Video Games: Finding a Balance

I have a 10-year-old son who loves video games. He spends all his allowance money on video games and merchandise dealing with video characters. All he wants is video games for Christmas. I'm worried that these games are taking over our lives. I don't want to let my son down, but how can I add some balance to our lives?

Question:

Your son is living in a culture that is inundated with video games and other electronic toys, television, computers and the Internet, with glorified violence in each of these media. It is a very different world than the one in which most parents grew up. Trying to provide some alternatives to this media culture feels like swimming against a rushing tide. Many parents feel tempted to give up and give in, or worry that if they set limits, their children will ignore them or become alienated.

Parents, however, still have a great potential influence on the activities their children get involved in. Likewise, parents have a significant impact on the values their children are developing. The two most important tools you have are modeling and communication. Here are some things to think about:

  • Look at how your son spends his time. If your son's obsession with video games and characters mostly relates to how he spends his money, it is less of a worry than if his interest also dictates how he spends most of his time. Aside from the violent content, the problems with video games have to do with the fact that they take up time that could be used for other important activities.

During the course of a day, does your son have time to be physically active, to really play with friends, to read and do homework, to be creative -- using his own ideas and imagination? Does he have time to interact with the family? If there isn't a balance in his life, it is important to work on helping him find one.

  • Talk with your son about your concerns with video games. Often kids will say, "My parents don't like me to play video games, but never say why." Engaging in a two-way dialogue with your son about video games can give you an opportunity to learn about his fascination with video games, allow him to think about things that bother him about video games and also give you a chance to share your perspective. You may include things like:
  1. I'm concerned about the range of activities you get to do in a day. When you spend your free time playing video games, you don't get an opportunity to exercise, play active games or really be with your friends (when you play video games together, your attention is mostly on the game and only partly on your friend).
  2. I don't like the fact that so many video games are about people getting hurt, maimed, killed, destroyed or blown-up. I'm worried about what it is like for you to "play" with all of this violence.
  3. I'm concerned that the creativity in these games is already done by the designers and that the players just have to go along with the ideas, rules and vision of the creators of the games.
  • Set up parameters and engage his initiative. Rather than just saying, "You can only play video games for an hour each day," try listing with him all of the kinds of things you and he would like him to do each day. Then you could come up with a schedule you can both agree on about how much time he'll spend doing each activity.

In doing this, its important that your son gets a chance to have some say in the kinds of activities he commits to doing. For instance, you can set up the expectation that he will get some exercise and spend some time outside, but he could choose how he wants to do that.

At first, your son may only be able to come up with video games as his chosen activity. He may need some time and help in thinking of alternatives. "I know you want to play video games, and you will get some time to do that every day, but if there weren't any video games, what other kinds of activities would you be interested in?"

As well as setting up time parameters, you may also want to limit the kinds of video games you son buys and plays. Some are more appropriate than others.

  • Model the kinds of choices you would like to see your child making. Many of us spend long hours in front of computers, on the Internet, or in front of the TV, and then we wonder why our kids aren't more creative or physically active. If we engage in a continuum of physical and creative activities, our children will be able to see first hand how people enjoy spending time without video games. If you were to sew, knit, build, do puzzles, practice yoga, swim, play games, paint, cook, or garden in front of your kids, they might be drawn to join you.
  • Set up a new allowance system. The whole point of allowance -- offering children some choice and freedom and giving them an opportunity to practice budgeting, necessitates that we don't dictate how they use it. Several people have come up with variations on a system which allows children to have some money that they have total discretion over, and some that they choose to spend within a framework. For instance, if a 10 year old gets $5 a week, he could use $3 however he wanted, save $1 and he could chose a charity to spend his last dollar on. In your son's case, you would probably need to increase his allowance to cover the added expectations. This is one of the ways that we can transmit to our values about what is really important to us.
  • Work towards a balance with gift giving. Similar to the allowance system, you may want to give your son a specified amount of money or number of video related items for holiday gifts. Then you could tell him that you have "x" amount of dollars left to buy him other presents and you can ask him to come up with a list of things that he wants that aren't video game related. Some families aren't comfortable buying any video games as gifts. This is also a way to teach your values, but it is important that your child has some other access (thorough allowance or chores) to buying a limited number of them for himself.
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