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The "Right" Time for Video Games

By Betsy Brown Braun

With your first-born child, it's pretty easy to control his diet of everything—sugar, television, war toys, choice of friends—for the first few years anyway. But then he hits school age and the once-controlling parent begins to question some of her own rules. "I can't believe my child is the only one who doesn't ______!" (You can fill in the blank.)

Most parents know that they are fighting a losing battle if they are too inflexible with their restrictions. Never allow your child sugar, and he will begin to crave it or sneak it. Never allow your child to pretend that his Tinker Toy is a gun, and everything will become a gun (including graham crackers chewed into just the right shape!).

But what happens when allowing your child to do the very thing you have restricted compromises your values? Video games are a case in point. There are parents, many in my practice, who have done a yeoman's job of keeping screen time out of their children's growing years, knowing that children thrive on interactive, creative play and social activities. Now they are faced with their child being "The only one of his friends who doesn't have video games!"

This is a tough one. I assure you that there is no perfect, one-size-fits-all answer to this dilemma.

If you are a parent who has managed to keep Xboxes, DS's, Wiis and the like out of your child's life, I applaud you! There is absolutely no reason to have such entertainment in your child's life before he is elementary school age. That said, I am not sure how long it can or should last. A big part of growing up and developing social intelligence has to do with fitting in, speaking the language of your peers. For most kids, that becomes important somewhere around 7 or 8 years old.

When my children were in 4th or 5th grade, and I had successfully kept network television out of their lives, they complained that they were the only ones on the lunch benches who didn't watch The Cosby Show. They felt out-of-it and couldn't participate in the Friday reviews of the Thursday night show. "Well," I said, "then let's figure out how to make this work for you." And after homework and chores, Bill Cosby and his family became part of our lives once a week.

Deciding if you should let video games into your child's life—and, by extension, into your life—has to do with several things; there are specific questions you need to consider about your child and yourself.

About your child:

Is he able to entertain himself?
Does he get his homework and chores done without much urging?
Is he able to follow family rules?
Does he try to negotiate his way out of limits?
Does he tend to become an addict?
What will not having video games mean for him?

About you:

Are you able to set parameters and limits around various privileges?
Are you able to withstand your child's budding debate and negotiation skills?
Can you tolerate his complaining and whining?
Can you create reasonable, appropriate, and therefore effective consequences?
Are you able to follow through on those consequences for limit infractions?
Do you know why video games are an issue for you?
Is this really about your child, or is it about you?

You need to consider carefully what having and not having video games in your child's life will mean for your child and for your whole family.

I believe in most things in moderation. When the time comes to introduce into your child's life something that has previously been withheld, think about taking very small bites. It's like introducing new foods to an infant. Watch how your child handles it; if the use or non-use takes over his life— and yours—then likely your child is not ready.  Modulating is a skill that grows over time.

There is one bit of reassurance I will share. Your children will pick up your true values and beliefs regardless of the extent to which you allow things such as TV, video games, war toys into his life. Your child watches you, notices your facial expressions, hears you talk to others. Your messages are being transmitted and received all the time. Your discussions around the dinner table, in the car, at tuck-in time communicate your values, and your child is taking it in.

He may not agree with you—after all, his job is to fight you as he establishes his independence. But he gets it. You may not see the result now, but when he is a father, you will see it and smile!

Betsy Brown Braun, best-selling author of the award winning Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents (HarperCollins), is a child development and behavior specialist, parent educator, multiple birth parenting consultant and founder of Parenting Pathways, Inc. She is also the mom of adult triplets and is an occasional guest columnist for The Online Mom.

Comment by Erica Dreisbach, posted 5/21/2011, 2:48 PM:

Thought this was a great take on iPhones and kids and a sane approach to parenting: see how your kid handles it, tailor approach accordingly. Curious what you and Online Mom have to say about iPhone apps for infants and toddlers. We just launched an iPad app for infants called Baby Smart Cards with high-contrast art to engage an infant's vision. Designed to be very low-stim (no blinky-blinkies) and I've heard anecdotal positive evidence. Still conflicted. iTunes link: http://tinyurl.com/68oc3hx
Comment by History of video games, posted 5/22/2010, 9:19 PM:

This is awesome, not gonna lie best of luck ...keep it up :)
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