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The “Right” Age for Video Games

by on Mar.26, 2010, under Adolescents, Attachment, Behavior, Parenting, Peers, Transitions

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, somewhere after five years old, kindergarten age, and the once controlling parent begins to question some of her controls.  My child is the only one who doesn’t…and now you fill in the blank.

Most parents know that they are fighting a losing battle if they are too orthodox about their restrictions.  Never allow your child sugar, and he will begin to crave it or sneak it. Never allow your child even 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 real 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 X Box, DS, Wii and the like out of your child’s life, I applaud you!  There is absolutely no reason that is good enough to have such entertainment in your child’s life before he is elementary school age. That said, I am not sure how long it will last or should last. A big part of growing up and developing social intelligence has to do with fitting in, speaking the language of peers. For most kids that is 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 television family became part of our family once a week.

 Deciding if you should let video games into your child’s life (and yours by extension) has to do with several things, 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, very small bites. It is kind of like introducing new foods to an infant. Then watch how your child handles it, how it affects him and the family.  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 time communicate your values, and your child is taking it in. He may not be able to agree with you; his is job is to fight you like the dickens, as he becomes an individual. But he gets it.   You may not see the result now, but when he is a father, you will see it and smile!

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