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.