Category Archives: advice

Kids, toy guns and violent play: The story of one mother who changed her mind

Photo by Flickr user Steven Ha.

In our constant effort to keep kids from growing up to be violent thugs, we do a lot of things. We don’t let them play with toy weapons. We cut back on the first-person shooters. We divert them from “cowboys and indians.” But should we?

Over at The Atlantic, one mom, Christine Gross-Loh, writes about moving to Tokyo with her husband and two kids, and discovering that kids there engage in lots of (toy) gunplay, and adults don’t seem to worry about it. And although violent crime is on the rise in Japan, or at least was two years ago, it’s still much less than we see in America — or even many American states.

What Gross-Loh saw made her wonder if Americans’ choice to restrict kids’ violent play is the right approach. In fact, she strongly suggests that it isn’t:

Although many of us in America worry that gun play desensitizes kids to violence, the research doesn’t bear this out. In fact, it can actually help teach children to read each other’s facial cues and body language, figure out their place in a group, and learn how to adjust their behavior in social settings. Play helps children learn how to signal each other: this is fantasy. As Mechling explains, using the theories of anthropologist Gregory Bateson, when children are playing with toy guns, they do so within a play frame they have created, one in which “a shooting is not a shooting.” Children don’t see their own play through the lens that adults do. To children, gun play is play, while to American adults–especially in the post-Columbine or Newtown era–gun play is violence.

Beyond that, stifling boys in particular from engaging in the kind of play they’re most drawn to may be setting them back, she says:

When children are engaged in play they choose, they are more engaged and motivated to sustain it for longer. Imaginary play hones self-regulation, which is essential for school success but has declined in recent decades. (Today’s five year olds have the self-regulation skills of a three year old 60 years ago). Research has found that incorporating preschool boys’ interest in weapon play rather than banning it entirely leads them to play longer, more elaborate games that go beyond mere weapon play. The British government, in fact, concerned by a pattern of preschool boys falling behind girls in part due to zero-tolerance policies that had led teachers to curb any hint of boisterous play, advised preschools to allow boys to play with toy weapons and other play of their choosing, since the research suggests that acknowledging their interests will help them feel more engaged in school and improve their academic performance.

The whole thing is worth a read. As the parent of a young, boisterous child, it’s giving me a lot to think about. If you’re interested in a deeper look at children’s need for aggressive and violent imaginative play, check out Gerard Jones’ Killing Monsters.

Is “Twilight” turning teens into wannabe vampires?

According to one father, “Twilight” inspires kids to dabble in sex, the occult, and home-style vampirism.

Just in time for the final Twilight movie to hit the theaters, we have a worried dad (and pastor) attempting to connect the films with a subculture that, frankly, has been around a lot longer than Bella Swan and Edward Cullen. He somehow stumbled across the various “vampire” communities on the Internet, began (as many parents do) casting his 15-year-old daughter in that scene, and got scared.

He writes:

There, girls the same age of my 15-year-old daughter are talking about “awakening,” which is their word for converting to paganism (like the Christian word “born again”). In a perverted twist on Communion, their sacraments include the giving of your own blood by becoming a “donor.” This is entirely pagan. These storylines offer eternality without God and salvation; in the place of Jesus’ shed blood, girls and boys shed their own blood to be awakened to their own salvation of a new spiritual way of life filled with sex and occult behavior.

We heard a lot of similar chatter around the Harry Potter books and films: that they would turn young children into occult-obsessed heathens, that their souls would be lost. Even the Vatican changed its mind about that theory once it became clear that millions of kids hadn’t taken up the wizarding life.

Here’s the thing about teens, paganism, sex, and “vampires.” When I grew up, teens were reading Anne Rice’s books and playing Vampire: The Masquerade. They played at being vampires, dressing in dark clothing and wearing faux fangs. Few, almost none, drank anyone’s blood. It was a game, a role play like any other. A chance to try on a different identity, one that’s more mysterious and powerful than, let’s face it, just about any drab-feeling 15-year-old.

What I’m saying is this: teens (and adults) have been playing with this trope for a while now; it didn’t start with Twilight. The fact that Twilight took off suggests that there’s something in the cultural zeitgeist right now that makes it a good fit. What we need to do is analyze what that is — actually talk to kids about why they love the books and why they may be imagining themselves in some of the roles — and go from there. It isn’t about the Devil or the Internet/Mormon authors luring them to their doom. It’s about something that’s part and parcel of adolescence — coupled with the way the world is right now, and has been for the past 30 or so years since Lestat emerged from Rice’s imagination and hit the pages of a book — that’s driving people’s interest.

Fortunately, the author of this piece more or less does the right thing with his own daughter:

I do not shelter my children from these sorts of things. Pop culture is too pervasive to hide from (on a recent trip to a Barnes & Noble with my daughter we noticed an entire section of books dedicated to “Teenage Vampire Romance”). My wife and I talk to my daughter about these things so that she can be discerning, informed, and safe.

I don’t agree with him that media is “a potential threat to her well-being,” and would encourage him to let his daughter use her own discernment to seek out what she needs, and keep the lines of communication open so they can talk when she’s pursuing something that gives him pause.

I don’t think he’s wrong to worry. That’s what parents do. They want their kids to grow up safe, healthy, and happy. And, because he’s a pastor, he enters that role with a pretty specific worldview, and maybe even an obligation to keep his kids on the straight and narrow. But it isn’t Twilight tempting them — or anyone’s kids — to role-play as vampires.

