Screen Time Is Time Well-Spent

Girl Reading - Charles Edward Peruigini - 1870

Girl Reading – Charles Edward Peruigini – 1870 (Source: Tumblr)

I’ve placed a bibliography on the value of computer games at the end of this article. I will continue to update it past the date of publication.

Yet another fear-mongering article about the brain-damaging effects of computer games is making the rounds of the Internet. The absurdity of its claims reminds me of the Victorian hand-wringing about masturbation – but that at least got us Graham Crackers.

Computer games – like other fun, engaging activities (including sports, sex, and solving jigsaw puzzles) – ping the pleasure centers of the brain, often in ways we do not fully understand. Consequently, most people keep engaging in those activities. Some people find those little dopamine hits addictive, so they cannot self-regulate their exposure to them.  This can be particularly true for some young people, regardless of what they obsess about (be it baseball stats or Torment: Numenera). Regardless of the pleasurable activity, good parenting is teaching your children how to recognize healthy and unhealthy behaviors, regardless of their preferred source of a dopamine fix.

The single fact that a particular activity provides that fix does not make it any more inherently dangerous than other, otherwise-safe activities. Why should throwing a baseball or reading a book be privileged over playing a computer game? I would bet that nearly all of my friends have, on more than one occasion, stayed up hours later than they should have because they wanted to finish a book. Yet we do not talk about the “dangerously addictive” nature of books.

The argument could be made that the substance and quality of books is, on average, better than that of computer games. Since, as I will note below, the caliber of art, storytelling and interactive experiences available through the best of interactive media is exceptional, arguments based on the content of computer games carry little weight. Nonetheless, even if that were not the case and all of the games out there were mindless brain candy, the issue would still be the poor choices consumers of the media make, not the inherent dangers of the medium itself.

For this reason, in our household, we did not limit our son’s “screen time” any more than we censored his books; which is to say, we did not regulate either activity. I did play the games he played, and engaged him in long, thoughtful discussions about their contents. I also read the books he read, and engaged with him in the same kinds of discussions. Many of the things he learned from games would not have come as easily through a different medium. In fact, I cannot imagine a better method than “screen time” for him to have explored many of the things he learned about the larger, adult world when he was a child.

As parents, we did not regulate those “screens” because we saw them as no more dangerous than books. We ignored the panic around the medium because it seemed, and still seems, no more justified than the expert admonitions from previous eras against letting young women read novels. The danger with novels, as with good books and good games of all kinds, is that your child’s curiosity will lead them to dangerous or disagreeable or unfamiliar ideas. Knowing your child’s strengths and limitations, and participating with them in, rather than banning them from, whatever media form they find the most engaging, allows a parent to work with their child to equip them with the skills to navigate those perilous waters.

Whether the topic is the content of the media, or the “addictive” nature of the medium itself, good parenting means knowing what a child needs and working with them within those limitations to help that child achieve the goals that they have set. That may mean teaching them to learn to regulate the pleasure they take in certain pastimes. It may mean recognizing the value of those pastimes, even if they may hold no interest for the parent. It almost certainly means sharing in the child’s own engagement, helping them to place it into a larger context, and helping them make the most of the experience.

Now that we are on the other side of that parenting stage, not only do I think that “screens” are no more “dangerously addictive” than books, I would go so far as to say that – in their potential to stimulate the brain, educate, and convey information – “screens” (PC’s and slates in particular) are better than print books. The issue is not the medium, or the activity; the issue is what content is consumed through that medium, and the degree to which involved parents discuss, analyze, and share in that content with their children.

Using a “screen” a young person can read a book above their reading level, or in another language, thanks to hyperlinked dictionaries. Using a “screen” a young person can learn about economics, politics, history, and military strategy by painstakingly shepherding their society through hours of Civilization (see it in action here). Using a “screen” a child can build a working aqueduct in Minecraft. Using a “screen” a young person can directly engage complex themes of bigotry, religious demagoguery, and political isolationism in the Bioshock series. Using a “screen” a young person can interact with one of the best novels I have ever read or played, Planescape: Torment. Using a “screen” a young person can adventure with their friends through a vast world of rich storytelling in Elder Scrolls Online, or they can travel alone through similarly artful and complex storytelling in the world of Dragon Age.

