How I Bonded with My Son by Ignoring Gaming Limits

How to manage kids’ gaming time is a hot parenting topic. Parents worry about gaming “addiction,” “Minecrack,” and their kids’ lack of enthusiasm for offline activities. They share humble brags about their strategies for managing gaming in their family. A gamer dad insists they have no rules about gaming, and his kids have figured out how to set their own limits just fine. A mom sets up an elaborate system of game-time cards to be banked and cashed in. Another mom suggests calling kids off their devices with the incantation, ““You are hereby summoned to the RW! I missed you!”

I can’t imagine implementing most of these approaches myself. They are all interesting, sometimes bizarre, and often impressive. I’ve done my own share of humble bragging.  My friends are probably sick of my going on about my son’s good taste in games like Magic, Minecraft, Starcraft, and DOTA.I’ve blogged about how he taught me about what an awesome learning environment Minecraft can be when he built a redstone calculator in game for fun. But I acknowledge that managing kids’ gaming time has involved as much worry, irritation, and nagging as it does pride and acceptance.

This is the first of a series of posts that dives into common advice about managing kids’ gaming time, and how real families do or don’t measure up. I’ve argued that screen time is an outdated concept and that quality matters more than quantity. That doesn’t mean I’m blind to the struggles families face in fostering healthy gaming habits. How families manage kids’ gaming time is one of the most fraught subtopics in how families handle technology and screen time.  I’ll review the research and advice from experts, draw from my personal experiences, and gather real stories.

I’ll start with the one piece of advice that everyone seems to agree on: set limits.  With my son’s permission, I share three bright spots in setting, and abandoning gaming time limits. I’m hoping you all might share your stories too. Sometimes it’s the little moments that help us make sense of things, even more than the expert advice, big insights, and research.

Experts Agree: Set Gaming Limits

Parenting experts generally agree that an “authoritative” style of parenting is healthier than neglectful, permissive, or authoritarian parenting. This means having high expectations and shared values, combined with an open communication style. When it comes to gaming, this means having clear standards and expectations, and consequences when those standards aren’t met. But it also means two-way communication and lack of negative judgements about kids’ interests in gaming.

Good advice on managing kids’ gaming time often starts with an appreciation or at least acceptance of gaming. Gamer parents preface advice with their own love of gaming, and personal struggles to set limits. Experts urge parents to recognize that gaming “is an important part of kids’ social lives, especially for boys.” A non-gamer mom argues for a positive approach to managing kids’ gaming time, and her first tip is to “accept that gaming is fun for your child, even if it’s not fun for you.”

The actual strategies folks suggest for setting limits is all over the map. They range from time based rules, elaborate reward systems, screening for particular kinds of content, or just keeping an eye on balance. Consequences can range from reductions in gaming time, confiscated controllers, to no dessert. The underlying theme is that families need to reflect their shared values and commitments in how they managing kids’ gaming time, just like with any other sphere of life. Here’s a few vignettes from my family.

Diary of a Zergling

When my son was in sixth grade and obsessed with Starcraft, I found him reading Starcraft fan fiction online. He was glued to the screen, ignoring homework that I knew was due the next day. I fretted a bit, but didn’t insist on the homework-first policy that night. He has always been an avid reader, but this was the first crossover I’d seen between fiction and gaming for him, so I took this as a promising development.

That night, he printed out some fan fiction to take to bed. When I went in to have our little nightly chat before lights out, I asked him about what he was reading. He explained that he was reading “Diary of a Zergling,” which chronicled the daily life of a foot soldier of the Zerg race. He looked sad when he told me that the last entry was of the soldier going to the front lines in a big battle. He explained how it gave him a different perspective on the game. He also mentioned that it reminded him about the wartime hierarchies they learned about in his history class.

One of our general rules has been that homework, chores, and exercise comes before entertainment. But I filed this moment away as a win for prioritizing gaming over homework. Clearly the history lesson made more sense when he could connect it with a game he was deeply involved with.

“How Much Longer Until Dinner?”

Photo by Pablo029

When I was doing research on YouTube in the early years, I remember seeing a video of a kid getting a perfect score on one of the highest levels of DDR. It was an amazing performance. Near the end of the song, you can hear his mom furiously yelling at him to come to dinner in the background, oblivious to the fact that he is on the verge of a truly epic achievement. I found this hilarious, but it also struck a nerve. One of the biggest points of tension between my son and I around gaming is when he refuses to quit a game to come to dinner.

I cook a homemade meal almost every night for my family, and food is one of the interests our whole family is passionate about. Dinner together is sacred. I’ve never been more furious at my son than when I have to yell at him to get off his game to come to dinner, or he is late to the table because he needs to finish a group match. I am respectful of the fact that games are meant to be completed or saved, but I draw the line at family dinner. I never developed any particularly inspired strategy for dealing with this tension except yelling and being mad about mushy pasta.

About a year ago, I noticed that if I was making dinner he would ask me “How much longer until dinner?” before he started his next game. I can hear him negotiating with this buddies on what they’ll play depending on my answer. It’s a smart and easy fix that he figured out on his own. Sometimes a game runs longer than expected, or my estimate for dinner is off, but mostly I don’t have tantrums at dinnertime anymore.  I kinda wish it had taken less than a decade, but I’ll take my wins when they come.

More of a Guideline than an Actual Rule

Sleep is the other thing that sets me off. Just this past weekend, I staggered into the kitchen after midnight to get a glass of water, and found him trash talking with his buddy over a game of DOTA. I snapped that he needed to get to bed. He waved me off with his usual cheery dismissal in Japanese, his language of choice for appeasing mom: mousugu owaru (It will end soon).

Last year, as he was starting his junior year, together with Dad we all agreed that 10pm was a good time to stop gaming on school nights, and midnight was the cut-off for the weekends. I even colluded with his best gaming buddy’s mom to jointly insist on this. But this rule of thumb seemed to have fallen by the wayside during the summer. Now, in his senior year, we’ve mostly abandoned it, or at least I am not monitoring or insisting. My sleep comes first. But that doesn’t stop me from sniping at him when I find him staying up late.

As we were talking about this blog post yesterday, I sighed that I had yet again failed to set gaming limits and stick to them. I pointed out that he was backsliding on getting to bed at a decent hour. He actually protested that he does try to abide by the midnight rule. It’s the right thing to do, and besides, his friends usually crash around then anyway. In all fairness, he probably breaks the midnight rule about as often as I stay up past my bedtime to watch an extra episode of Mr. Robot or Handmaid’s Tale. I guess bedtimes are more of what you call guidelines than actual rules.

How Do You Manage Kids’ Gaming Time?

Unlike actually playing games together, managing kids’ gaming time is not the fun part of gamer parenting. Still, these little moments when we learned to live with one another’s quirks, preferences, and triggers warms my heart. Each moment, and each family’s situation is so unique, it can be hard to apply general rules and strategies.

Reflecting helped me realize that our good times are when my son and I respect one another’s interests and integrity, and bond over shared values. This can mean valuing genuine curiosity and learning over a single homework assignment, or respecting that family dinner is as important as gaming with friends. It has also has meant my appreciating that both of us actually understand what a healthy bedtime is, even though at times we ignore it to nerd out on something fun.

I love hearing what others have tried and experienced in managing kids’ gaming time.  If you have stories to share, please post in the comments, tweet me @mizuko, or email me at mimiito@connectedcamps.com. It would be fabulous to add your voice to the growing roster of stories of connected parenting.

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