Want Your Kids to Turn off the Screen? Then Listen

Sep 12

Last night my 12-year-old son asked if he could stay up later than his two younger brothers to watch TV with me and his dad. Since he’d just come home from hockey (later than usual), I said yes. It would be nice to share some personal time with our oldest son. No sooner had I sat on the couch to start my DVR recording of Master Chef, he walks in with his iPod in his hand and earphones on his head.

“Whoa,” I set the remote control down. “I thought we were watching TV together?” I asked. Then repeated it. Louder. He had the volume up too high to hear me the first time.

He guffawed. “What difference does it make? We’re both watching screens, Mom.” Yes, he had a point. I couldn’t argue that, could I? Visions of sitting with my family watching Different Strokes and The A-Team paraded through my mind. Those were some good memories. Sure, we shushed eachother when the commercials ended, but still, we laughed together and shared the same appreciation for one-line quips that only a 1980′s sitcom can deliver (Whatchoo talkin’ bout Mista D?) That counted for something. Didn’t it?

I insisted he turn off his personal screen and watch Master Chef with me, despite my reservations whether this could really be considered quality family time. He groaned his consent and tossed his electronics aside. Then he took me by surprise. He started talking. Like, really talking. I held the remote in my hand, ready to press PLAY. Yet as my son continued to talk I realized what an amazing opportunity I would be squandering if I silenced his chatter with my TV program. You see, 12-year-old boys aren’t a particularly chatty bunch.

He talked about what happened during school that day, sharing information about a new student in his grade who has Asperger’s Syndrome. He’d never heard of that before, he explained. And continued to describe what he’d learned about this condition. I kept the show on PAUSE and listened intently to everything he said. I was amazed by his compassion and interest in this new student. And I was eager to let him express his intrigue and concern about her. We had an amazing conversation. I was happy to let my TV show wait.

My husband eventually joined us in the family room and started the TV show while we continued our conversation (he, understandably, fell into the habit of just turning on the screen without thinking).

As our conversation drew to a close, I marvelled at how freely my son chatted with me. (This is not a daily occurrence.) The night , however, could have played out very differently if either of us had tuned into our own screen.

Instead, he talked. Instead, I listened. If that’s a by-product of shared screen time, then I’m going to insist on doing it more often.

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Tip #22 – Get Comfortable with Saying No

Oct 12

We live in a Yes culture.  With an abundant society such as the one in which we live, we don’t have much choice.  Back in the day (wa-a-a-ay back) when the family’s dinner consisted of what little food they could scrape together, a parent didn’t have to say no.  Any child could clearly see there were no seconds to be eaten.  There were no desserts to beg over.  There were few, if any toys, to ask for.  Fast forward to today.  Kids are surrounded by a cornucopia of opportunities to eat, play, and purchase till their every desire is satiated (at least for that moment).

That means the burden of self-control falls upon the parents’ shoulders.  Sure, the kids could play video games all day.  Just like they could eat chips and chocolate bars between every meal.  They could own the best digital devices on the market.  And they could update their Facebook profiles every five minutes.  But none of that is good for them, despite their misguided belief that it is, in fact, exactly what they need to find true happiness.

In my home, the screen is the dangling carrot for my kids, beckoning them the second that a sliver of boredom creeps into their consciousness.  ”Mom, can I play computer?”  ”Mom, can I play with your iPhone?”  ”Mom, can we play wii?”  I don’t enjoy saying no.  I really don’t.  However, in my efforts to teach them to entertain themselves as well as instil in them a sense of responsible use of time, I am forced to say no way more than they’d like to hear.

In return, I’ve received my fair share of unkind utterances from my boys.  The most popular among them is calling me the meanest mom they know.  I don’t take it personally, although sometimes it does sting just a little.  But my reward is seeing them outside playing games, skateboarding, bike riding, or building a fort in the woods when they could have been sitting in the basement staring at the screen.  All thanks to that little two-lettered word.  One day when they’re older, I tell them, they’ll realize that it was their reward, too.

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Family Battles Over Video Games

Sep 14

The kids' video game "cave"

There are various aspects about video games that irritate me, but the one that frustrates me most is their ability to create friction in our family.  While I have yet to personally experience that addictive tug that attaches one (for hours sometimes) to a video game, the effect is not lost on my three boys.

For anyone following my blog over the past six months, you may remember I implemented a video game ban in our household from Monday to Thursday during the school year.  Although not a popular decision among my kids, it helped prevent the daily battles over gaming and homework – the former always taking precedence with my kids over the latter.

With the school year back in full swing, the rule was freshly implemented.  Our first war over it took place two days ago when my 11-year-old son sparked up the Wii to play with his friend after school.  Um, remember that video game ban, son? My request to turn it off spiralled into mutterings about the “stupid rule” to angry accusations that I’m the meanest, strictest mom that he knew.  (I admit – I wavered between feeling proud and defensive about that title).  However, I did not budge from my decision, even as he berated me in front of his buddy.

The result? His friend was sent home (even though he’d only arrived ten minute earlier), my son was forced to sit in his room, and I was left stewing over the not so fabulous effect that video games have on family bonding.  Perhaps Nintendo or Microsoft might consider paying for family counselling to deal with our video game woes the way the Canadian government covers gambling addiction problems created by their casinos?

My story does, however, have a happy ending.  That very evening, my three boys asked to go to the local library.  By 8:30 pm, we’d returned home with a collection of 34 books that the kids had picked out.  Me thinks the trip to a library would never have transpired had the boys been playing Wii Wipe Out after dinner.

