaming habits as a child since my son was born. I realized that as a child I came to not only view gaming as a given part of my day, rather than as a treat or reward, I was also given essentially unlimited say over what I played and for how long I played it. I can remember playing Sega Genesis games for upwards of 8 hours straight some days and Diablo or Fallout for longer. Partly I was able to get away with this because I had a gaming PC in my bedroom that was largely unmonitored by my parents. To the extent that I'm able, I don't intend for my son to have either unlimited playtime or unlimited access to his gaming systems should he be interested in gaming.

If daddy doesn't help mommy pick up around the house before sitting down for an evening of snapping necks and breaking faces, then why should I be expected to do the same?

Great article, Elysium. I hope you will continue to share your parenting insights. As I enter the child-rearing portion of my life, I am eager to learn from those blazing the path before me.

One of the best books I've ever read is "Father the Family Protector." In the book it makes it clear that one should make it very clear that media such as TV and video games are wonderful tools and to remember that "[Games] are wonderful servants, but horrible masters."

So long as you make it clear to your children that games are not your master, then you are worthy of their respect - it shows you have self control and restraint. But if games become your master, then you are not worthy of respect.

For myself, I try to make games in my spare time as my hobby (and hopefully as a future business.) It is partly because I have a passion for making games, but also for my sons. It shows them that I play games, but games are my servants. I want my son to proudly tell his friends that his Dad doesn't just play games, he MAKES them.

And in the end, the best thing I can pass to my son is for him to learn that he can make them too.

As a child, video games were completely outlawed from our home. My parents of course saw them as a time waster, something I suspect was the feeling among most mid-west parents in the mid- to late-80's. As I grew up my friends were allowed to bring games in to our home, but never leave them there overnight.

After I moved out of my parent's home, I experienced video game freedom and I enjoyed creating my own rules. Now I am married and will soon be a father (yay!), but I am faced now with the responsibility of deciding when and how games will be involved in my son's life.

Sean, thank you for this incredibly honest and enjoyable piece. I have been trying to formulate an email for the podcast asking your viewpoint on raising kids and video games.

This was exactly what I was looking for.

My son is closing in on 3 and he generally hates the Xbox. If I turn it on he'll immediately start pointing at it and telling me in his best stern voice "Daddy! Turn it off! No games! TURN IT OFF!" Should I oblige he'll then make his motives clear by asking me to play blocks with him, have a "hi-ya" lightsaber fight, or possibly just chase him around for a bit while he giggles out that he's too fast. Only if he's totally exhausted and I'm playing something with robots or airplanes will he sit down and watch. It's now extremely rare that I play any games while my son is still awake. I think it's better for both of us if we just get out and do some old fashioned playing.

Never learned moderation, why start now! =)

Kehama wrote:
I think it's better for both of us if we just get out and do some old fashioned playing.

QFT. As proud as I am of walking my son through a round of Wii Boxing or Baseball, nothing compares to the sheer joy of launching him up the driveway on his Big Wheel or playing Calvinball on the front lawn.

At this age, he's also 3, the DS or the TV seems better for quiet time. This is, admittedly, a recent discovery for me.

Thank you, Elysium. I've been shouting that down the wind-tunnel for a long time. It's not necessarily what they play if you're paying attention. It's teaching them how to manage a life and play.

It's not just games; it's everything they're into. My elder daughter is probably the only kid in school who could manage to get in trouble for reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in jr high English class (she was supposed to be reading All Quiet On the Western Front). She had no proportion when it came to reading. It took a lot of work to convince her she needed to manage the word-monkey on her back just as strictly as she had to manage the pixel-monkey. It doesn't help that everywhere around you at school is telling you to read more.

She has graduated now, and she still doesn't have too much proportion when it comes to reading. But she has her jobs and is busy in lots of other ways and she manages it all. As long as she doesn't go hold Mercedes Lackey at gunpoint for the next Foundation novel, then I think we're good.

As a dad to a ten year old, I was hit really hard by this bit:

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 is what my wife and I battle on a seemingly daily basis. I'm not sure I have anything worthwhile to add to the comment thread, but thanks for giving me a piece I can so strongly identify with.