I’m young enough that – as a child – I engaged in earlier incarnations of all of these activities on a Commodore 64 for thousands of hours, so this generation is certainly not the first to have this opportunity. Nor was I any more adversely affected by those pursuits than my friends who spent hundreds of hours designing D&D campaigns or working on their fastball. I would argue that, to the contrary, the games I played on my PC and online through BBS’s enriched my knowledge base as well as the rigor of my thinking.

Until we have chips in our heads, screens are going to be how we share information and engage with interactive media. Parents would do well to quit obsessing about the perceived evils of the medium and instead learn to take full advantage of it.

 

For Further Reading

(This Penny Arcade comic is a handy glimpse of what happens when I bring up this topic at dinner parties. )

What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy (James Paul Gee – Amazon.com)

Good Video Games and Good Learning (James Paul Gee – Amazon.com)

Video Games and Learning (Kurt Squire – Amazon.com)

Reality is Broken (Jane McGonigal – Amazon.com)

Don’t Bother Me Mom, I’m Learning (Marc Prensky – Amazon.com)

Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology (Collins & Halverson – Amazon.com)

The Multiplayer Classroom (Lee Sheldon – Amazon.com)

Video Games and Learning: Teaching Particaptory Culture and the Digital Age (Kurt Squire – Amazon)

How to Do Things with Videogames (Ian Bogost – Amazon.com)

Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (Ian Bogost – Amazon.com)

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter (Tom Bissell – Amazon.com)

Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America (NEA)

To Read or Not To Read (NEA)

Orality and the Work of Walter Ong (Wikipedia)

Oral Tradition – Online Academic Journal

Share This:Print this pageEmail this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditPin on PinterestShare on TumblrShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn

For Friends, When Your Children Leave for College

Off to College

Off to College

This is the year when a critical mass of our friends must face their progeny heading off for their first year of college. Talking with our friends their grief (and make no mistake, it is grief – gut-wrenching, agonizing grief), and also noting that today is the one-year anniversary of when we dropped John-Francis off for his first day at Haverford, has brought back all of those memories from this time last year.

It remains the single saddest day of my life. I sobbed for hours, and then spent months simply sad and off-kilter. I felt like a limb had been severed from my body, and everywhere I looked was a reminder of my loss.

A few thoughts for those of you going through the same thing right now:

1. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not crazy, or melodramatic, or over-reacting. Don’t let anyone de-legitimize just how much this hurts. Just like any other kind of grief, allow yourself to move with its rhythms, and surround yourself with people who won’t try to talk you out of your feelings. (I feel compelled to offer special thanks to those who were there for me at this time last year, especially my own parents, Ginny Little, and Kim Pike. Thank you for not judging me for how often or how much I cried.)

2. Your friends who haven’t been through this are very unlikely to get it. In case someone in that category is reading this, please try to understand. It’s not that we’re not happy for our kids, or not proud of them, or wanting to shelter them. It’s that we realize that the nature of our relationship with them has changed forever. From this point forward, looking in on their room and seeing them sleeping in their bed will be the exception, not the norm. Staying up late, sitting on the couch, watching a bad movie together will be the exception, not the rule. Walking by and seeing them sitting at the table will be the exception, not an everyday occurence. Until you feel that tectonic shift in your life, you can’t appreciate how hard it hits.

3. It does get easier, but there’s no rule for how long that takes or the degrees to which it happens. Skype and texting help…a LOT! My own experience is that this past summer has made all the difference. It helped me to see first-hand how all of his good choices and hard work have made him even more the exceptional young man he already was when he left. My brain has also processed the fact that he does, eventually, come home, and that when he does he’s still my Boy.

Share This:Print this pageEmail this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditPin on PinterestShare on TumblrShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn

Congratulations John-Francis!

