Last week some family friends came over to our house for dinner. The children, we'll call them Larry, Curly and Moesha, were ages 12, 8, and 4 respectively. As you may imagine, children enjoy coming over to the Gamer Therapist house, which has 3 gaming consoles and a dedicated big-screen TV. After a quick tour of the gaming room, Larry and Moesha sorted through my games and located Portal 2, and within minutes had set themselves up to play cooperative mode. Curly was content to sit between them, and the adults retired to the first floor to hang out and prepare dinner.
Throughout the evening we could hear the sounds of the happy gamers and the game, while my friend Rebecca talked frankly about her ambivalence about their gameplay. The ambivalence sprang primarily from a well-meaning friend who had criticized her parenting style. Another set of parents had told them that their children wouldn't be able to play with them anymore because they thought that the children were picking up bad messages from video games.
This conversation was interrupted by the children twice, both by Moesha. The first time she came down to inform us that Larry had succeeded in unlocking a very difficult achievement. The second time she came down to ask me if I could join them and help them solve a puzzle in the game they had been struggling with. I went up, and within a few minutes a fresh perspective and Larry having some patience as I familiarized myself with the controls had advanced them to the next level. A polite thank you let me know that I was no longer required, and I returned to our conversation.
A discussion about education and video games was in full swing, and a debate about how much screen time is too much. At this juncture I pointed out how hard it is for us to catch children when they are doing things right. I observed that for the past 2 hours children, siblings, spanning an age difference of 8 years had been engaged in cooperative learning. What's more they had voluntarily engaged with the adults on two occasions. The first was for one child to express pride in the achievement of her sibling. The second was to request adult assistance with some problem solving. And all along our parental ears had heard not one whit of conflict or argument. Yet all of this would have been easy to miss, or worse, dismiss as "parking the children in front of a screen."
Every day, parents like Rebecca are bombarded with much-hyped exposes on how dangerous video games are to children. Horror stories like the one my colleague at BC psychologist Peter Gray blogs about are touted, in which a South Korean young man plays for 50 hours straight and dies after going into cardiac arrest. Gray goes on to put this tragedy in perspective: There are 7 billion people on the planet, and this incident represents 0.000000014% of the population. It is by contrast far more difficult to catch the number of children and adult gamers doing things like learning physics, researching a vaccine for HIV, or gaming to raise money for hospitals.
And although studies linking the dangerous connection video games have to childhood obesity, the media somehow never manages to pickup ones like this that showed that children who had electronic devices in their room were more likely to engage in outdoor play. Perhaps the Obama administration did read this study though, as they are moving to a more gamer-friendly position with the appointment of Constance Steinkhueler to study the civic potential of playing games (Thanks to my colleague Uriah Gilford for calling my attention to this.) The video game danger is overhyped.
Parents are playing a game far more dangerous than any video game, and that is the "Who Is Parenting Best" game. Over and over I hear conversations about what the best school district is, how to set privacy settings and enrichment activities. This despite, as Rob Evans EdD. points out in his book Family Matters that by age 18 children and adolescents will have only spent about 10% of their total lives in school. Setting privacy settings is the first and most minimal step to helping children navigate the 21st century community that relies on the internet. And enrichment activities are unfortunately often activities that appeal to what a parent wants quality time to look like, rather than what a child enjoys.
In discussing school districts, privacy settings and quality time, parents are often missing the point. Worse, they are confusing worry with effort.
We need to stop "phoning it in" with our kids, finding the "right" school, program or setting to park them on so we don't need to worry. It is human nature to want to get to a safe spot to relax and stop changing: We need to fight it.
Often when I speak with parents who complain about the amount of time their offspring are spending playing I ask them if they have ever played the game with their child. The answer is invariably that they haven't, even though a recent study showed that girls who gamed with their fathers reported lower levels of depression. Quality time always has to be some Puritanical ideal: a bracing hike, the symphony, or a museum. I love doing all of those things, which is why I do them. That doesn't mean that a child or adolescent will have them as a preferred activity.
I know, I'm criticizing your parenting, please bear with me. Because you can take it, and your children need you to stop playing the Who Is Parenting Best Game. They need you to try playing Portal 2 with them if that is what they're into. If you fumble with the controller, all the better, because we adults have forgotten how clumsy and awkward learning makes children feel. Education has gone taught us to find a safe spot and stop learning about anything that is outside that comfort zone.
We have long known that one of the strongest protective factors for children is an involved parent, but somewhere along the line we have gotten the mistaken idea that that means control. To be clear, parental control does not equal parental involvement. At best it is one element of involvement, at worst it is phoning it in.
Does this mean schools have no responsibility? Absolutely not. But I would like to suggest we return to Larry, Curly, and Moesha for a different example, namely a curatorial model. That means setting up a place for them to explore and negotiate things on their own for the most part, while we are constantly available for engagement. Yes that is a tall order, and one that requires that we think beyond the nuclear family and school as factory models.
I am fortunate to belong to massivelyminecraft.org a server where children and adults from the UK, US, Australia and other places play the sandbox game Minecraft together. It is not segregated by age, but vetted by the server moderators, who require parental permission for children to join. Within the game world, you can see adults and children learning and playing together at any hour of the day or night. They are voluntarily learning about geometry, math, physics, animal husbandry, chemistry, geology, economy, social skills, communication and a host of other things, in a way that is curatorial rather than proscriptive. Adults are there and occasionally on chat or via Skype will step in to mediate a conflict between two children, or if help with a task is requested.
Why can't 21st century education be like this? Imagine a virtual classroom where parents and teachers can privately chat while both observing unobtrusively a child's progress. Imagine homework at the table replaced by building a virtual pyramid together. Imagine virtual trips to Paris in Second Life, where no one is too poor to come along. Imagine time on learning that is maximizing the child's engagement and minimizing unnecessary supervision. Imagine adolescents finally having educational settings that run synchronously with their biological clocks. Imagine a collaborative effort that doesn't segregate human beings by rigid grades, parent/teacher roles or socioeconomic status. Imagine recess that can happen year-round, sometimes in a field, sometimes on the Wii Fit or Kinnect.
I believe the research is showing more and more that these things are possible. And I believe that our children are counting on us taking a leadership role in technology and education rather than a fear-based ones.
I leave you with this image. As he was leaving my house, Larry looked at me and declared that I "wasn't entirely horrible" for an adult. What parent wouldn't love to hear such high praise from their tween?