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Earlier this summer, my 13-year-old son began pestering me about a new video game: “Red Dead Redemption 2.”
The moment the initial appeal was made, my parental spidey-sense became activated, and I braced for confrontation.
I didn’t yet know why, but I knew I did not want this game in my house.
My son’s frustration and confusion at the denial of his request was not entirely unwarranted; after all, he owns or has played other mature-rated games, such as “Assassins Creed” and “Halo.”
Parents who have reviewed RDD2 on Common Sense Media—my go-to source for the whys and whatnots behind various movie and video game ratings—claim that it’s appropriate for kids over the age of 12. Industry experts describe it as “masterful,” “stunning,” and “the best looking video game of all time.”
So what’s the problem, Mom?
I’ve given this a lot of thought. My initial instinct was to point out the obvious and call it a day: the game costs 60 bucks, and my son doesn’t have 60 bucks.
As I let the possibilities sink in, however, I realized that even were my son to save his five-dollar weekly allowance over the next three months, I would still feel reluctant to bring this game into my home. I needed to dig a little deeper, for, as easy as it is to utter the perennial “because I said so,” I knew I had to fully comprehend my own logic if I had any hope of sticking to my M-rated guns.
What I discovered is this: my objection has nothing to do with any particular element of this particular game (e.g., blood, language, sexual innuendos) and everything to do with elements I find lacking in my son.
It’s about balance, people.
As a parent, counselor, and educator, I’ve read a sh*t-ton of research on mature-rated video games and whether or not they are damaging to our kids.
The statistics are mixed. For every study documenting a link to obesity or desensitization to violence, there’s another study touting increased hand-eye coordination and the ability to multitask. Each family has to draw its own line, determine its own moral compass.
For example, I’ve somehow convinced myself that games like “Assassins Creed”—with its oft-promoted historical elements—has an “educational” component that balances out the number of times innocent people get disemboweled. I hold the ridiculous belief that because I don’t allow the boys to play “Grand Theft Auto,” I’m staying atop some kind of moral high ground. And, in the case of “Halo,” I’ve allowed myself to be persuaded that murdering aliens is somehow better than murdering people.
I mean, we can’t let the aliens win, right?
But, really, none of that matters. We all have pastimes that, if done obsessively and without balance, would have a negative impact on our lives—following “90-Day Fiancé” on TLC, eating Nutella out of the jar, having a few glasses of wine with the girls. While harmless in small doses, I think we can all agree that binge-watching “Hoarders” or eating an entire box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch crosses some kind of line.
Even objectively healthy pursuits—such as exercise—can get out of whack. The other day, my brother said of his 14-year-old daughter, “I mean, she can’t just stay in her room all day and read!”
So, what does balance look like in the life of a teenager?
For one thing, it looks like a true or lasting interest in something besides YouTube and video games. My son used to read for pleasure (Harry Potter, The Divergent and The Hunger Games series, Percy Jackson, Diary of a Wimpy Kid…all the usual suspects), but I literally haven’t seen him finish a book in over a year.
He pursues zero non-electronic hobbies. Meanwhile, the ghosts of dozens of short-lived interests litter our home: karate and soccer uniforms, a guitar, whittling knife, boxing gloves, skateboards, a collection of Funko Pop dolls, sketch pads, spare violin strings, an archery target.
I’d love to see some appreciation (I’d settle for tolerance, even) for the simple, the prosaic, and the slow-moving. I’d love for my son to notice a sunrise or sunset without me having to prompt him to look up from his phone. I’d like him to enjoy (dare I say initiate?) a walk beside the river without finding it boring—or feeling compelled to whip out his phone to capture the experience in all of its digital glory.
I want him to take comfort in his own company, wonder why that family of four is walking along the highway, notice the smell of dinner cooking, offer a compliment to a family member, point out a brightly colored bird, seek out a hug.
Balance looks like some kind of goal-setting beyond how to earn enough money for the next video game (or upgrade, or “skin,” or whatever-the-hell). My son is never so motivated as when he wants a new electronic-something. Before feeding that beast, I’d like to see some honest-to-God effort directed toward other ambitions: getting a lead in the school musical, for example, or writing a song, or making the varsity soccer team.
Balance looks like our newly minted teenagers and future voters of America beginning—just beginning—to think about the ways they can contribute to something greater than their own interests.
Could my son, for example, notice a thing that needs to be done for the good of the family and just do it—without the expectation of payment or the threat of a consequence? Could he maybe pick up a piece of trash on his way out to the car one morning? Might he inquire as to why we don’t volunteer at the food bank anymore and express an interest in doing something useful with himself? Could he take 10 minutes to type out a letter or draw a picture for our sponsored child from the Philippines?
This isn’t to take away from all that is wonderful about my son. He recently came up with the idea to have an “end-of-year party” (versus a birthday party that surely would’ve yielded some gift cards) so that he would be able to include more members of his class.
Yesterday, I watched him patiently and without frustration learn how to apply and remove contact lenses.
My brother visited last week, and my son—even though he’d eaten dinner earlier in the evening—sat at the table with the grown-ups and made delightful and attentive conversation for an hour and a half.
He’s remained on the Honor Roll this year and even won a few special awards for “Excellence in STEM” and the like. And the boy enjoys a rousing game of “Dungeons and Dragons.”
I honestly don’t believe that screen time is inherently bad; there’s a tremendous amount of smart, hilarious, poignant content out there. We’ve come a long way from the laugh tracks of the 70s and 80s—even at 48, I laugh out loud at many of the memes, vines, and videos my teenage boys beg me to watch on a daily basis.
But balance is everything, and until I see my son taking responsibility for and mindfully maintaining balance in his own life, new video games are off the table.
And if he can’t figure out what “maintaining balance” looks like, surely there’s a YouTube video that can help him out.