Mar 02

I have a varied past in how I’ve dealt with video games in my household of three boys. By varied, I mean I used to have a slew of threats that I would yell at various times during the day at any one of my boys when they could not pry their glazed eyes from a screen. I was regularly exhausted and emotionally spent from the constant effort I exerted in trying to tame the digital beast that could hypnotize my kids to ignore all sounds emitted from their mother’s mouth.

Over the past year, I have experienced a major change in how I deal with my kids and the digital barrier between us. I came to recognize two important truths. The first of those was that technology never moves backward. That is, screen technology – and all the unsavoury habits that come with it – is here to stay. It didn’t matter how much I wished it away, digital tech was not going to suddenly disappear from our lives. Once I accepted this, I changed my strategy from trying to deny its growing influence in our family to trying to work its existence into our lives in a way that could actually benefit us (or at the very least, not tear us apart).

The next truth, and the more important of the two, was learning the true definition of listening. Ironically, it was a marriage counsellor who taught me how to listen. I soon discovered that it requires far more effort than I’d ever thought. After practicing this intense attentiveness with my husband (which requires a post all its own), I transferred my nascent skill to the relationships with my children.

What, you may be wondering, does this have to do with technology? The answer is simple: a disproportionate amount of our family rivalries were focused on how we related to the screen. The kids were playing too many video games, I was fighting with them to turn it off, I was on my laptop when they tried to chat with me, I was worried they’d be exposed to “bad things” online. All these scraps converged into an upheaval of continuous frustrations. We each craved our screen time on our own terms, and yet we’d never sat down to think about why or how it was affecting us, much less talk about it.

Communication – that is, face to face communication – was non-existent. Ironically, the need to listen to one another is more essential than ever in the digital age. For example, it helped me share my concerns about the dangers of the internet, which in turn helped my kids be more careful online, which of course led to fewer frustrations. As a screen-obsessed society, parents need to be that much more cognizant of their efforts to verbally talk and quietly listen (not interrupt) while looking at one another (not the TV, laptop, or iPod screen). Listening, I’ve learned, does not count when one person is distracted by a YouTube video of piano-playing cats.

I finally implemented a no-video game rule from Monday to Thursday after discussing my reasons with the boys. They begrudgingly accepted it. The cutbacks on video gaming then freed up time for my boys to talk to me about their day. I also make a conscious effort to stop rattling at my keyboard when one of my sons walks into my office to talk to me. I turn from my screen and listen to his latest announcement. I’ve realized that the topic doesn’t matter. What matters is that he knows I am interested. I am listening.

The screaming and threats that once echoed against the walls of our home have diminished (not disappeared, I’m no saint) and I am working harder than ever at carving out time to discuss any number of issues that we struggle with regularly – from squabbling at bedtime to spending too much time texting friends. The point is: kids will talk if they know their parents will listen.

The prevalence of social media provides parents and kids a new way of communicating. However, we need to beware of our reliance on these platforms. The now famous video of a dad shooting bullet holes into his daughter’s laptop provides a cautionary tale for families who allow the one-sided communication of social media to voice their frustrations. Granted, if the daughter had openly voiced her grievances (whether they were valid or not) she’d likely have found herself in trouble anyways (and I don’t think there’s much reason to believe that their father-daughter relationship is grounded in honest and open communication), but perhaps they’d have had a better chance of resolving their problems within a day than in a drawn-out fiasco that involved millions of viewers worldwide. That’s the power of listening.

The reality is that parenting is hard, freaking work. Adding a digital component that tends to loosen, rather than tighten, the ties that bind only adds to the difficult task that we parents face every day. That’s why I am a firm believer in the practice of listening. I say start young, while they still love to share their ideas and experiences (however silly and seemingly unimportant). I’m hoping that as my oldest son heads into his teens (gulp), he will not stray too far me. And, maybe, just maybe, when I feel like smashing his iPod to pieces, I can gently share my feelings with him before listening to him explain why he so desperately needs to check his texts every ten minutes.

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Are You the Perfect Mom I Thought I’d Be?

Dec 01

I used to be very judgemental of other people’s kids.  At least, before I had my own three kids.  I’d sniff my nose indignantly when a mom pulled a screaming kid through the grocery store.  In church, I’d steal exasperated glances at the parents with the restless children who hit eachother and crawled under seats.  I’d condemn any family that welcomed video game consoles into their households.  

“I’ll never let my kids do that,”  I’d say with the conviction of a hairdresser sworn to lighten dark roots.