Sean, if you really want to kick off your son's education, let him play some GTA.

My wife and I did the foster parenting thing for a short bit (actually foster-to-adopt but it didn't end up working out). We went through some problems with the girl and had to impose some draconian rules. In the course of all that, it clicked that kids only have the following rights (I called it the Parent's Manifesto):
The right to shelter
The right to be kept safe and healthy
The right to education
The right to be loved
(and maybe one or two others that I can't quite remember).

Everything else is a privilege, including the owning of property or access to entertainment. Once trust had been lost, privileges had to be earned.

Granted, this was hardcore parenting since there were significant obstacles that we were trying to overcome. But I think every kid needs to be reminded now and again their true status in life. I see too many kids with the entitlement sense and it’s very easy to correct. Congrats on seeing the problem and addressing it.

Our experiments with our own test case Alpha are to give her 30 minutes of TV time right before nap and bed time. She definitely feels entitled to this time, but only at this time. We hope she is getting the message that once the day's responsibilities are complete, you can take some time for yourself and just veg out.

Consequently, I have seen every single Little Bear and Wow Wow Wubbzy ever made at least twice by now. God help me!

Sean great read. It was engaging, clear and to the point. You have clearly defined the problem I face. Video games are assumed, not earned. Yes, bad parenting on my part. After all the xbox, wii and DS were supposedly my toys, but he has somehow usurped them. My wife and I are trying to break the cycle, but this 7 year old is relentless (like most 7 year olds). On the plus side he does great in school and is a voracious reader (He is not in Momgamer's daughter's category, but come to think of it my 9 year old girl is) and is generally well adjusted. We are in the process of setting more limits, although summer is not the best time to do this initial limit implementation.

I also think you are right, that it is not necessarily what they play (within reason) but how much. Well good luck on your side and I will let you know how my behavior modification for my son goes.

Good article, Elysium.

For me growing up, home video gaming didn't exist until I was about 8 (1978). Soon after, my dad bought an Odyssey2, and it stayed connected to our only TV, which, of course, was in the den. Because of this, and because it was so new and primitive, it was basically another toy to play with, except that I couldn't just play with it whenever I wanted, since it was hooked up to the only TV in the house. Within a couple years, I had been given my own (used) TV and an Atari 2600, both of which stayed in my room. That's when I really started to get into gaming. The Atari had SO many games, so once you accumulated a decent collection of games and/or had friends with games you didn't have, you rarely got completely tired of playing.

OK, I'm starting to ramble so I'll refocus. Back then, there was no such thing as the internet, let alone gaming news sites, fan sites, instant messaging, social networking, etc. Plus I was active in sports (mainly baseball) so I always had a good balance of activities, thanks to my great parents.

I only have one offspring, my just-turned-16-year-old son, whom I've had full custody of since he was 3. I've raised him mostly on my own since then, with help from my parents (especially during his early years) and marginal help from an ex-wife (3 years) and a former girlfriend (4 years). So because of that and the fact that he's my first and only kid, I've made all the "rookie mistakes" on him his whole life.

He's doomed.

Duoae wrote:
I come from a family that tends to be traditionally 'hardest' on the eldest child, reducing the boundaries with each subsequent offspring.

That seems pretty normal. In multi-kid families, one kid always ends up breaking the ice up for the others.

I have a refrigerator magnet that my wife and I enjoy partly because we are made-for-each-other twisted and partly because we have three children. It quotes from Alcatraz rules and regulations: "5. Privileges: You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Anything else that you get is a privilege."

While I want my older two kids (6 and 4) to play more LittleBigPlanet with me, I can't do it by forgiving the things that can rob them of their "screen time". Most infractions that threaten to escalate result in the pulling this privilege or that, and screen time is among the first to go, especially when they're already so tired they're better off without it.

I taught my oldest to play games using Flow's tilt-only control, she loves Flower, and all of us can play LittleBigPlanet but only on the very easiest of levels since the younger boy can't even hold the controller off of his lap. Both of them play so little that their skills aren't improving much and the boy's definitely gotten the shaft with no one-on-one attention to speak of with games.

