By Katarina T. Conrad, PhD
Raising kids in an era when video games are so realistic, engaging, stimulating, and rewarding is a challenge our parents did not have to deal with. It’s true that they had to deal with other difficult issues, but multiplayer games like Fortnite present a whole new set of challenges.
I remember when my younger son, eleven at the time, was so into it that he wanted us to move to a different part of the country just for better ping (I’m guessing many of you are familiar with what that is at this point!). I also remember how hard it was for him to enjoy anything else. Even suggesting to leave the house for a couple of hours would be enough to set him off. Meals were usually eaten in a rush. And any interruption would feel like pulling his teeth.
He would make online friends that felt more real than his in-person friends. And how could he not feel that way when he got to talk to them throughout the week, bond over team games filled with excitement and strategy, and discuss personal life including living with parents who didn’t understand him. Any mention of forbidding him of ever playing again would send him into a panic, where he would feel sorry for himself that he would even threaten to kill himself.
I remember thinking, where did I go wrong in parenting him. My older son was nothing like that. He never cared for the multiplayer games. Minecraft and Space Engineers was as far as his interest in video games went back then.
My inclination at the time was to cut his computer cords, or give his computer away to charity. But both of those ideas seemed too radical for my cool headed husband. He said that if we were to do that, our son would never learn self-control. Reluctantly, I agreed.
So, how much was too much? Only on the weekends? Each day only an hour? No games for weeks? In each of these scenarios, we experienced little progress or apparent difference in behavior. I got increasingly worried and more agitated. He got more pushy and frustrated. We were caught in a tango of negative emotions, quickly spiraling into an abyss. According to him, I was “unfair” and “always assuming”, and to me he was “disrespectful” and “negative”, unable to enjoy anything other than his virtual world.
Fast forward two years. The two of us are sitting on a Sunday morning reflecting on those times. He was laughing about how silly and obsessed he was then wishing to relocate for that “stupid” game, as he refers to it now, a year after having not played it. “It was making me physically sick.” He recalls. “The pressure, the constant worry, my friends not playing fair, the money spent, was all making me feel terrible. So I just stopped playing, and I started feeling better. And besides, you were so convincing with all those documentaries you had us watch. C’mon mom, what kid watches this many documentaries!?” We both laughed.
This is about the same time when he joined the rest of the family in eating plant-based food. And I sure did have them watch many documentaries on health, fitness, spirituality, brain research, psychology, meditation, universe, planet Earth, ancient civilizations, modern day slavery; and the list goes on. In fact, we rarely watch Hollywood movies anymore.
The fact that my boys want to go to the gym with me, spend time eating and laughing together, talk about anything and everything with me, blows my mind. They laugh about my unorthodox style of parenting, imitating my voice and gesturing “cord cutting” with their hands. They give me hugs and thank me often for my meals, and efforts. The other day my seventeen year old hugged and thanked me for my commitment to spiritual growth. Say what!?
Yesterday, I stopped with my husband by my friend’s house to drop off a birthday cake for her thirteen year old daughter. When she found out that my husband and I were off to a date and that the boys stayed home to clean up the mess I made in the kitchen during the cake making, she was floored. I didn’t even mention to her that they also had to vacuum, sweep, and fold laundry. But, until she expressed her amazement, I did not think that it was such a big deal. But, now that I look back on the times when I felt exhausted from constantly playing the bad guy, I smile in agreement. It is amazing.
But if you ask me what did I and my husband do differently to help them learn self-control and balance, it would be:
1. Quality over Quantity.
Spending more quality time with them. This was an eye opening one. I still remember the day my younger son told me through tears that he would never need to play video games if we were more available for him. This was the time when both my husband and I were starting our businesses and when we weren’t working we would be thinking about work. So, learning that it is not about the amount of time but the quality of time that matters more was hugely important. This is backed by research that says that kids of working parents who spend quality time with them are happier and more successful later in life than those that stay at home with exhausted parents.
2. Be the Change.
Instead of trying to change your kids, change yourself. I realized that if I wanted my children to not be on their devices, I had to lead by example. And this was a tough one to face since I could run my entire business from my phone. Well, instead of depriving myself from the phone/computer use, I had to set boundaries for myself. No use of phones during meals, drives, walks, conversations, after certain hours and so on.
This one is a big one. It helped me become a better listener and not so quick to react or assume. It helped me become more present for them. It helped me clear my mind and see what was important and what wasn’t. It helped me let go of judgement and control.
It takes little effort to boss around, but lots of patience to teach a child. When I am really present, there are so many opportunities for teachable moments. Many times we don’t have patience to talk to our kids, we just want them to do what we ask without them questioning it. But, this creates pawns and followers, not independent thinkers. Most of the time when I feel impatient and bossy is when I am exhausted and have little energy left. To change this, you have to take care of yourself. That is why I don’t compromise my time for wellbeing. Getting a good night rest is a must. Eating a nutrient dense plant based food is another. I exercise, read (educate) and meditate daily. I meet my girlfriends weekly. I get a massage monthly. Do whatever you need to do to recharge your batteries. But sleep, healthy food, exercise and spiritual growth should not be compromised.
5. Teach balance.
Remember we want to model the behavior we want to see in our kids. When they see you take care of yourself, when they see you at peace, when they see you well balanced, when they see you respectful, when they see you appreciative and accepting, then they too are likely to model the such behavior. But it starts with us. Not them.
6. Break the cycle of resentment.
Honesty and truth hurts. Reflecting on the things we need to change can hurt. But, it must be done. Otherwise, our need to control and bark orders will create resentful adults who will rarely call you, or ever want anything to do with you. One time I asked my husband if he was sad any time he thought of his deceased father. He said no. He wasn’t sad, he just missed his dad. He considers himself blessed that he had a great relationship with his dad and that he never harbored any resentment towards him. Many of us are not so lucky. So even if some of us didn’t have a perfect relationship with our parent, we could change that for us and our kids. It’s not too late. The effort we put in now would pay off in the wellbeing of generations to come. We can still break the cycle of fear, resentment, anger, grief, blame, and exhaustion. Let it stop with us. Let go of each of those heavy emotions one by one like a toddler lets go of her helium balloons. Because we are all meant to live our lives to the fullest. We all poses a divine spark. We all possess love and peace. It’s inherently ours. It’s the god like in us that shines. So let it shine! Let us put more effort in changing ourselves and watching our kids thrive.