John-Francis - Senior Photo

Photo Courtesy of Patricia O’Driscoll

John-Francis graduates from High School tomorrow.  Even though I’ve been reminded of this reality every day for weeks, it still seems highly unlikely since, only yesterday, I was dropping him off at The Galloway School for his first day of kindergarten.  I remember how he matter-of-factly climbed out of his carseat and introduced himself to the teacher working carpool that early morning.  Another kindergartner overheard that John-Francis was a new student.  She firmly grabbed his hand, and the two of them headed off to begin the adventure of learning – hand-in-hand.  That’s how we do things at Galloway, eyes forward and hand-in-hand.

Of course, I was having trouble watching this beautiful moment of camaraderie.  I was too busy sobbing – something I continued to do for the hour-long drive back to our house.  John-Francis and I had stayed home together for almost six years.  Nearly every minute of every day of his life I had answered his questions, laughed at his jokes, cleaned his cuts, and held him when he needed a hug.  Suddenly someone else, an institution was going to take on that role for part of each day.  I was terrified of the possibility that he might become conventional, that the convenient norms of a children’s academic setting would somehow stifle the uniquely thoughtful and creative spark that I had watched come to life in him.

When he scheduled a protest on the playground – complete with rally signs and a rhyming chant – for the return of peanut butter to the classroom, I realized I had nothing to worry about.  (He informed me that, after a rather contentious circle time, “The man won.”)  John-Francis was at a school that valued four pillars:  fearlessness, community, mastery, individuality.  These were the very things I wanted him to learn to privilege in his life, and, rather than undermining them as I feared any institution might, Galloway nurtured them and allowed them to take deep root in every aspect of his education.

I watched John-Francis’ journey in awe, as he moved down the long hall of the Early Learning building, through the floors of the Middle Learning building, and then to the old, brick classrooms of Upper Learning.  It was like having a front-row seat for an epic performance where the lead character is exceptional in every way.  Looking back on the individual scenes, they form a consistent pattern – a biography of integrity, courage, and genuine wisdom that may be hard for him to see as he lives it out, but that is abundantly clear to those of us who have been watching, dumbstruck, since the curtain rose.

I saw him fight back (verbally and, sometimes, even physically) against bullies of all kinds, including a (no longer at Galloway) middle school principal who battled him tooth and nail on the LGBTQ Day of Silence observance.  When the day came, the involved grades had 85% participation, under the leadership of a ten-year-old John-Francis.

I listened, with genuine admiration, as John-Francis refused to tell even the tiniest lie, even the smallest mis-characterization of the facts, for his own benefit.  If an assignment was late, he took responsibility.  If the rules said no looking at your textbook, he wouldn’t even glance at it.  And if he was being irrational in an argument he would stop, look down for a moment, and then concede, “You’re right.  I’m being irrational about this.”  Even as a teenager, he wouldn’t lie to himself.

Nor would he let me lie to myself, which can be terribly inconvenient as an adult.  Self-deception can make life easier, albeit much less worthwhile, in all sorts of ways.  Nevertheless, John-Francis – even at a young age – has demonstrated the confidence and the insight to hold me accountable to my own principles in everything that I do.  I am certain I am a better person, because of the extraordinary person he is.

The conventional wisdom is that a child can’t be that person, my friend, someone to whom I am accountable, and also be my son.  My experience as his father has been just the opposite.  From the moment he was born, when I warmed him up with a blanket, put his first diaper on him, and told him, “You and I are going to have great fun together,” I have been his Dad with a capital “D.”  I am responsible for him, and growing into that responsibility has had a larger impact on me than all of the other things I have done in my life, combined.  But – as my own Dad has taught me every day for forty years – fathers and sons can be best friends and still understand that Dad is in charge.  Friendship is not about an equal dynamic of authority, it is about an equal dynamic of loyalty, trust, and respect.  I trust and respect John-Francis as much as I do my own Dad, which is to say completely, and my loyalty to him knows no limits.

John-Francis has earned that loyalty.  As he was growing up, we rarely talked about what he had to do, we talked about what his goals were, what kind of person he wanted to be, what kind of impact he wanted to have on the world.  Together, we mapped out ways to work toward those goals, and then he took it upon himself to do the hard, challenging, everyday work to reach them.  When, at the age of 12, he wanted to start taking classes in the high school at Galloway, he went – by himself – to meet with the Principal and request the opportunity.  From that point on, if he needed an advocate with the administration, he took the role upon himself.