But really, their ability to get along and help us manage working, the house, and the 7-month-old without fighting incessantly or otherwise throwing fits due to attention deprivation are much more important skills. They are steadily being built and will hopefully grant them enough bits of harmonious coexistence and good behavior that they'll get scraps of screen time more often.

I don't pretend it'll get better for them quickly, gaming-wise, but I suspect like most things they grow into one day I'll turn around and be surprised that we can actually spend an hour a couple of times a week gaming together. The mind reels with the possibilities.

Don't worry. He'll rebel against you and your old man games one day. He will then become a scholar specializing in Shakespeare and/or biochemistry.

MeatMan wrote:
Back then, there was no such thing as the internet, let alone gaming news sites, fan sites, instant messaging, social networking, etc. Plus I was active in sports (mainly baseball) so I always had a good balance of activities, thanks to my great parents.

Oooh, oooh! Tell us about riding the dinosaurs next!

I don't think you have anything to be ashamed of Sean.

In all honesty, if the child has a burgeoning interest in video games to the point it becomes a pushing force and he ends up coming into a successful career as a video game designer or programmer, it may very well be the thing you are most proud of doing.

Though the false sense of entitlement might indeed ebb away at the child's ambition to learn in place of playing video games. I don't think this is vastly different from children who are given hours upon hours of TV time or may even retreat into a particular book rather than study or do homework.

I do however recognize the idea of 'balance' as important, it's never too late to teach the beneficial traits of patience and hard work.

I don't think all is lost on your 'rookie' mistakes, you may have very well planted the seeds for something much greater, but then again time will tell.

Here comes some patience and hard work pops, show him how it's done!

Coldstream wrote:
MeatMan wrote:
Back then, there was no such thing as the internet, let alone gaming news sites, fan sites, instant messaging, social networking, etc. Plus I was active in sports (mainly baseball) so I always had a good balance of activities, thanks to my great parents.

Oooh, oooh! Tell us about riding the dinosaurs next!


That was even before my time. Perhaps Rabbit will answer your request.

I am, fortunately or otherwise, not subjected to such clamors from my own daughters, which kind of worries me. While I am a pretty dyed-in-the-wool gamer not so long ago, I game much less these days, for various reasons. I'm trying to get my kids to game more on the Wii, but after an hour or two in a session, they tire of it. They would much rather play house and train with their LEGO brick sets. Biking, too, gets a vote more than video gaming.

I confess that I'm rather ambivalent about the entire thing. I'm supposed to be glad that they're not as into gaming as I am, right? Right?

This has given me an interesting look into what I'll have to take into consideration someday, whether it's soon or not. I probably felt like I was entitled to play games when I was younger, but I managed to break myself out of that once something more important came along. It did effect me in what job I would want to have someday though. That said, here I am, a trained Level Designer, just waiting for a position to become available.

I think if I ever decide to have a child, I'll start his or her gaming out with Europa Universalis. That should suffice to keep them off gaming or create an evil dictator in training.

Gaming is good for kids, especially the little one! He's getting a huge boost to his immune system by chewing on that game pad!

I thought this was going to be an apology for using the child as a microphone stand, and other tales.

momgamer wrote:
My elder daughter is probably the only kid in school who could manage to get in trouble for reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in jr high English class (she was supposed to be reading All Quiet On the Western Front). She had no proportion when it came to reading. It took a lot of work to convince her she needed to manage the word-monkey on her back just as strictly as she had to manage the pixel-monkey. It doesn't help that everywhere around you at school is telling you to read more.

Interestingly that is almost exactly my story. I was a compulsive reader and it was a major aid in my procrastination. I got over it eventually, but I think the lesson here is that many children do not tend towards moderation, it is probably one of the most important lessons a parent can (attempt to) teach.

I read once that people that play video games as children have much better hand eye coordination, especially those that go on to become Doctors.

Rainsmercy wrote:
I read once that people that play video games as children have much better hand eye coordination, especially those that go on to become Doctors.

Indeed. I need to dig up that paper. As I recall, the study found that surgeons who played video games (especially FPS games) were faster and better at navigating the complex visual fields found in surgery than their non-gamer brethren.