Ever since my husband and I decided to have a family, I wanted to raise a geek, a gaming geek, preferably. We nurtured our little girl accordingly, giving her a huge D20 that she couldn’t swallow, letting her watch less violent games like Katamari Damacy (where her developing brain surmised that to play videogames, one must push the PS2 joysticks around and mutter “dammit” over and over again), and encouraging her to save up for her own Nintendo DS. A pink one.
And we succeeded. She’s into Pokémon, Lego Star Wars, Mario Kart, Plants vs. Zombies, and Ratchet and Clank. She loves games, comics, and can school anyone in boxing on the Wii. We succeeded!
However, we are aware of the need for reading, and outside play. So we keep media time (anything in front of a screen: television, computer, Nintendo DS, mommy’s iPod Touch) to a strict one hour per day on weekdays and two hours on weekends. Like any kid who would eat dessert first if allowed, she gets up early to spend all her free time playing her DS before we even get up. Luckily, we’re still in the honesty stage; she tells us when she’s out of media time.
It’s hard to raise a kid. Parents scoff at the use of the TV as a babysitter, but we’ve all done it. I have a friend whose child wasn’t as verbal as the pediatrician thought he should have been at age 2, so she suggested a little bit of TV, and Elmo actually encouraged the kid to start talking. Any stay-at-home parent knows that spending the day playing, loving, and stimulating your perfect little flower is as much of a dream as a car without graham crackers ground into the seats. There are things to do, a house to keep, and adults to talk to so that your vocabulary isn’t reduced to “cookie,” “doggie,” and “NO.” So, we’ve used the TV as a sitter; we just try to impose limits on the glowing, flickering screens that are so fascinating.
One of the hardest things that I’ve discovered as a geek gamer who is now a parent, is that I give myself different rules than my daughter, and I’m starting to feel a bit hypocritical about that.
I work online all day. When I do laundry or clean the family room or kitchen, I usually have the TV on. After the kiddo goes to bed at 8:30, it’s my relaxing time, which means I inevitably turn on the TV or the PS3 (or watch my husband play PS3 games, if it’s his turn). Despite the fact that I have to work online, which means that my screen time has to be over six hours, I place no limits on myself for recreational media time. I don’t make myself read every day, like we do for her.
On one hand, yeah, I’m the adult here. I work all day; I take care of my family. I deserve a break. I’m an adult, which means that I can do whatever I want. But I have to admit that, when I was a child, one of the things that my mother said that I hated more than anything was: “Because I am the mother and you are the daughter.” It didn’t seem fair that different rules applied to us.
I try to be fair with things like candy. I don’t deny her chocolate and then chow down myself. And honestly, there have been times when I’m making dinner and I think, “Gee, a cookie really would be good right about now.” But since I wouldn’t let her have one, I am good and don’t indulge.
Also, her brain is growing. It needs learning, stimulation, and challenges beyond whether she should use Meowth or Pichu in the next Pokémon battle. Books, play, invention, and drawing are all good things to encourage that little brain to develop rapidly and turn her into the evil genius that I know she can be. Me? My brain is thirty-six years old and lucky if it can form a thought and then express it verbally before it forgets what it was thinking.
(Of course, that could be because I’m letting it rot in front of the TV instead of challenging it with books and other pursuits.)
Perhaps she could shame me into it. “How come you guys can watch as much TV as you want but I have to go to bed?” “Why is Mommy playing Plants vs Zombies when my media time is all used up?” But she hasn’t done that yet, hasn’t made the leap of “wait a moment, this isn’t fair!” And considering how often she uses the word “unfair” when something is simply unfortunate (like the fact that bedtime has arrived), I figure that it’s only a matter of time.