Fearlessness:  a young man who stands up to bullies, even when they have all the power, and who advocates for himself rather than relying on others to do so.

Community:  a young man who creates a space for LGBTQ students’ voices to be heard, and who earns the trust of his friends through his loyalty and kindness.

Mastery:  a young man who seeks out every opportunity for learning, and who passionately, relentlessly engages his peers, his teachers, and his parents out of a desire to understand.

Individuality:  a young man whose integrity is such that he speaks the truth as he knows it, regardless of the consequences or the expectations of those around him.

That is the kind of man Elliott Galloway was.  That is the young man I hoped John-Francis would be when he left home to find his path.

In every way, by every measure, John-Francis has exceeded my wildest hopes in every single one of these categories, and in countless more.  Tomorrow he will get a diploma that is meant to represent over a decade of accomplishment, but there is no single piece of paper that could sum up all he has done – and all that Galloway has done for him – in that time.

For me, the words of his achievement are not writ on the parchment, they are carved deep into my memory by the sound of his voice saying, “I love you, Dad” and by the knowledge that this son whose love I have earned is a person who has earned my respect and my admiration a thousand times over.

Pictured with my Grandma Sue, in the kitchen where she taught me a master class in how to love someone.

John-Francis with my Grandma Sue, in the kitchen where she taught me a master class in how to love someone.

 

Share This:Print this pageEmail this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditPin on PinterestShare on TumblrShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn

On the Banning of Books

Nazi Book Burning

Source: http://totallyhistory.com/nazi-book-burnings/

I mock and vilify all sorts of attitudes and behaviors here. I dislike unregulated capitalism (and I’m not terribly fond of the regulated kind). I have a low tolerance for people who confuse superstitious ignorance for religious faith. I am intolerant of those who allow bigotry and intentional ignorance to perpetuate the marginalization of people who live on the margins because of their sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.

But the most deserving target of my pure, undiluted wrath are those pedantic and parochial morons who – because of the narrowness of their own pathetic, underfed, and feeble intellects – withhold books from those children who wish to read them.

And yes, I am looking at you, Randolph County, North Carolina.

I am also looking at you, “Parents Action League of Annoka-Hennepin

Shame on you all.

To quote José Martí:

Asesino alevoso, enemigo del pueblo, y digno del escarnio de todos los hombres es todo aquél que, con el pretexto de guiar a las generaciones futuras, les enseña un sistema aislado de doctrinas y les musita al oído, en lugar del mensaje dulce del amor, el evangelio bárbaro del odio.

Treacherous assassins, enemies of the people, and worthy of everyone’s ridicule are those who, under the pretext of guiding future generations, teach them an isolated system of doctrines and whisper in their ear (instead of the sweet message of love) the barbarous gospel of hate.

Share This:Print this pageEmail this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditPin on PinterestShare on TumblrShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn

Happy Fathers Day!

At the Chattahoochee

At the Chattahoochee

When I was very young, I quickly realized that popular perceptions of what it means to be a “Dad” did not jive with how my own father went about the job. Every day of my life, I have always known that being my dad was the single most important thing in my father’s world. He went about learning to be a parent with great intentionality – reading every book he could on the subject, talking to parents and mentors whom he respected, and also talking with me about the decisions he made – even the mistakes he made – as a parent, and why.

There isn’t enough space to enumerate all the things I have learned from Dad, but certainly one of them is that parenting is a partnership of mutual respect and honesty that requires an absolute commitment of time, energy, and priorities. Above all, it requires a boundless supply of love and grace.

I’ve never met anyone who has the kind of relationship with their father that I have with mine, although John-Francis Villines is always quick to point out that he and I also have that kind of uniquely close relationship of shared affection and trust. He’s kind to say so, but I think that’s cheating. In being the best father I know how to be to my own son, I am only following the example of the best father and the best man I have ever known.

Share This:Print this pageEmail this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditPin on PinterestShare on TumblrShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn