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In the two previous posts, I began exploring the question of who knows what’s best for a child. Stories about “safe” playgrounds, tooth brushing, reading Tintin, and money management provide context for examining the question within a familiar context. Here’s more context.

When my son was a toddler and preschooler, he had frequent play dates with a little girl of the same age. I made a pact with my friend—her mother—that we adults would stay out of our children’s conflicts, giving them time and space to figure out their own solutions. We would interfere only if they started hitting each other. It was excruciating sometimes to overhear yet resist the urge to referee their arguments. Before long though, we felt grateful that we had kept our pact, because our kids quickly became adept at working out conflicts and returning to happy, engaged play.

spinning kids

It was natural for them to figure out problems themselves, which enhanced their internal sense of capability and power—and neutralized any feelings of victimization. Resolving conflict to the satisfaction of both parties was simply a part of the experience of playing together. There were no grudges, no keeping score, no shaming. In fact, I often felt humbled by the smart and simple solutions our two children developed. Many times, I thought of solutions that seemed great, but what they came up with was best because they knew better than anyone exactly what was needed in that moment to regain equilibrium and harmony.

Now, whenever I see parents or teachers inserting themselves into children’s arguments and imposing “fair” or “safe” outcomes, I feel exhausted and sad. More than a waste of energy, it is usurpation of power. When trusted to be problem solvers in real time in their own lives, children become adept at collaborating and creating elegant and mutually satisfying solutions.

Many parents limit their children’s access to sweets or screen time. Often, I have witnessed that kids who want  things that are forbidden come to crave those things. By contrast, my child and other children I worked with at The Clearwater School, who did not have sugar or screen time limits imposed on them, regulated themselves over time and created a balance that was enjoyable but didn’t interfere with other things they considered important to their health and enjoyment.

“Over time” is the operative phrase. It is terribly difficult to watch one’s child eat a lot of candy when we know other foods are more nourishing to a growing body. One boy who attended The Clearwater School was crazy for candy and sugary snacks. His mom was at her wits end, because multiple attempts to restrict sugar and lots of lectures about why sugar wasn’t good for him seemed to only intensify his sugar craving. She decided to allow her son the freedom to eat sugary foods without restriction, even though she continued to tell him about her concerns. It did take time, but her son discovered that he felt better when he ate more nutritious foods and less sugar. He learned to respond to what his body was telling him about his energy needs and eating frequency, which dampened his sugar cravings and made other foods more satisfying. He got to the point where he ate very few sugary foods. His experience was a powerful example of why children need to be responsible for making choices about their lives.

The tricky thing is to give up control over the outcome. Is it abdicating responsibility to let kids eat as much sugar as they want? Can I live with my child’s diet choices that are not as healthy as I want them to be? Why would anyone choose to eat healthy food when junk food is everywhere? My son exclusively ate hot dogs and fish sticks for a long time. He really hated almost all vegetables and ate few fruits. It wasn’t until he was around 12 that he became curious about other foods and began a years-long process of exploring food. Recently, he commented that now he even eats celery even though he used to hate it. His food tastes are incredibly broad and sophisticated, and he is also a creative cook.

One of my nieces ate cheese pizza and cheese quesadillas pretty exclusively for years. Both she and my son continued to grow and have lots of energy to play and engage in their favorite activities. Their food choices were not the ones I would have chosen for myself or them, but, in time, they each discovered and enjoyed a rich world of food. The responsibility and freedom to experiment with and balance competing desires, needs, and personal well-being is each individual’s birthright. Hijacking that is a form of violence. Each individual’s decisions and choices will vary and shift over time.

My son was not a person who craved or ate many sweets, but he loved playing computer and video games. It didn’t bother me when older boys at The Clearwater School played hours of video games, partly because they weren’t my kids, but mostly because they didn’t turn into zombified teenagers who only wanted to sit in front of a screen. They continued to be lovable, smart, thoughtful, and often helpful human beings who also knew how to play and interact with people when they weren’t in front of a gaming TV or computer. Yet, I felt anxious when my son fell in love with gaming. I wondered if it was bad for him to spend so much time every day playing video games. He started out with games like Age of Empires, a strategy game with a historical setting. When he played, it was obvious that his brain was incredibly busy and engaged in figuring out how to solve problems and achieve the objectives of each game.Those factors made his early games feel less scary to me.

