Parents should be just as accepting and encouraging of their kids who play video games as they are of those who play sports.
Like with sports, studies are showing many benefits to youth playing video games (in moderation) such as: lowered depression, higher self-esteem, improved emotional regulation and fewer emotional disturbances. Children who play video games are also more likely to have better social and stress reduction skills.
Kids are better off emotionally when they do things they enjoy. Their brains are wired to avoid pain and engage in pleasurable activities. A child who finds quiet enjoyable and is scared of getting hurt will probably find sitting inside reading much more appealing than going outside to play soccer. A child who likes puzzles may find playing Legend of Zelda more gratifying than being on a swim team. Learning to challenge ourselves and try new things at a young age is still important. However, it becomes more meaningful when it is a challenge we have a vested interest in.
Children are also more likely to be happy when they are accomplishing things and feel as though they are excelling at what they do. Mastery over our environment is one of the most gratifying achievements in the human experience. Some children are not physically capable of competing in sports, and may have lowered self-esteem when they are unable to succeed. Allowing them the space to find something they are good at gives them a sense of mastery and greater confidence.
For the most part, games designed for kids are multiplayer games, which allows them the chance to learn to play with others. This is important in developing social skills as well as how to be a good winner and a good loser. As a child, I developed good sportsmanship not by playing sports, but by coming home after school and playing Mario Kart with my best friend. It was about fun, and not winning or losing.
I was reading Dan Siegel’s book The Developing Mind (one of the piles of books I need to read for grad school) and something jumped out at me. He said that when a child has a caregiver who shares their interest and excitement, and focuses their attention with the child on the object of interest, the child will feel seen and enriched. The child will thrive in the moment.
When a parent joins with their child in the child’s experience, the child learns that it is okay to enjoy themselves, and that they have someone to share it with. Their feelings become validated and real. They are happier and more confident.
There are two things to look at in how parents approach video games with children: whether or not the parents play themselves, and how conscious and accepting they are of others who play. I even broke it down into a little chart for you (I’m so proud of my chart making skills):
Those Who Don’t Play and are Unaccepting and Unconscious of Those Who Game
I had a co-worker who told me “Seriously? You’re still into that kid stuff?” when I told her I was going to Comic-Con. To me, she embodies the kind of person I’m about to talk about.
These people don’t understand at all. They are the parents who yell at their kids for wanting to stay inside and play video games. Those who ask their children when they’re going to “grow up” and quit playing. Those who just don’t get it and probably never will.
They’ve never played video games so the experience is something that they can’t fathom. It’s not their fault that they don’t understand, but they may have a lot of push back from their children when it comes time to put down the game and take care of business, or go outside. My co-worker (a loving and supportive mother) doesn’t understand that the way the boys we work with react when she takes away their X-Box is the same way she would react if someone took away her favorite book.
This ends up making kids feel bad about themselves for playing video games. They may end up with low self-esteem for liking to do something fun and safe that is looked poorly upon by those around them.
Those Who Play and are Unaccepting or Unconscious of Others Who Game
These are the individuals who grew up with games, love them, and can only see games as something they do. Video games aren’t for kids! They are the ones who have a hard time grasping the concept that the new Nintendo handheld system (the 2DS) was not meant for them, and that it was meant for young children. (Kudos to Nintendo for creating a more durable system that is less likely to damage children’s visual development, btw).
(Image via Wired)
These types of people may also see a lot of push back from their kids because of the “do as I say, not as I do” mentality. An example would be something like a parent buying a new game console for their child, then taking up all the time on the console for themselves, so that the child never has time to play. This would feel very unfair to the child. (Why not just play with them?)
I’m reminded of an episode of Full House where the youngest daughter couldn’t beat a level in a game she’d been playing, so everyone in the house ended up trying to beat the level. They end up becoming obsessed and passing around the controller to everyone but her, playing for hours. She eventually ends up getting fed up and pulling the plug on the system, not because she wants to play, but just to get their attention.
These parent may also be overly competitive with their children, or put them down when they aren’t succeeding. Sometimes they may push too hard for them to do well in a game (even though it may come from a place of love and wanting their child to achieve).
Those Who Play Games and are Accepting and Conscious of Others Who Game
This is the ideal situation. The parent can sit down with their child and play, encourage them to advance in the game. The parent understands the child’s frustrations or joys and can share in them. When it’s time to turn the game off, they understand the need to give a warning in order to give the child time to save.
In this scenario, game time is quality time together. Hopefully, this is where I fit in someday.
Those Who Don’t Play Video Games and are Accepting and Conscious of Those Who Game
Something has to be said for those who may not have the shared experience of playing video games, but still try. Being a good parent does not mean that you have to do everything your child likes to do, but it does mean encouraging them to succeed and doing what they enjoy.
These individuals work harder because the love of gaming does not come naturally to them, but they watch or participate because it is what their child loves. Showing a genuine interest in what your child is doing is a major piece of the puzzle.
You don’t necessarily have to play video games. A positive comment about something you notice about the child’s experience is enough. “Nice combo!”, “I’m glad you’re having fun” or “That game looks cool” work just fine.
Tying it all Together
Encouraging kids to do things they love is important for them to feel okay with what they are doing. We sometimes put a lot of pressure on our children to do the things we want them to do, or what we like to do. It might be easier to allow children their own experiences (within reason), while still encouraging them to try new things that we as parents would like them to do.
I’m not saying let your child sit in front of the T.V. with a controller all day long. Moderation is important with anything, especially video games. A time limit helps set boundaries and lets a child learn to work within a time frame.
I’m also not saying that going outside to play isn’t important. It is. It helps children gain the exercise they need and build their imagination. Building in a set time for playing outside also helps children set boundaries. Many video games (like World of Warcraft and the Nintendo Wii) also give reminders to put down the game and go outside. It’s all a balancing act.
The last thing I’d like to touch on is that this doesn’t just apply to children. We as adults also need to be joined in our interests. Finding a significant other or best friend who shares, or at least pays attention to, our interests is vital to feeling good about what we do and who we are. Often those in the geek culture wind up being teased and ridiculed for our hobbies and interests.
This is part of why I want to be a therapist who can allow these kinds of topics and activities in the office. It makes for a stronger therapeutic relationship and gives the individual room to be who they are and know that it is okay to enjoy the things they do.
So when your child tells you that they would rather be playing Super Smash Bros. instead of playing little league, think about letting them play for half an hour. Better yet, go play with them! (It’s all button mashing anyway.)
Besides, with the International Olympic Committee considering electronic gaming as a sport for the 2016 and 2020 Summer Games, you may have an Olympic athlete on your hands either way!