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Moderating moderation

In general, I’m a proponent of “moderation in everything.” I believe, as my parents did, that allowing not necessarily healthy but pleasurable activities, as long as they’re balanced with healthy ones, is a good thing. In raising kids, this translates to a household where:

  • We eat sugar, but not as a replacement for healthy calories
  • We let kids play and explore the world, even when it replaces academic pursuits
  • We watch movies, but as a treat instead of a way of life.

The place where I’ve had trouble with this approach in my parenting is with activities that are completely a waste of my kids’ time, and which have addicting qualities. So we simply have never turned on commercial TV, and I don’t think that’s hurt our lives at all. And my kids don’t drink soda at all, except for the very occasional (real) ginger ale (with no high fructose corn syrup). Again, I think my kids have missed nothing by missing out on Coca-Cola.


This is one of my kids' friends looking at them in Minecraft! My son took a screen shot and we made him a t-shirt for his birthday.

We’ve also avoided video games almost entirely. When they were small, I didn’t think they needed to be staring at a screen when they could be interacting with the real world. Now that they’re getting older, I don’t like the violence and sexism of games, and research is showing more and more that the addictive quality of games is something we should be paying attention to. Since my husband and I aren’t gamers, it wasn’t hard to keep them out of our house.

Then the Minecraft party happened. A friend’s son wanted a treasure hunt for his birthday, but  a huge rainstorm was expected that day. So his dad programmed a treasure hunt in the interactive game Minecraft, and my son got his first taste of online video game playing.

Minecraft is a world made up of blocks. Each player is a character in the world, which can be run locally or on a server so others can join in remotely. Players can choose to play in a world that has dangers, such as evil beings called Creepers, or they can play in “peaceful mode,” where there is no random violence. (I’m pleased to note that “peaceful” is my kids’ default choice.) The main pursuit in Minecraft is crafting—building things. The kids build castles, lakes, houses, shops…. whatever occurs to them. They can also destroy things (which my daughter and a friend are doing right now as I type, with virtual TNT!). But mostly, the game (as my kids play it) emphasizes creativity.

We’ve had some really positive changes in our household that come directly from Minecraft. First of all, social changes. Our son had a rough first year of homeschooling. He’s slow to warm up to other kids, and since he wasn’t seeing other students all day, every day, he hadn’t really warmed up to any of the kids we were meeting. Minecraft allowed him to connect with some other kids, and all of a sudden he relaxed around them.

Our daughter has problems with social situations and understanding interactions with other kids. Once she started on Minecraft, she found a world where she could make mistakes and learn from them in a much more forgiving environment. She and her brother, who had been warring for years, suddenly had an interest in common. One day as we were walking behind our kids, who were intent on a Minecraft conversation, my husband and I remarked to each other, “They’re actually talking to each other!” This was news.

Another great thing that has happened is the creativity. My daughter is endlessly creative in the real world, producing piles of pictures, signs, inventions, and machines that I have to sift through before we get buried in them. Similarly, she loves the creative aspect of Minecraft. She and her brother talk endlessly about new things they are creating, and all the different qualities these things will have.

My son has taken it to a different level. One day he announced to me, “I decompiled Minecraft so I could play with the code.” He’s been taking an online Java programming class through Cabrillo College, and he decided that programming in Minecraft was how he was going to learn. Looking at other people’s code and altering it is, I know from experience, a great way to learn. When I started learning web design in the 90s, there was one book about web design. (That is: 1) The way I learned how to write HTML was by looking at other people’s code and altering it for my own use. My son is now doing that in a world full of textbooks… and learning a lot more.

So far, my son has created a “mod” (modification) that allows people to float if they can catch a chicken and place it on their head. Also, he and a friend are now collaborating on whole new aspects to their world, creating things that don’t exist in this world and giving them specific properties. Yes, the online Java class is fine. But no, it’s not inspiring him. Minecraft is inspiring him.

I haven’t gone all the way over to the other side. I don’t kid myself that most games inspire creativity and improved social skills. Most games — like most entertainment — are aimed at the lowest common denominator. They exist to sell, not to inspire.