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Top Viral Videos: Kid-Friendly vs. Kid-Beware

Nov 16

The top 10 viral videos from the past 30 days (courtesy Marketing Vox) range from furry and kid-friendly to dark humour laced with violence.  It’s no wonder nobody can ever predict what will be YouTube’s most watched videos.  I plucked the two that would most interest parents and their kids. 

The first is a commercial for xBox video game Call of Duty: Black Ops.  It is rife with explosives, machine guns, hand guns and a plethora of similar weaponry.  I started watching this expecting to be horrified by the violence and steadfast in my belief that this game is not for kids.  In fact, I found myself laughing at the brilliance of the ad.  While I’m not a fan of shoot-em up games and have no immediate plans to include them in my children’s video game collection, this is a very funny video.  I’ve watched it twice now and can’t stop myself from laughing.  Curious, I asked my 10 year old son to view it since he is familiar with the game (although he has not ever played it)  The good news is that he did not “get” the video.  Not at all.  So clearly, the brilliant advertisers who created this piece have marketed it toward a sophisticated sense of humour – not to the 10 year old set.  He didn’t even beg for the game at the end of the video.  I’m impressed.  I give it 5 out of 5 stars.  Check it out for yourself and share your thoughts.

The second viral video is created by Sesame Street.  Clearly, very kid-friendly.  I am quite baffled as to how this video grew viral.  Yes, it’s cute and stars a favourite character from my childhood- Grover – but still…  My kids watched this video with me and didn’t get the point of it.  Frankly, neither did I.  I’ll have to give it 3 out of 5 just for cuteness and the playful poke at the famous Old Spice commercials.  Your thoughts?

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Not Ready to Play Shoot-Em-Up Games

Oct 16

Not Ready to Play Shoot-Em-Up Games

My kids accuse me of being mean fairly often.  I like to think it’s because I’m such a responsible mother.  I don’t cater to their every whim or open my wallet to every blurt that begins with “I want.”  But their accusations wear on me. 

“Just stop asking for so many things, and I won’t seem so mean,” I try to explain to them as they stomp off, rolling their eyes.  My no-reflex is most prominent when someone asks about video games.  The list of requests around this subject is always growing, my kids’ appetite for digital entertainment insatiable.  This, in turn, creates a never ending cycle of argument and compromise.  Sometimes the kids compromise.  Sometimes I compromise.  And, as I wrote earlier… It wears on me.

Today, I was bombarded with a plea that I’d never had to contend with before.  My ten-year old son has suddenly decided that he wants the game, Halo.  Since I’m not much of a video game follower, myself, I had only a few images and ideas relating to the game that floated about in my mind.  Something along the lines of violent, rated Mature, unsuitable for kids, blood.  Presumably I’d picked these ideas up through commercials, posters at stores, and the odd google ad. 

“No chance,” I responded instantly.

“But it’s so coooooool!” he pleaded, followed by a rambling of all the merits of Halo.  I realized that perhaps I was too hasty in my no-reflex and listened to his rant patiently.  Unfortunately for my kids, I’m never in the mood to buy them video games.  How many addictive games does one household really need?  And how can I get them excited about practicing piano when they have so many thrilling games to play in the basement?

I conceded to him that maybe the game isn’t that bad.  However, his friend was playing outside as we had this conversation and he was kind enough to admit that Halo is, in fact, rated Mature.  Still, my son would not give up.  “It’s not that violent, Mom.  There’s no blood.”

The more I told him that I didn’t want to talk about it anymore, the more he talked my ear off about it.  Until finally I said, “I will give you a definite answer after I research it on the internet.”

“Oh, you’re in trouble now,” his friend warned him. “She’s going to know it’s got blood!”

I started by reading reviews of Halo on Amazon.comAccording to many of the 86 comments, there is lots of blood and gore.  Alien blood and gore, that is.  One commenter says:

I played this game when I was 11 and laughed at the M rating, with green and purple blood and no real profanity also note you are not killing humans or anything resembling them. 

I suppose I should feel all right that the profanity is not real.  But I’m not sure what fake profanity is like.  And is it fair to think that killing digital aliens is more appropriate for a child than killing digital people?

Interestingly, when I looked up a family review of the game Halo Reach, Common Sense Media provided this:

Parents need to know that this adult game has been hyped by a massive advertising campaign that extends to normally kid-friendly establishments like Burger King and 7-Eleven. But the ESRB gave this first-person shooter game a “Mature” rating for violence for good reason. Throughout the game, players shoot aliens and humans using a variety of weaponry, and they’ll see vivid images with blood. And know that when the Halo games are played online, players can communicate — and curse — via headsets.

The level of violence is described as: gamers shoot aliens from a first-person perspective with the gun seen on the screen at all times (unless you’re riding in a vehicle or manning a turret). Blood that splatters can be alien or human. Weapons include shotguns, machine guns, bombs, grenades, turrets (for mowing down hordes of enemies in a flash), and special alien weaponry, including laser blasters.

Oh gosh, I’m not ready to invite shoot-em-up games into my kids’ lives at this point.  I think I would find it disturbing to observe my young boys’ exhiliration at blasting aliens with automatic weapons and cheering at exploding guts.  We’ll stick with Mario and Kirby for a while yet.  And, anyways, it turns out that Halo is only available as an Xbox game and we own a Wii.  So I’m off the hook for now.  But I’d better prepare myself for the Xbox request, because that is certain to come soon.

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