But What If All The Kid Wants To Do Is Play Video Games?

This is like the cliched question about unschooling, right? And it’s been one of my big questions about homeschooling as well, inasmuch as Pseudonymous Kid does, in fact, want to do almost nothing but play video games, and I feel like 90% of my homeschooling energy goes into trying to figure out ways to actually get him to do anything else. It’s also a big parenting question (how do you get a kid to do his chores?) and a big question for formal education (how do you get kids to “buy in” or “apply themselves” or “do the work”?). It is, in a sense, the big question about raising kids, period, especially if you leave “video games” off the end of it. Though let’s be honest, in 21st-century America, video games is pretty much it.

The different answers pretty much depend on one’s educational/parenting philosophy, and run the spectrum from “make him” to “let him do it because after all he must be learning something.” I think it’s interesting that both the hard-ass authoritarian parents and the super-lefty hippie parents often wind up saying “don’t have video game consoles around,” but that’s by-the-by. The point is that whether you’re permissive, progressive, traditionalist, authoritarian, whatever, figuring out how to get kids to do stuff that you want them to do is kind of central. Come to think of it, it’s kind of central to our social lives as a species and to all relationships anywhere.

Anyhoo. I’ve figured out an answer, of sorts, and it feels like kind of a revelation. PK and I, as I said, struggle a fair bit over the video games issue and I’ve sloooowly realized that the real problem isn’t the games themselves: it’s that, one he starts playing them, he doesn’t want to stop. So that getting him to do anything else*–including things like “brushing his teeth” or “eating”–actually becomes really difficult.

But since gaming is so important to him, and because I really do not want to set up a dichotomy in which the thing he wants to do (gaming) is completely unvalued by the grownups whereas the things we want him to do (eating, personal hygiene, learning some math) are boring/areas of resentment/all Mama’s responsibility to ensure they happen–seriously, I do NOT want to spend major amounts of my time getting my 12-yo son to EAT, ffs–I’ve been trying heroically to figure out how to (1) get that other stuff to happen without having to be his externalized mind 24/7; and (2) how to explain why he needs to do other stuff in such a way as to get that “buy in”, i.e., so that he starts to understand, at least, why a certain amount of self-regulation is a good thing.

First I realized that yes; playing video games is FINE. I can see he values it; I don’t think he shouldn’t do it; I can see that he learns things from it, and so on. I do not want him to not play video games at all.

But I have realized that once he starts, it is very, very hard for him to stop. And that’s the real problem, so I think it’s a good idea to try to do some of the other things he needs to do–getting dressed, some math, eating breakfast–FIRST. And the final step, today’s big epiphany, was that the reason for this is not that those things are “more important”; it’s because it’s easier to STOP DOING THEM. Once he finishes breakfast, he’s done, and moving on to video games is easy for him. But getting him to stop a game in order to eat breakfast? is amazingly hard. At the end of a history lecture, I almost always ask if he wants to watch another, and he never does; he enjoys them, but once one is over, he also enjoys stopping (especially if it means he gets to play a video game now). At the end of a video game “scene” or battle or task, on the other hand, he never wants to stop, much as a kid who is an inveterate reader–as I was–will always want to read just “one more chapter”.

The revelation part is that this isn’t just an explanation designed to “get” him to do things my way; it’s actually TRUE. It is the reason why I want him to do what we call “the school stuff” first–in fact, it’s the reason why “school stuff” exists, period. It’s the reason kids have to be raised instead of just left to their own devices once they are physically coordinated to move and grab food and stuff it in their mouths. Hell, it’s the reason we have societies, period: because if we each of us do the things that we really, really love doing without anyone around to either remind us or help us do the stuff we don’t really love doing we would fairly quickly starve to death once the easily available food ran out. Or die of something silly and preventable, like not noticing that a predator was sneaking up on us or that washing our hands was a minor inconvenience that’s well worth taking the trouble.

This, then, is where I do depart from unschooling, at least of the radical variety. It’s why even though what we actually do on a day-to-day basis looks, as Pamela Price once jokingly said, “dangerously close to unschooling.” I think there is great value–especially, perhaps, for gifted kids*–in doing (and hence learning) things that don’t necessarily appeal to one’s interests. Because one’s interests, if one is really really interested in something, can actually be so consuming that they become impediments (think of the computer programmer who has a hygiene problem, or the writer who forgets to break for lunch, or the absentminded professor who constantly loses her keys–or for that matter, the devoted mother who realizes at the end of the day that she never got around to brushing her own teeth). There are things that are useful to learn that one might never get around to if one only followed one’s passions–and learning to do the things that are easier to quit first is a very useful life skill.

