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Motherhood Matters: Video games are the messenger, not the enemy

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School is out and the computer is on. Now that my kids have more free time, the battle over the laptop is in full force. And no matter how many charts and plans we come up with, it’s always there: Please let me play. Please let me play. Please let me play. Why the incessant need to get on the computer? What is it about Angry Birds that holds my 4-year-old captive?

Recently I stumbled upon a blog post by Michael Robb and Junlei Li. They are part of the Fred Rogers Center, which promotes early learning and children’s media and, as the name implies, seeks to honor Mr. Rogers' legacy of respect, empathy and nurturing human connection.

You remember Mr. Rogers, right? The blue sweater? The changing shoes? The gentle wisdom? What would Mr. Rogers say about video games?

Well, the authors of the blog don’t quite answer that, but they did help me pivot my thinking a little. The authors explain that what a child really needs to feel is mastery, and “whether it’s tying a shoe, throwing a ball, playing marbles in the mud or mastering increasingly difficult levels of an electronic game, these experiences help a child feel competent.” They go on to point out that while I used to do things like flips on the trampoline to feel successful, my kids (whom I don’t allow to do flips; I know, the irony) do things like program “light bots” to feel successful. And is there really a difference?

They go on to explain that this feeling of success and the chance to “demonstrate children’s new talents and show friends, parents and teachers that they are good at something … (is) especially important for children who do not appear to be good at the things their parents and teachers want them to be good at (school subjects, for example).”

As I read this, some pieces started to fall into place. Perhaps that’s why my youngest, who is always playing catch-up in our family, is particularly vulnerable to the video game obsession. He just wants to show himself and everyone else that he’s really good at something, too.

I thought of this when I saw him fold and unfold a small box about 30 times. I’m not kidding. There was this small box that you had to fold in a very particular way to make it stick together, and he must have sat there and folded and unfolded it 30 times. I could not believe this is holding his interest for so long. But then I thought of Mr. Rogers and how he might gently remind me that what is really holding my son’s attention is not the cardboard but the competency. "I’m so good at folding this tricky box," his little brain must be saying.

Seen through this lens, video games aren’t the enemy as much as the messenger: My kids want to have opportunities to show themselves and others that they can master new skills. So how can I give them these opportunities outside of the laptop?

1. Let them cook. Nothing makes my children feel more grown-up and masterful than cooking a meal. And I mean, Mom, step out of the kitchen kinda cooking. It’s true my 4-year-old can’t do this yet, but my 10-year-old made her first batch of cornbread. You should’ve seen the grin on her face. My older son made us oatmeal for breakfast, and there was no whining about the computer that morning.

I remember that my mom used to let us loose in the kitchen. She’d tell us to invent a recipe and try something new. Looking back, I’m so grateful for that example. She let us feel competent and confident and trusted — even though nothing we made actually resembled a real recipe.

2. Let them handle grown-up tools. Along with cooking comes knives and hot pans and ovens and all sorts of things that we usually reserve for grown-ups. What if I step aside and let my children use them — safely, of course? What else do I tell them not to touch that, really, they could safely use with a little guidance and a lot of confidence?

3. Let them tackle grown-up problems. The other day, my vacuum cleaner belt came off, again, and instead of fixing it right away, I handed the screwdriver to my son (grown-up tool, check!) and let him have a try as I held the belt. He loved it and actually almost got it back on. It took four times as long, but thankfully, I’m never in a hurry to vacuum.

I wonder how far I could take this? Could I let my fourth-grader balance my checkbook? How can I invite them into the world of grown-ups a little?

4. Let them make a mess. Along with mastery comes a whole lot of mess. When my daughter was cooking and when my son took apart the vacuum, it wasn’t pretty or efficient. But, in the end, it was successful, and that’s what I want to keep in mind.

5. Let them have your attention. The blog post closed with this piece of advice: “Join children for a minute, for five minutes, for 10 minutes — whatever you can spare. Ask them to show you what they are doing, sit with them as they play, watch. You may get only glimpses of the underlying need that drives the outward behavior. Then, see if they would join you — or if you would join them — doing something else that may meet such a need without that particular piece of technology.”

I liked that idea. Watching my children play a video game, I get it. It feels good to blow up pigs and figure out the angle you need to sling-shot those little birds. And while I’m trying to help my kids feel mastery in the long-term (graduating from high school, learning an instrument, playing a sport), I know that we could all use a little short-term competency boosts now and then. So this summer, to lure them from the laptop, I want to give my kids a chance to show me, and themselves, what they can do. So let’s do it together. Can they cook brownies? Can they build a clubhouse? Can they pick out the Angry Birds Star Wars theme song on the piano? Who knows? I’m betting they can.

Question: How have you given your children opportunities to develop and master new skills?

Challenge: Try one of the five suggestions, and pay attention to how this activity changes your child’s overall behavior.

This article is courtesy of Power of Moms, an online gathering place for deliberate mothers.