Dear Dr. Mark,

My in-laws are raising the child of one of their daughters. I'm her aunt, but I act as a "sparent" - spare parent - and am actively involved in her life. She is almost six, and has ADHD but it is controlled with very moderate amounts of medication and what I call "smart parenting" - knowing how to redirect when she obsesses over things, as well as keeping her on schedule with sleep and eating well.

I spend a lot of time with her, helping with homework, swimming, biking, watching movies, reading books, drawing, playing dress up, guitar or piano lessons. But we also and most regularly play video games. It's a motivator - she must get good conduct at school, finish homework, eat vegetables at supper, take care of her dog, do chores and control her temper to get an hour and a half of gameplay during the week - three on Saturdays and Sundays. It starts after supper and ends at snack-and-story time. She has since made a vast improvement in her grades/conduct in school. She is also self-identifying as a smart kid due to figuring how to win games - we play platformers like Warioland Shake it, puzzle-based games, sims like Animal Crossing, and light RPGs like Pokemon: Pearl.

However, anytime I talk about how we play video games to non-gamers (and even some gamers), they express varying levels of shock, distaste or outrage, saying that a kid her age a) shouldn't be exposed to game violence even if it's jumping on a Goomba, b) should be more focused on imaginative play, or c) that it's ruining her ability to function socially. I'd feel a lot better rebuffing them if I could get a second opinion from you, because frankly, sometimes I do worry that she focuses too much on gaming - though she's extremely talented at making up her own stories at story-time, reads above her grade level and knows math better, I think, for having played games where she is encouraged to solve puzzles and complex equations - especially in Pokemon, sometimes it's like calculus with cute animals! But she still does obsess - and I don't know if it's the addictiveness of games (read: something to be concerned about) or simply a side effect of being ADHD (read: something to tolerate). How do I know if I'm walking this fine line right?

First, let me say how lucky this girl is to have you in her life! Having an aunt like you could make all the difference in how she turns out, especially given the potential complexities of being raised by her mother's parents. You have outlined a virtual textbook of how to raise an active, rambunctious, and energetic child, ADHD or not. You are helping her develop good work habits by building structure in her life, and you are encouraging her to be imaginative, creative, and varied in her interests. You are also promoting responsibility, healthy diet, and the value of exercise. Most importantly, you are just there for her--she has the opportunity for a close relationship with someone who clearly loves and cares about her, and I'm sure she will turn to you in times of need.

I play with many kids (my own and clients) each week. From the age of about five, the thing they most want to do is play videogames. They hear about it from peers and older kids. Its a kind of play that has deeply penetrated their culture and it isn't going anywhere. Some parents try to avoid this with young children by prohibiting it entirely, and you could make a case that there are plenty of other fun ways to occupy a six year old. On the other hand, I recently attended a concert given by one of my kids' school groups, and I was surprised to see, as the lights dimmed, so many little children with their heads bowed, looking down on blue-lit DS or smartphone screens playing games--probably to quiet them so their parents could enjoy the concert. It had a surreal quality, like there was a kind of prayer service for the young going on simultaneously with the concert.

Its clear to me that you see benefits for this particular child with selected and supervised gaming, and that you are trying to teach her how to integrate this into her life in a healthy way. This is well worth doing, in my opinion, because she will be growing up in a world where gaming will be everywhere. I have also seen situations where young kids who know a lot about gaming gain a certain social cachet because it is viewed as cool among peers and because they have something to add to the topic everyone is talking about (gaming). So in an odd way, this might help her develop social connections rather than ruin her ability to function socially.

I doubt the very mild violence in these games will do her serious harm, but I hope to address this issue in more depth in a future column.

I think you should keep an eye on the obsessing. It may reflect an over-valuation of certain games or of the gaming experience in general, and I think your goal should be to keep the menu as broad and varied as possible. Can you identify other kinds of games that she might also enjoy and come to see as a reward? There are so many clever word and board games out there for young kids. I think many parents would see this amount of videogaming as too much for a six year old, but I wouldn't be surprised if many six year olds have this much screen time (1.5 hours per day and 3 hours per day on weekends) in total. You might want to keep total screen time within these limits, be it TV or gaming.

Its wonderful that she loves to play--psychologists have been touting the importance of this, especially imaginative play, in child development for many years. If videogaming can be seen as enhancing, or at least being a part of imaginative play, rather than antagonistic to it, more professionals will support it as part of the menu.


Dr. Mark Kline spends most weekends traipsing around remote suburban Boston as a marginally attentive youth soccer spectator. Since recovering from a year-long intensive WoW habit, he sticks to computer Risk and casual word games, but is still trying to figure out why his children like The Sims.

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