My name is Richard, and I am an addict.

Legend-of-Zelda-logoWhen my children were young and asleep I used to sneak into our family room, power up our Nintendo, and quietly play the now-ancient video game with infectious music called “The Legend of Zelda” into the wee we hours,.  Night after night after night – not too different than gamers today who play “Call of Duty” or “Candy Crush Saga”.

“Just one more game,” I’d say to myself around midnight.  The next thing I knew it was two am.

I’ve been doing a lot of radio recently, and when listeners call in, the topic of video game addiction often comes up. This is obviously a worrisome subject for many parents.

Like many other forms of addiction, video games can offer escape and distraction from what’s really going on in the world. If you’re a kid and you think life sucks,  diving into a video game is an attractive way to escape.

The problem is that sometimes a kid’s life does appear to “suck.”  If a kid can kill bad guys, or can win a treasure, or can outwit the machine, then he or she gets to feel like a winner, and winning is wonderful – especially in a home where criticism is the norm and praise might be hard to come by. So it’s up to us, as parents, to give our children choices outside the seductions of the video world.

FamilyAtDinnerAs always, this should start at home.  No phones or TV during dinner – which goes for both adults and children.  Set a parental example of activity: go outside, take walks, ride a bike.  Whether your kids join you or not, you are modeling a value for them about physical fitness and use of time.  One of the benefits of having grown kids is thatI have found that they record these behaviors (even if only subconsciously) and often adopt them in their own lives as they get older.

Meanwhile, keep an open mind.  Resist the temptation to automatically disapprove of the things your children enjoy – whether it’s video games, social networks, or “that damned music.”  If we close our minds to those activities, we eliminate opportunities for contact with our children and our relationship with them begins to narrow.  This doesn’t mean we have to like what they’re doing, but we should respect their interest, consider the merit of their choice, and then share an honest opinion.  That’s part of our job.

Aces-High-imageCropBy the way, many video games help children develop manual dexterity and strategic comprehension.  As they succeed in the game, there can be genuine emotional gratification.  Our son Coby was about fifteen when he discovered an online game called “Aces High.” Teams, or “squadrons,” of players flew WWII aircraft on missions that replicated air and ground combat situations.  We initially learned about the game because it cost ten bucks monthly and required credit card payment.  When he needed credit card info I asked Coby to show me how the game worked, and he did.  His passion was evident.

aces_high_cockpitI entered payment information and left Coby to take off.  He joined a squadron, declared his rookie status, and set up his plane.  He wore a headset and communicated verbally with other members of his squadron, many of whom were retired Air Force or commercial pilots.  He was the youngest player on the team, and the other pilots — at their computers across the nation — were warm, instructive, and encouraging.  Sometimes Coby would enter the house and explain that he had a mission in fifteen minutes.  He was dedicated to the game and to his new friends.

Coby had perspective.  He knew the game was nerdy and he knew his fellow pilots (some of whom were married couples, grandparents, or educators) were not his regular set of friends.  But he enjoyed the interchange and we enjoyed watching him competently navigate in a world separate from ours.  We encouraged him to tell us more about his fellow pilots, and we often gave him suggestions for dealing with this wide range of personalities.

Coby’s experience with “Aces High” was a massive, positive learning experience on multiple levels.  The game taught eye-hand coordination, aeronautics (go into a steep dive and you’d black out), teamwork, cooperation.  This was a good video game experience.

GrandTheftViceCitySome video games, however, are like bad neighborhoods. You don’t want your kids going into them, and this is when being a parent is far more important than being a friend. If you find your child absorbed in a computer screen, ask what it is that’s so worthy of their attention.  If you don’t get a clear answer, pry a little…and keep at it.  If you notice anger, frustration, or reclusive behavior beyond the teenage norm, offer some alternatives to the virtual world. If you hear a response like, “This is none of your business” make it clear that whatever happens in your house is your business.

Ultimately, video games are just that – games.  By communicating with our children and demonstrating for them that the social interactions of everyday life, like trips to the market, sporting events, guitar lessons, or karate classes are equally as engaging as the fantasy of their game, I believe we can give them the perspective they need to step away from their controllers when necessary.

If only I could get that dumb music from Zelda out of my head.

3-Aarons_1st_B-day-035One day, when Aaron was about around two years old, JoAnn went out to runs some errands, leaving Aaron and me to wash my beloved navy blue two-door Fiat (because that’s what guys do to bond).  The car, being a European two-door coupe, had very little room in the back, but just enough room for a car seat.  Aaron was like me at his age. He wanted to be inside near the steering wheel, radio, and keys, so he climbed into the car while I put up the windows, closed the door, and started hosing off the vehicle.

It was a beautiful, warm late Spring day in Southern California and we were having a ton of fun.  Aaron would put his hand on the window and I’d spray where his hand was.  He’d put his face to the glass and I’d spray his face.

Funny stuff.

fiat_124_sport_coupe_gray_1975At one point, Aaron jokingly pushed down the door lock, and I mimed how funny that was.  I also mimed right back that he should unlock it, but it was too late, he was already turning and jumping like a chimp on the seat.  Oh was it fun — until he jumped his way into the back, found his car seat, and to my surprise, buckled himself right in!