So what is it, then?

Why not ask them, instead of judging them?

Does this RPG make my kid look fat?

Historically, plenty of parents have forbidden their kids to play role-playing games. The usual reasons included fears that the games might attract kids to the occult — or make them lose touch with reality. One dad, a former RPGer himself, has an entirely different reason:

I hesitate to introduce my kids to role-playing games and the culture that surrounds them. This isn’t because I don’t want my kids to benefit from the creativity and imagination that flourish in role-playing games, but because I have observed that the health and fitness level of RPGers is disproportionately lower than any other peer group with which I have associated (note: I won’t deal at all with Live Action Role Playing because I know almost nothing about that community). This observation has led me to question how much I should be encouraging my kids to engage with a group/culture that places so little emphasis on activity and physical fitness.

He goes on to criticize the “RPG community” as a whole — and the parents introducing their kids to gaming in particular — for not encouraging healthy eating and exercise habits.

Parents who have experience with the kinds of toys, games, and influences their kids might be into have a special advantage in these situations: they know the culture. That can be both good and bad. In this case, the dad knows some of the benefits of gaming (“RPGs can enhance math, creativity, and problem-solving skills. … the integration of play with learning is recognized as one effective tool for teaching.”): Good. He also feels there are some downsides, but doesn’t see any way around them: Bad.

Here’s my take: I think you can go ahead and let your kids discover the world of role-playing games, and you can also encourage them to eat well, exercise every day, and so on. You can do this even if nobody else is doing it. (In fact, if you’re doing it, it might even catch on). He’s worried that the other gamers will lead by example. But he can lead by example, too. There’s certainly no harm in trying.

I know this particular connection (“RPG players tend to be unhealthy”) seems really far afield of the usual concerns parents have about kid hobbies, but it actually seems relevant for two reasons. One, parents are questioning all kinds of sedentary habits — TV, video games, computers — when it comes to their kids’ fitness levels. Two. blaming the games for kids’ poor health doesn’t make any more sense than blaming them for making kids lose touch with reality. They’re separate problems that occasionally travel together, and the perceived downside (poor fitness, psychosis) can be addressed, by parents, separately from the hobby in question. I know that takes more work than forbidding the hobby, but it’s worth it.

Parents: How do you handle it when your kid wants to play, or do, something that worries you? What’s your approach?

Do video games change kids’ behavior?

A mom says her kid gets mean when he can’t play his DS. But is it really the game that’s to blame? Photo by Flickr user GoonSquadSarah.

The press is rife with the message that video games make kids and teens more aggressive. Even though there’s no proof that gaming causes behavioral changes, and there is evidence that video games don’t harm, or even benefit, their players, this idea lingers. Empowering Parents recently conducted a poll, asking parents whether games “affect their child’s behavior.” Sixty-two percent said yes.

The poll quoted one parent, who said:

“My son, who is 9, doesn’t want to stop playing his DS … and when I finally manage to get it out of his hands, he gets mouthy, rude and acts more aggressively towards his brother and little sister. I’m actually considering banning video games from our house.”

I know it’s really challenging when your child is fixated on a particular toy, to the exclusion of family, books, sleep, homework — whatever. You want to do what’s right for them and limit their use of that toy, but kids can be so stubborn. Sometimes asking or setting down limits doesn’t work, and you have to intervene.

But it sounds to me like the problem here isn’t the game, or even the game system. Imagine if someone took your phone away while you were using it, or took a book out of your hands while you were reading it. You might get mouthy and rude, too — you might even get unruly with an innocent bystander, if you felt like the person who took the item out of your hands couldn’t be reasoned with (or yelled at). People who’ve just had their power taken away act out in a variety of ways, including the one this woman is describing in her son.

Kids don’t often feel like they hold much power, and when you do things that take power away from them, they frequently do things to reclaim that feeling of control. It might make more sense to collaborate with your son to develop some reasonable limits on using the DS — ones that he agrees to. Here are some excellent tips on how to approach it. Of course, “no DS at all” can be a consequence if he doesn’t collaborate with you. But don’t blame the game system for his behavior.

Unfortunately, Empowering Parents isn’t revealing many of the details of this poll. They aren’t sharing what questions they asked, or providing much description of the answers. They also made a very strange leap from “62% of respondents said that playing video games affects their child’s behavior” to “numerous studies suggest that virtual violence in these games may make kids more aggressive in real life.” (There’s a big difference between “affects behavior” and “makes kids violent,” folks.) Nevermind that their example quote mentions the DS — whose games feature cartoon violence at best.

Parents, have you noticed whether gaming affects your kid’s behavior in any way? If there’s a change, is it a good or a bad one? How long does it last? What have you done, if anything, to set limits on your kid’s video-game time or game choices? If you’ve done that, has it changed anything?

Now taking your questions!

When I started Backward Messages, it was with the goal of debunking misconceptions about the most controversial teen media. But I also planned to take questions and offer advice to parents who are concerned about their kids’ media or spiritual interests.

Starting now, I’m taking questions. If you’re worried about your kids’ taste in music, video games, spirituality, or other media influences, or you just want more context for what they’re exploring and why, send inquiries to me at backwardmessages AT gmail DOT com.