Then I had kids.  Three raucous boys who threw my ideal image of motherhood to bits.  As it turns out, my kids aren’t quite as perfect as I’d planned them to be.  They fight.  I yell.  They break things (a lot of things.)  I rant.  They ask for candy everywhere we go.  I say ‘NO!’ (most the time.)  They beg to get video games.  I cave in. 

Oh, it used to hurt to admit that my kids played video games.  I really wanted to be that mom who could stand firm against the tide of digital technology.  In fact, it was a long and exhausting battle that lasted for a few years.  The kids always wanting more video game freedom, and me always wanting them to have less.  We  have finally found our balance.  They get to play a few hours per week and I have made with peace with the fact that we are a video game-friendly household. 

It was during my “battle” that I decided to write Danny in a Newfangled World (my new chapter book for kids.)  I knew I wasn’t the only mom out there struggling with her kids’ online and video game playing habits.  I decided that it made more sense to stop fighting the inevitable digital bombardment of the North American household, and instead, figure out a way to help kids understand the challenges of this brave new world, albeit in a fun book for kids.

As I attend fairs and signings to sell my book, I come across the odd parent who is still able to sniff indignantly at “those kids.”  You know – kids like mine… Kids like the ones I used to look down upon.  When I say this is a great new book for kids who’d rather be playing video games, they respond: “My child doesn’t really like video games.”  Oh, I always think silently.  One of those.  I want to tell them that the book isn’t just for video game crazed kids (every book needs a fun by-line!)  but for EVERY kid who ever goes online.  If I do manage to get those words out, the parent and child have usually wandered away before I finish my sentence.

I feel a pang of jealousy.  How did she manage to stop her kids from playing video games?  Isn’t that the mom I was supposed to be? 

No.  It’s not the mom I’m supposed to be.  That’s just the mom I thought I would be.  But I’d been wrong. 

 My kids aren’t always the best behaved kids in the room, but they’re still pretty fantastic.  And my house isn’t a digital-free haven loaded with wooden toys, abacuses and classic books (we do have a few of those, though.) 

Over the past few years I’ve learned to embrace the digital age for myself and, in the process, allowed the digital age to be a part of my kids’ lives too.  After all, virtual reality is almost as much a reality these days as, well, reality.  Kids will be online whether parents allow it or not.  If not at home, then at school.  If not at school, then at friends’ houses.  Better they learn healthy habits here at home than at someone else’s house (or on someone else’s mobile device.) 

And if you’re the mom that I thought I’d be, well, just don’t judge me too harshly.

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The Kids Can Go Online, As Long as Mom Can Snoop

Oct 05

Kudos to those parents out there who maintain a screen-free household.  I admire them, even if that admiration is tinged with resentment.  I’m sure that they would look down on a mother like me, who eventually succumbed to my kids’ relentless begging to play video games.  But based on the latest research on kids’ habits, there can’t be many families out there who are capable of shutting out the latest gaming technology.  Check out these facts from The NDP Group:

  • Kids are most likely to turn into more serious gamers between the ages of 6 and 8 years old, when their video game playing time increases dramatically.
  • 82% of kids in the U.S. between two and seventeen years old (55.7 million kids) are gamers, that is, they regularly play video games. 
  • Of these gamers, 9.7 million are between the ages of two and five years old, while 12.4 million are between nine and eleven years old.
  • Over half of all kid gamers play games online and are more inclined to be males between nine and fourteen years old.
  • With the advent of handheld devices, the ability to download entertainment from the internet is exploding.  Seventy-five percent of iPhone and iPod Touch users connect to the Web to download entertainment content and apps.  As more children come to own such devices, they will be increasingly exposed to internet content.

Raising kids in an electronic-free environment seems close to impossible when one considers these statistics.  And yes, that helps alleviate my guilt over buying my kids the latest Wii game so they can play for three hours straight in the basement (that’s only on special occasions, by the way), but more than that, it confirms my belief that parents can better serve their children by allowing them to grow comfortable with digital technology than by blocking it completely.  Whether we like it or not, our kids will grow up ever-connected to a screen.  My boys are still young enough to not be too bothered by  their snooping mom looking over their shoulders every time they go online.  They still recognize that I know more than them about the world and my advice is still welcome.  When they hit their teens, I’ll still know more than them, but they sure won’t believe that anymore. 

So, better they learn internet protocol from me (while they’re still young) than years later from some badass 13-year old who wants to show off the “coolest web sites” – as long as no teachers or parents are around.

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