*This is maybe where the “gifted” thing comes in–he is driven enough by the things he’s interested in–in this case, video games!–that dragging his mind away from it is far, FAR more difficult than it seems like it should be. I won’t say more difficult than it would be with a “normal” kid, because I only have the one kid. I will say that I thought for a long time “he’s just spoiled, put your foot down” and tried that approach and it didn’t work for a lot of reasons: not having computers in the house is a non-option for us, because we are all computer people (ffs, I write and the husband is a computer programmer); massive huge fights every day, or several times a day, is also not an option and yes that is what it takes; and for better or worse, I have my own shit that I need/want to be able to do and do not want to have to be constantly monitoring to see if he is “sneaking” to play a video game every time I step outside to hang out a load of laundry; and most importantly, setting up a situation where our relationship revolved around my “making” him do things and “punishing” him for resisting made everything–his anxiety, our relationship, his ability to learn, our home life–worse instead of better.


20 responses to “But What If All The Kid Wants To Do Is Play Video Games?

  • Meagan McGovern

    Oh my God, yes.
    This is where I differ from the unschoolers.
    What you said, completely!
    If left to his own devices, my son Sawyer, who’s 12, would never come up for air. So, as of now, we don’t have a video game system in the house. Perhaps, when he gets a bit older, we will.
    But yes, we will limit it.
    Because I am one of those people, who, if left to my own devices, would never come up for air.
    And Sawyer doesn’t have a toddler to remind that it’s time to eat, or a husband to remind him that he needs to shower and be productive.

  • tedra

    @Meagan, yeah, this is also where the whole “realizing your own giftedness” thing that people write about comes into play–recognizing the way that PK’s video game obsession is a lot like my own writing/internet obsession (like I said, we’re computer people). It’s darn hard to “limit” it, though, as you’re saying, which is why I was so happy to be able to say to him (and have him understand and agree!) that it makes sense to do the things that are easier to step away from before you start doing the ones that are so much harder.

    Of course, that logic can also backfire, as with writers who constantly put off writing by trying to get everything else “done” first, but that’s a separate issue and one he doesn’t yet struggle with, at least not where gaming is concerned! Maybe if/when it ever becomes his job, though….

  • Tara C

    I have the same problem with my 6yo and my almost 13yo. I want to get my 13yo into learning about programming and how they “build” games (from the ground up). We are lucky enough to live near Full Sail University, one of the best schools for game development. I want to take her there one day to just let her see what they do. She would be happy being a game tester for the rest of her life. But I’m happy to say that she has come to me and said that she also aspires to be a nurse, a physician’s assistant, or a pharmacist. I think that comes from her life-long kidney disease and two transplants.
    We are “thinking” about sending our 6yo to a new Charter school next year as a trial run… First Grade. I was over the moon to hear that they are a STEM school and do their work as “unit studies”. He has to be accepted… there is a lottery next weekend to see if he gets in or not… If not, he stays home with me and I get to learn how to deal with him.
    I have the difficulty of having to learn how to deal with one with learning differences (the 13yo has dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia) and the 6yo is advanced and gifted. I have a feeling life is going to get VERY interesting!!

  • fien

    ooh we have the lego version of that (he’s not been introduced to minecraft yet otherwise …)
    and yes do “school” first and leave a large block of time at the end of the day (whenever that may be) for the obsession.
    and sometimes limit it severely: in my son’s case his behaviour degraded not just during lego time but all the time and a little breather seems to help him get a little perspective. like you say i don’t want to spend my time battling my seven year old and being evil mom and such. spot on!
    btw he’s making a castle with lego this week as part of our studying the middle ages, that helps :-)

  • Dorothy

    I have a similar problem with my son, who is 7. He LOVES computer games, especially Minecraft and Roblox. While I have done the “you must finish school before playing” it still led to a day full of “am I done yet?” and every time we had a 5 second break – “can I play now?”.

    We did two things – first we put a password on the computer so he can’t jump on first thing in the morning without me realizing (as you say, hard to get him off), second I told him there would be nothing except school computer activities until 4pm on school days (most weekdays). Except for a break for dinner, he will usually play until 7:30 when he gets after-dinner treat (easier to get him off when it’s for that), watches tv for an hour, then reads until 10pm. Weekends are pretty much a free-for-all.

    We explained to him that we understand he loves computer but it’s important to have some balance in his life too. So far it works pretty well. He spends a lot of time on the computer but he also reads, plays, goes to a couple of outside activities.

  • Lisa Phillips

    When asked yesterday why we have to do school at all, I had to come up with an answer for my 13 year old, who would rather play video games all day like yours. I resorted to the “do our work first, then play later” Puritan work ethic mantra, for lack of a better answer. We talk about balance, healthy lifestyle, being flexible, having opportunities and taking advantage of them….all of which fall on deaf ears, or so it seems. I hope all the energy and time he is putting in will produce the results he wants later in life. Since we didn’t grow up in the same environment, it’s hard to know. Half of me embraces unschooling, allowing for creativity and inspiration and spontaneity, with a few lessons thrown in for good measure. The other half is driven to be productive. It’s a battle of the wills just within myself, not with him. Most days I give more than I take, and am hoping it will all work out. Thanks for addressing this subject so frankly.

  • tedra

    @Lisa–sounds exactly like our (my) situation. Like you, I’m trying to find a way around the Puritan work ethic, not least because the “work=unpleasant stuff, play=enjoyable stuff” dichotomy seems so deeply neurotic.