As time went on he added violent first-person shooters and fighting games to his repertoire. Those felt more problematic, especially because of arguably hysterical articles about the dangers of video games, violent ones in particular. I was somewhat skeptical of the fear-mongering around video games largely because of my own screen history.

When I was growing up, there were lots of warnings about the dangers of children spending too much time watching violent cartoons and other TV programming. As an adolescent especially, I watched a lot of TV, with and without my family, from sitcoms to dramas to violent police procedurals. I laughed, cried, and talked with family and friends about shows that mirrored my experiences or that commented on popular or political culture. I don’t agree with popular wisdom that watching TV is a passive activity, because it has never been passive for me. I enjoyed the comedy and cultural commentary in TV shows, and found many plots and story lines intriguing and thought provoking. Plus, popular culture is popular because it is shared by thousands or millions of people, who then have a common touchstone. It is impossible for me to watch TV shows or movies without pondering, analyzing plots and character motives, and creating context for what I’m watching. If a show has nothing to offer me, I just don’t watch it.

As for violent video games, the media is full of reports from pundits and psychology professionals that warn that video game players, especially young ones, are unable to tell the difference between in-game and real-world violence. I vividly remember a conversation I had with my son and some of his gaming friends not long after the Columbine  shooting. Early news reports mentioned that the shooters played Doom , and hypothesized that such games were partly responsible for the shooters’ behavior. My son and his friends, who were 9 and 10 years old, had not heard about the Columbine shooting and were confused by claims that violent games could have caused such horrific behavior. They all said that they knew games were not real, and that the shooters must have had deep problems to be able to shoot real people. Their perspectives about the shooters’ deep-seated problems were borne out ten years later in the book Columbine, (public library) by journalist Dave Cullen.

From my own early reactions to in-game violence, and those of other adults, it became clear to me that we adults are the ones who have trouble distinguishing between between violence in video games and the real world. Because many of us don’t play the games, we assume that the meaning we make when we see our children killing characters on the screen is the same meaning they are making. We don’t understand that they are playing—with pixels and software. They know it’s pixels and software. The fantasy nature of game violence allows children the freedom to safely explore it.

Violence of many kinds is a huge part of our culture. Games and other forms of popular culture play with and comment on it. We can wish the world were different and try to shield our children from the violence that is woven into the American fabric, but no amount of wishing or trying to hide it will stop it from leaking into our children’s experience of the world. Playing with fantasy violence can help all of us deal with anger, anxiety, sadness and feelings of helplessness. For those with an interest in understanding more about how pretend violent play is helpful and cathartic for children, I recommend Killing monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence, (public library) by Gerard Jones. A few years ago, I wrote a piece defending electronic games in The Clearwater School’s newsletter.

What ultimately helped ease my anxiety was to play some games with my son and spend a lot of time sitting beside him and learning as much as I could about video games by watching him play. I learned that games are really hard and take a lot of practice, resiliance, and intelligence to play well and eventually win. My son loved being able to talk about games with me. When he got stuck in a game and his frustration peaked, if I had the time, I sat next to him and silently rooted for him to figure it out. It was striking to me how often he was then able to solve the problem and move forward. He rarely complained about needing to interrupt his game play to go somewhere or do something different, as long as I allowed him the few extra minutes he needed to get to a good stopping point.

When I stepped out of my fear, even momentarily, to trust my son’s ability to navigate the world of electronic gaming, to make sense of each game’s world view and narrative, and to prioritize his time and activities, I discovered that he was more than up to the task. In addition, his years of gaming taught him about good storytelling, what elements make games fun (or not), and the value of persistence and creativity when facing a thorny problem. He became a very skilled player. As an adult, he finds it relaxing after a work day to play video games sometimes with friends, or strangers online. He enjoys engaging his brain in a familiar and challenging form.

Watching my son’s happiness and satisfaction in mastering a difficult medium, and observing that gaming only increased his innate creativity and curiosity, gave me the confidence to keep trusting him—and other children—and relying on his innate capacity to explore and engage the world and decide what was best for himself.

Next time, I’ll wrap up this series with some of my current thoughts and questions.