Like many parents today, I'm not a huge fan of screen time for my children. I've seen the research so I know the potential dangers, but it's more than that; I prefer to see my children doing more constructive activities. But I'm not an extremist. It's not like we don't have a TV -- in fact, we have two. But we limit how much and what kind of television our boys consume. However, while we allow our kids to watch television, we've never allowed them to have a gaming system, despite our oldest frequently telling us he's the only kid in his class without a Nintendo DS.
And then the winter of 2014 happened. We live in northern New York, just south of Canada. It was a long, cold, winter. The boys spent a lot of time indoors and we were all suffering from cabin fever. Now, I like Frozen as much as the next mom, but when my husband knows the lyrics to "Let it Go," it's a sign that we've spent too much time on the couch. So one winter day, I purchased a used Wii online. And you know what? The world didn't end. Trey and Trevor played bowling, golf, and skee ball. They were getting exercise, playing together and laughing. Surprisingly, my impulse buy was working out okay... until Trey's eighth birthday.
I'll be honest. I wish it were socially acceptable to tell people what to buy one's children for birthdays and holidays. You know we didn't purchase that toy with the high-pitched siren noise and no off-switch, and I damn well didn't buy my sweet toddler a toy gun. We also weren't the ones to buy Trey the Wii game Mario Kart.
Mario Kart is the kind of game that you'd expect with Nintendo DS or Play Station. These games defeat the purpose of buying a Wii, which is different from other gaming systems in that it allows kids to be active, rather than zoned-out couch potatoes with thumb cramps. But it was a birthday gift, so we let the boys play it.
Trey asked me to play with him, and (it was his birthday after all), I agreed. Now I haven't played video games since my own days of playing Super Mario Brothers as a kid (I know what you're thinking -- I played video games and I turned out okay -- but my parents also let me travel in the "way back" of the station wagon without a seat belt, so let's not trust their judgment). To say that I wasn't any good at the game would be a major understatement. The boys were shouting at me to "go faster" and "get the gold coins." But gold coins were the least of my problems; I could barely find the track. Yes, that's right; I couldn't even figure out where the race track was. It's difficult to explain, but this game is so visually stimulating, is such an assault on the senses, that I could hardly sort out what I was looking at. I felt like I had been transported to a foreign land without a map (or gps), where I didn't know anyone and didn't speak the language. It was unsettling, and, frankly, stressful. And yet my 8-year-old seemed perfectly comfortable in this strange world.
To be fair, the game isn't violent. There's no eye rolling or talking back to parents or bullying as you might find in those tween Disney shows. It's a racing game where the objective is to finish before the other players do. In theory this sounds like an appropriate gift for an 8-year-old. But having played the game myself, I have some concerns. What effect might that kind of visual stimulation have on a child's brain? On his or her ability to focus? To fall asleep at night? What about our kids' eye sight? And if children become accustomed to this kind of activity, will they soon become bored with their books and Legos and board games?
All of this begs another question: how did my kid develop the skills needed to be successful at a game like Mario Kart? Trey has only had Wii for a couple of months and he's only played at friends' houses minimally. Is he sneaking out at night to get his Mario Kart fix somewhere? Is he hanging with an older crowd, a bunch of 9-year-old hooligans, in some underground-kids-only-video-obsessed-slackers-community?
Or is this about our children being more tech-savvy than we were at their age? Are kids just programmed differently now, given how plugged-in we are as a society with our focus on the visual and on instant-gratification? I certainly don't have the answers but I'm concerned. Mario Kart just may end up "lost" like the noisy siren toy and the toy guns (sorry, Uncle Timmy). After my own journey around the Mario Kart track, I think it may be time to return to some old favorite activities. I find myself longing for the simpler days (a few weeks ago) when we were enjoying Princess Anna's song about snowmen. It's (finally) spring, so we can't build a snowman, but maybe it's time to watch the movie again. I know that's more screen time, so maybe we'll add a family-sing along and play outside after (please don't judge; this parenting stuff is hard, isn't it?).