Aaron looked at me for a moment and then realized he was stuck.  He started to cry.  I made funny faces and behaved in a manner that most would describe as silly to distract him and calm him down, but I couldn’t help but notice that the sun was now shining directly into the car, turning it into a dark blue sauna, and illuminating the glistening beads of sweat on his little nose.

IMG_3657Through the closed windows, I tried to tell Aaron how to press the buckle so that the car seat latch would release, but, alas, it was, in fact, childproof.  With his little face getting red and sweaty, I knew that time was not on my side.  Since JoAnn had the other key to the car, there was only one thing I could do.  I went into the house, got my hammer, and smashed the driver’s side window in order to reach in and unlock the door.

Cool air rushed in past my face as I pulled him out.  Life was good, and that adventure cost me a hundred and seventy five bucks.

RGnJGGWhen I told JoAnn about it, she didn’t criticize me for leaving our baby to run free in the car with the keys inside. She just shook her head and laughed with me – as she did when I lost Emily skiing, accidentally hit Benjy on the head with a baseball bat, forgot to pick Coby up from Sunday School, and any number of other things that may have happened along the way while raising our family of four .

My parents were pragmatists and I believe I owe them the real essentials of this story — No panic, no anger, and an ability to laugh at ourselves.  In fact, keeping our head is one of the basic keys to raising children who remain calm and learn to solve problems.  It’s about the example we set, and as parents we may not all be in the same boat, but we’re all on the same ocean.

Parenting is decision-making — thousands upon thousands of decisions.  What we call common sense is just the most reliable compass for guiding those decisions.  Trusting in common sense solutions, like calming your child prior to smashing the window of your beloved car, helps us respond calmly and effectively when raw emotion might cause unprepared parents to panic.

BTW – I really loved that Fiat.

Here are five quick tests:

vectorstock_11358

Do you…let your children boss you around?   (Do they say things like “Where’s my breakfast?”)

Do you…make excuses for your children? (“She would have said ‘Thank you.’ but she was too busy playing.”)

Are you afraid your child won’t love you if you say “No”?

Have you ever let your child tell you to “Shut up” without consequence?

Are you worried about whether or not your children “like” you? (and I don’t mean on Facebook.)

Wimpy Parenting is actually quite common, which is one of the reasons I wrote my book “Raising Children That Other People Like to be Around.”  I know that some of you may object to my use of the word “wimpy”, but, let’s face it, you know what I mean.  Besides, I grew up when sticks and stones could break my bones but words could never hurt me – so I encourage you to not be distracted by my language and hear the message.

Today, parenting has become a “profession” and, as a result, has become the focus of great examination and angst.  Sure, people always worried about their children, their health, their happiness, and their comfort, but today’s kids are coddled in ways that shortchange our children and teach them dependence rather than independence.  When I was young and bored, it was not my parent’s responsibility to entertain me.  In fact, my mom used to say “Go bang your head against the wall until you can think of something to do.”  Pretty concise don’t you think?

vectorstock_1943457I believe in simplification.  The more “power” we give our children, the more complicated our lives become.  If every decision requires a consultation like “Do you want to go to school?” or “Is it OK if mommy and daddy go out tonight?’ we are really complicating our lives.

It’s up to our children to fit into our lives – not the other way around.

Yes, having children changes many things, but those are things that we as parents change voluntarily (no more sleeping late (gotta coach the team), no more swearing (the echo machine is in the room), no more wild parties (that one’s self explanatory), etc.).

Ultimately, it’s our job as parents to lead, and it’s our children’s job to follow.

Being a Wimpy Parent takes its toll on you.  You can’t make plans.  You can’t go to restaurants.  You can’t live your life because your child or children dominate it – and what kind of life is that?

The most ironic thing about being a Wimpy Parent is that children want us to be in control.  They are not equipped to have the responsibility that we give them by letting them be our boss.  It’s just not fair – they have far less life experience than we and they are much more comfortable being led than they are being asked to make decisions.

Just try it.

vectorstock_745873Have the confidence to take control.  Team up with your mate, or parenting partner, or best friends, or whomever it takes to give you strength and start making decisions for your children.  Depending on their age, they’ll most likely resist a little, but if you stand firm you’ll find that a lot of the “noise” in your life disappears – and suddenly you have a peaceful home.

I’ve said many times that it’s “easier to lighten up than it is to tighten up” which means that your children can EARN greater decision making responsibility as time goes on, but being a pushover from the very beginning is no way to run a family.

Trust me.

Children are not as fragile as we might think.  They live through the curveballs with which we present them.  They change schools, they make new friends, their feelings get hurt, and yet they learn to love music, they laugh at funny things, and they love their moms and dads.

The process is designed to succeed.

Which brings us back to simplification.  We had four simple rules with our kids:

CasualFamily

  • Be truthful.
  • Be respectful.
  • Be generous.
  • Be kind.

Concentrate on teaching your children those values and they will most likely become people that other people like to be around.