I’m a weak woman. I think that limits on my media time would do me good, encourage the brain, and help the attention span that has been destroyed by the constant multi-tasking and internet barrage of pings, Twitter, IMs, rabbit holes like TV Tropes and Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, and … Twitter. But like I said, I’m an adult. No one is here to keep me from destroying my brain. Personal responsibility goes a long way past eating well, not drinking too much and not spending all your money on house boys and blow. It’s also there to make you say, “If you want to read The Windup Girl so badly, and you’ve seen this episode of The Office so many times, then isn’t the solution self-evident?”
I sometimes wonder if I should blame my parents. Is that still the thing to do, or is that too 1980’s psycho-analytical? I didn’t have restrictions on TV. I still read voraciously, but only when there was nothing good on. (Note, there was a time before Netflix, TiVo and even before VCRs when we were slaves to the networks’ scheduling whims. I know, horrid, isn’t it?) I was the kind of person who had the TV on all the time for company, regardless of whether I was watching it or not. I would play videogames all weekend, if possible (insert fond memories of Twisted Metal and Final Fantasy VII here).
Then, when we had our daughter, we thought a constant blaring TV in the background might be bad. So we turned it off. Necessity killed a lot of gaming time. (Although I did discover that I could play World of Warcraft with her strapped to me, dozing.) Compared to the rest of my life, I’ve been on a reduced diet of media since having our daughter.
I watch less TV, play fewer games, and choose movies, games and TV shows with purpose instead of “whatever’s available.” I rationalize that I work all day, I am a busy parent, and I’m too tired to do more than stare at a screen once I’m done with responsibilities. I deserve down time.
But who the hell am I fooling? Well, me. My brain may not be developing at the same rate as my daughter’s, but it can still be stimulated to get stronger, with better memory, improved vocabulary, and, frankly, reading is good for writers. So my “I deserve more media time” rationalization is dead. Letting my brain rot is not a reward.
No time? That’s total crap as well, because adults have less free time than kids, and we have to portion it carefully. Quit gaming and media? Heh. Well, would I be writing for The Escapist if I thought that was a viable possibility? They’ll pry my games from my hands when the revolution comes and the grid is destroyed, and even then I’m packing my dice when I go.
The thing I’m discovering, uncomfortably, is that a lot of the rules that we impose on our kids are forgotten by adults. We tell them to “share” and rarely do it ourselves. (I’ve seen buffets with blatant “No Sharing” signs. I understand their message, but the five year old inside of me says, “That’s not what my mom said!”) We say “respect others” and then scream out obscenities in traffic. We think these rules shouldn’t apply to us, because we’re adults, but, a lot of the time, that thinking is actually six-year-old logic, stamping our feet and saying, “When I grow up, I’m gonna do what I want.”
One thing that I see my daughter doing – which I don’t do – is plan her media time shrewdly. She knows what she wants, whether it’s DS time, TV time, or whatever. She wakes up with a Plan, while I’ll just flip the TV on or waffle between PS3 and Netflix, or even wonder how long I should wait after she goes to bed before I can start up Dragon Age (with the gore turned on). When your media time is limited, you make the most of it. I wonder if I’d get more out of my TV and gaming time if I carefully rationed it, enjoying what I have, while taking care not to gorge myself and end the day drooling, with my brain on neutral.
I love gaming and TV; that much, I hope, is obvious. I also think that games, at least, can scratch parts of your brain that don’t get a lot of workout otherwise. But countless studies have shown that reading improves your mind, your memory retention, your vocabulary, and calms you down. I’m sure I sleep better after reading than after dueling with Pokémons. Apparently this “reading” stuff is good for more than just kids. And I am becoming aware that if I’m going to impose media restrictions on my daughter, perhaps I ought to figure out why I’m imposing them. If I think they’re a good idea for her, then why aren’t they a good idea for me, too?
Mur Lafferty is the host of the podcast I Should Be Writing, and editor of Escape Pod magazine. She’s the author of Playing For Keeps, and is a proud slayer of the Broodmother in Dragon Age, which her daughter calls “the ugly guy with boobs.”