Also, I have noticed that the addictive quality of games is very real, and very hard to combat. My son, the more compliant of my two children, will play at any chance he gets, and grumbles when I force him off. My daughter, who displays a greater tendency toward addictive behaviors, has been much more difficult to work with. She has a terrible time regulating herself. When I give her a five-minute warning, the words just fizzle away in her brain. When I give her a one-minute warning, she becomes frantic, working harder and harder to achieve goals that she’ll never reach. More often than not, in the beginning, I had to remove her hands from the keyboard and close the computer. If I had to do that, she would lose privileges for a few days. Lately, she’s regulating better because I imposed consequences outside of herself. I’d like to think that this is teaching her to be able to regulate her own behavior, though I can’t say that for sure. Most former addicts I know of have had to force themselves never to imbibe their addictive substance again. When their brains are receiving those endorphins and screaming for more, no amount of internal pressure can overcome it. In the end, it seems, addicts need to acknowledge their inability to partake in the addictive substance and move on. Perhaps this will be my daughter’s experience — there’s no way to know at this point.

But I do acknowledge that, once again, moderation has been the key. My kids are not going to start playing violent video games under my roof, no matter how creative anyone tells me they are. We still have our boundaries, and we’re sticking to them. But in smaller amounts, video gaming has brought some positive changes into our lives. Just like fine chocolate, real ginger ale, and an occasional great movie, a moderate amount of gaming suits us just fine.

Posted in Parenting, Psychology.

6 Responses

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  1. Shez says

    In May, Minecraft entered our previously computer-game-free home and overran it. Like you, we’re struggling to contain Minecraft and if we allow it, it consumes our children’s lives. However, we’re also seeing our children drill down to the code. They are designing mods as well.

    Most importantly, I’m loving how they are indulging in co-operative play through Minecraft. They have playdates where their friends come to our house, complete with laptops. It’s a joy to listen to the children co-operating with each other to mine for materials and to build structures.

  2. Suki says

    Exactly! We have been having “Minecraft club” at our house, which superseded a former Alice programming club. At the Alice club, I had to struggle to lead the kids to write coherent programs. They just wanted to play, but the tools were so complex that for the most part, their play wasn’t going so far. (It was more successful for the older kids, of course.) At Minecraft club, they’re talking and interacting the whole time. There’s no intense burst of energy focused on a negative target (e.g. blowing up something that’s coming toward you), but rather a creative interplay between collaborators.

  3. E says

    If they would have grown up playing a little here and there, i.e. true “moderation”, they wouldn’t have gotten so into it the moment they were allowed to do it, to the point that you describe above. Therein lies the problem. There are many games out there with virtue to them. Many cooperative, interactive, strategical, brain-promoting games. When you prohibit things to such an extreme, you end up driving the behaviors underground. Believe me your kids will find ways to watch TV and drink soda, they will just hide it from you.

    • Suki says

      Hi E — In general I would agree with you. But it’s not like we had an actual ban in our house. It was just plain disinterest. Like, we didn’t expose our kids to skeet shooting, either. We aren’t into it, so no reason to. Since we don’t like games and most of them are irritating junk anyway, it didn’t seem important to expose our kids. And they never asked. Of course they’ve tasted sodas, and of course when they’re adults they can decide whether to drink them. But when they complain about how fat they’re getting, there’s no guarantee I won’t say “I told you so!” For me, it’s a question of what’s worth our time. There are so many great things in our lives. We don’t have time for the junk. When people used to ask me how we got our kids not to watch TV, it would confuse me. We are so busy doing fun things, we forget the darn thing is there…. And let’s be serious here: We’re talking about video games. Gamers think they’re the best thing that ever happened to humanity, but the rest of us are perfectly happy ignoring them. As my mother used to say, “It’s all a matter of taste, said the woman who kissed the cow!”

  4. Melody says

    If you can replace a 5 minute warning to stop playing with something in the game (you need to stop after you blow up that house, finish building that wall,….) it may be easier to get compliance. As someone who plays games I know that some stopping points are better than others. It’s a bit like letting your kid finish a sentence before stopping reading.

  5. Suki says

    Hi Melody — That’s a great idea. I worry, though, that in my daughter’s case, nothing ever IS finished in Minecraft. This is part of the problem. In the finite world, she eventually runs out of paper, tape, or glue. (Sometimes that’s all that gets her to stop her unbridled creativity!) But in Minecraft (the way my kids play it), it’s like the infinite playground. I’ll try your method… and let you know how it works or whether the “wall” that she’s building suddenly had to be the Great Wall of China!

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