Seeing Video Games as a Passion not an Obsession
My homeschooling journey has continuously given me many opportunities to shift how I view things related to learning. One of the bigger shifts has been that of seeing Jason's huge interest in video gaming as an "obsession" to instead seeing it as a "passion."
I think that we often have pre-conceived notions as to whether a passion is a "good" one or not and if we do not feel that it is worthwhile, it is easier to label it as an "obsession." I realized that I had to ask myself...if Jason wanted to practice an instrument "all day" or wanted to be a competitive gymnast or skater and practice for many hours a day, would I have a problem with it? These types of passions are valued in our society. Playing video games is not.
When you add to that the fact that video game playing can, especially when kids are younger, have more, shall we say, challenging aspects, it can be easy to understand why many parents find it easier to just completely limit gaming and be done with it. I am glad that I was able to realize that gaming was something very important to Jason and I am glad that I did not simply write gaming off but rather helped him figure out how to handle the strong emotions and reactions that came along with his gaming.
Starting when Jason was around 5 or 6 until he was around 8 or 9, we did the whole "radical unschooling" thing with video games and I did not restrict them at all (other than age appropriateness). I learned a lot about how he used them and what he got out of them. I could see that rather than being a passive thing, they completely engaged him on so many levels. They taught him perseverance (which should definitely not be discounted when it comes to a perfectionistic kid who typically "gave up" when things got hard) not to mention, the amount of problem solving required was incredible.
Video games were also a huge learning opportunity for dealing with frustration. I think that often as parents, our first impulse is to just restrict/ban the games when our kids get overwhelmed playing them. Especially if we don't completely get them or value them (to the same level we might value other more "educational" activities.) It takes more time to help our kids deal with that level of frustration.
There were times when I had to enforce a "time out" from the games because he would get so wrapped up and frustrated. He had many video game inspired melt-downs. Playing at times resulted in a "poor attitude" on his part (especially when asked to stop playing when in the middle of something important). Yet these more challenging times also were times where he learned so much about managing his emotions and reactions. He eventually learned that sometimes it was good to go outside and jump on the trampoline until he calmed down or that by taking a break and coming back he often could get past what was frustrating him. He learned to be a better judge of how he was feeling and started getting better self-control. All lessons that serve him well as he gets older.
It was definitely a process and there were definitely times when his gaming made my life much more difficult because I kept having to help him deal with it. But it was worth it in the end. Now at 15, he is much better at handling his frustration. There is such a HUGE difference between his ability to self-regulate at 8 and at 15 (which I am grateful to see since it was something that I really worried about when he was 8.)
I also will say that our time radically unschooling helped me see that all his gaming time was not equal. He tends to be one of those kids who "likes to be entertained" and often the computer became an "easy" way to not be bored. At times he would get on the computer just because it was there and it was easy. This is another area where I have had to be more collaborative with him. We talk a lot about "balance" and how there is always another and another and another game. Not that this is a bad thing, but just that there is something to be said with being satisfied with what you have rather than constantly pining for the "next great thing".
What I have found works for our family is that we do have time during the day when we turn the screens off (this is as much for me as for them, as I can easily lose a day online). It is part of our family culture, not something that is specifically for the kids. What I think makes a big difference for us is that the kids know that I completely value their gaming time. And I do my best to give them ample time to play (especially with a new game.) We talk about things when I feel like we (as a family) are out of balance. And I do encourage my kids to expand their horizons and try different things. So it is not all or nothing and we try to figure it out as we go.
One thing that I try to keep in mind is that right brained kids are *passionate* people. They need their creative outlets. They are also process oriented people (as opposed to product oriented) which is what gaming is all about. Jason has gone through many different passions, but when he was 8 or 9, the only thing that I could really identify was gaming, which would have been easy to dismiss. I'm glad that I did not, because I can see where it has led and why it is so important to him. For him, it is the world creation that appeals to him...the immersing himself in the game. The experience. His gaming has directly led him to a huge interest in history as well as role playing games like D&D (he devours the manuals and participates in 2 active RPG groups).
I could write a book about what he has "learned" from being allowed to immerse himself in his interests, even when they did/do not seem academic. But I have come to realize that it is not just about the practical stuff he is learning but about about being able to experience what it is like to be completely immersed in something that he loves. I have no idea how his gaming and RPG experiences will translate into his adult life, but I have to think that learning that it is ok to completely love what you are doing and what that feels like will serve him well.
I have found that in exploring my own feelings about this that I am a bit uncomfortable with this idea of "doing what you love" and immersing yourself completely in something. So often I received the message growing up that this was not something that you should do. I was the kid who "read too much." School insisted that I be good at all things and if there was something that I was not good at, that is where the focus went. Things that came naturally or easily were discounted because learning should be "work." Not to mention that there were judgments all the time...things were "educational" therefore had value. "Uneducational" things did not and were a "waste of time". Of course many right brained interest areas tend to fall into the less valued camp (just look at what is the first to go when schools cut budgets...art, music, theater, PE etc).
That said, of course there are practical considerations...we can't always do what we want all the time. But what if, instead of restricting our kids gaming time, we can work with them to figure out how to feed the passion while not completely losing themselves? It took some time, but Jason gets that now at 15. We don't argue over his computer time anymore and as he got older he has started being more intentional about his playing time, noticing when he needs a break or has been playing a lot. He has, dare I say it, matured.
I don't consider ourselves "radical unschoolers" and I have found at times that my kids need my help to set limits or to help push them out of their comfort zone. Jason especially just has an all or nothing personality which craves entertainment. But I do feel that it is possible to value our kids interests and passions even if we do not always let them have free reign in everything. It is not an all or nothing thing (I have heard it implied that if you value freedom, you will have no limits...if you have limits, you must not value your kids interests or trust them). Some kids are good at self regulating (especially if you let them go overboard), others need some collaboration in this area. And that is ok too.
I have also found that interest in gaming can be very different for different kids. Kyle also enjoys gaming, but for him it is less about the challenge of the game and more of a social thing that he does online with his friends. I see gaming less as a passion for him and more as something fun to do. Whereas for Jason, it is a bit more.
I will admit that there are days when I play the "what if" game and wonder what Jason has "missed out" on because of his gaming. But I can also see what he has gained because of it. There is no way of knowing "the path not taken." I do know that we took this path because I could see how much value it had and how important it was to him. It may not be the right path for all kids or all families, but looking back it has been a good path for us.