Q: My five year old asked me to play video games with him and now I am saddled with a couple of questions.  Should I be concerned with what he plays?  Should I be concerned that I can’t figure out how to play what he plays?

A: These are valid questions and ones I imagine have been plaguing parents since Pong first pinged onto screens.  Since I was the lucky PropellerHead that pulled this inquiry out of the hopper, I am going to share some of my personal struggles, opinions, helicopter parenting, and philosophical gold with you.  I might add some facts too.

Just so you have a picture, here’s where your “expert” advice is coming from.  I am a 30 (cough) something parent of a six-year-old aspiring super gamer and a four-year-old yelling, non-skilled, Incredible Hulk-like gamer.  I had an Atari growing up and have played a little on almost every game system since, but mostly have an affinity for Nintendo products.  My household currently has a mixture of those, including the newest system, the Switch, as well as tablets and phones loaded with games for the whole family.  Feel free to stop reading here if my expertise seems like a snooze, but I will warn you there is an opportunity at the end for ahhhmahhhzing insights.

Let me break down my love/hate relationship with parenting small children and gaming/screen time:

1.    When my first born was one, every household having a tablet was still a luxury.  We were amazed by how easily he picked up navigating an iPad.  He was interacting with learning games and navigating Netflix self-sufficiently so quickly.  My child was a genius!  The next Steve Jobs!  I knew that bulk purchase of black toddler turtle necks and light rinse jeans was a good investment.

Fast forward to his almost seventh year, and I don’t even know how to navigate his new game system or his kid’s Kindle.  I tell myself this is not because I am old, or losing my tech touch, but because I don’t need to know how to work these things because they are the kids’ toys.  When really, I am just wondering how long it’s going to be until I don’t know how to use the remote.  I am comforted by the fact that my parents, to some extent, encountered the same thing as new technologies in gaming came of age when I was a child.  Also, how smart can they be if I still have to open their go-gurt?  Which is really just gross plastic wrapped yogurt, so who’s really the winner here?

2.    How do I know if what my kids are playing is appropriate?  Yes, there is a rating system for games (bit.ly/2hIwaPr), but just as with television and movie ratings, it’s all subjective, based on your child, your household, and parenting style.  For example, my oldest loves to build, engineer, and make all sorts of things in the real world, so Minecraft was an instant hit with him in the gaming world.  This game is rated for kids 10+ but in watching him play it, I felt like the adventure and problem-solving aspects were appropriate for him.  That being said, there are a ton of different versions of Minecraft and unbeknownst to me he downloaded a version that focused less on the building aspect and was all about fighting with heavy gun violence (at least the three seconds of it I witnessed).  That game has since been deleted from his tablet (which has parental controls set up, but allowed the download as age-appropriate) and he is more than content to play the original version.

3.    While we’re talking about violence, will letting my kid punch, shoot, or kill something in a video game ultimately lead to that behavior in real life?  This is not a new question or topic of conversation (related to all media).  Whereas the question is not new, the answer is still murky.  There are studies that suggest the correlation between violent video games and violent or aggressive behavior in children, but there are just as many that prove that inconclusive or misleading without considering other environmental and psychological factors – cnn.it/2Go09qC.

For context in my personal struggle with this, my household is a gun-free household.  We don’t have nerf guns, water guns, we don’t pretend play guns with our fingers, etc.  These are choices we have made as a family, but I will admit I still watch action movies with guns.  My kids like other weaponry (paging Zeus, someone forgot their labrys) and play pretend with “lasers” and “blasters”.  These are things that developed organically in our kids’ imaginations that I feel constantly have to be evaluated and I wonder how it should translate into their gaming.  My six-year-old introduced us to Fortnite, which is popular in his first grade (!) class and just as popular among teen and adult gamers alike.  He has very limited exposure to that game and has to play supervised when he does, but I am still not certain that is the right choice.  Like almost all of parenting.

4.    Let’s just say you have zero struggle deciding what gaming content is appropriate for your children.  There’s also the question of how it affects them behaviorally.  Personally, I can immediately tell the difference in behavior if my kids have had too much screen time.  So specifically that I know the difference between if they have watched too much TV or played too many video games.  Can games make your kids mean – cnn.it/2LrXwqS?

The answer in my house, is yes.  In fact, in most cases, game time is earned in my house.  Not because I think that is how it should be handled in all families, but in mine, while my children are intelligent enough to tackle pretty complex games at their ages, the intense focus on something in the virtual world seems to make them forget sometimes how to interact kindly with the real world.  That may be specific to my children because it’s a completely unscientific study conducted with my keen mom senses.  But my mom senses are always right.  Ask anyone.

Just like all philosophical questions (and let’s be honest – parenting questions), there are no clear-cut answers.  So you are welcome, for me not definitively answering your question.  I did promise you a free gift with purchase at the end of this, so here you go.  The fact that you are asking these questions is a good indicator that you are doing something right.

What? That was lame?

Ok, proof that the NES skills learned as kids are still relevant today – bit.ly/2uFVs7q.  You’re welcome, fellow nerds.