  • Ingi (@ingidefygravity)

    Hearing you! And it’s not like the “work” we do for homeschooling is awful (I try really, really hard to make it interesting!) and 9/10 times they really enjoy it. But it needs to get done otherwise we would just get lost in a sea of Minecraft, anime and YouTube…

  • Aaron Potter (@TwoBodyProblem)

    I’m lurking here. My kids are much younger, but some of PK’s characteristics remind me of my 5-year old.

    If you wanted to be a hard ass about the computer games you could get a computer that’s good enough for writing but frustratingly slow for games. You would probably save money since gaming PCs are expensive compared to what you need for word processing, websurfing and the like. Your husband could put on a non-game friendly flavor of Linux for the operating system on his programming workstation.

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  • Katherine

    Jeepers but what about the fact that these games are highly addictive, lots of money is spent making them so? In Australia with younger school age kids we know the rule is often no screen time Mon to Thurs and set times Fri to Sun. yikes a strong argument against homeschooling older kids non if they are asking to play computer games all day ?! Get them off the screens and outside I say!

  • tedra

    @Katherine, I’m not sure what you mean by “addictive.” Certainly video games (like the internet in general) can be things that people become addicted to in a casual sense, and sometimes in a more clinical way.

    I would certainly like it if my son spent more time outside; but if you read older blog posts you’ll probably get a sense of the bigger picture. And to be honest, I spend a lot of time on computers myself, so….

  • tedra

    @Aaron, ah, but I don’t really want to be a hard ass (and the cat is out of the bag, anyway). We’re doing okay, I think, at achieving a bit more balance, slowly, over time….

  • tedra

    @Ingi, on the up side, minecraft is pretty educational, and all that youtubing about video games is teaching them about the benefits of research. Right?

  • womanunadorned

    What a good post! When my son was younger I used to deliberately put the games consoles onto the family TV – it meant if he wanted to play, he had to compete with everyone else (and the TV schedules) for screen time. It also meant he had to put up with anyone and everyone watching and commenting on his performance, and he wasn’t playing in isolation. We put the computer games on a computer in the front room for the same reason, and that automatically limited when it could be used. For us it was the isolation that worried us more than anything – he’s on the autistic spectrum – so we used to make a point of talking to him about what he was playing (fortunately he’s into strategy games, so those conversations made sense!). It’s only now he’s in his mid-teens and started playing regularly with friends that I’ve let him move a console into his own room. I have to say that playing computer games is a big part of later teenage social behaviour, especially amongst boys.

  • notonlytea

    I’ve been pondering how a child learns to have that self-control to stop playing that is so important as an adult. I don’t have children yet so this is just theoretical, but I’d love to be able to teach them that kind of self-motivation to get stuff done and I don’t know if that’s best done by leaving them to decide for themselves or by telling them when they can do things.

  • tedra

    @Womanunadorned–that sounds very like what I’m trying to do. I mean, think about ways to “use” his gaming to help him learn things that are important for him to learn. The social behavior is huge. My son isn’t on the spectrum, but he does have “issues” with socializing (result of bullying, plus giftedness). One of the things I’m noticing today, listening to him play TF2, is that it’s teaching him that male socialization thing of “good job dude, you’re a credit to the team!” Team- and groupwork have always been *anathema* to him, so yeah–if video gaming is teaching him to value that, I’m on board.

  • tedra

    @Notonlytea: the best book I know about motivation is Carol Dweck’s _Mindset_. My own philosophy is that, especially as kids get older, it’s important to let them have some freedom to make their own decisions; if the parent takes on too much of the role of telling them what to do, then they don’t need to self-monitor. This is especially concerning to me because my son is a boy, and I do *not* want to raise a boy who thinks that it’s the role of the women in his life to keep him organized, etc.

    That said, I will also admit that one mistake I’ve made as a parent was not teaching him more regular habits and norms when he was younger. There are a lot of reasons for this (the biggest one being that regular habits and norms are hard for me), but I do think now that if I had been more on top of some kinds of discipline and modelling work habits he’d probably be better at that. Also, b/c he has problems with anxiety, I think that I may have given him a little too much “responsibility” for making his own decisions too young–he tends to agonize and feel “guilty” a lot. But we’re working on those things.

    So anyway, yeah: my thinking is that for little kids, rules and norms are mostly good, but that as they get older–and my son is 12–it’s more important to lay out the options and the consequences you forsee but let them feel that they have some agency in making the decisions. Not least because not having that agency in kids this age can cause problems in your relationship with them.

    (And of course it all boils down to, in the end you and your kid are both individuals and will have to figure out how to negotiate this stuff yourselves depending on your own comfort levels with rules v. lack of same.)

  • notonlytea

    I will check out that book :) I’m with you on the self-monitoring in relation to bringing up boys – very important!

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    […] that’s a slippery slope. Buffalo Mama wrote a post a while back entitled “But What If All The Kid Wants to Do is Play Video Games?” It’s a core question in unschooling: what if something becomes everything? Well, I’m […]

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