We Are Both Right

Look Out the Window. The World is Your TV.

© We Are Both Right

John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac got by without the portable DVD player. And so can my kids (and I).    

When another mom asked Amanda and me recently where we stood on the subject of portable DVD players on car rides with kids, we each responded with a number. It represented the minimum number of hours our kids would have to spend in a car before being eligible to watch TV during a trip.    

Eight was my answer.    

My husband and I have done our fair share of road trips with the kids and have been on both sides of that number.  

Twenty-three hours in the car with our son when he was three was the longest.  I think we watched Wiggle Bay twice and maybe a snippet of Finding Nemo on my husband’s laptop, but otherwise he was busy looking out the window and fishing with the magnetic pole I surprised him with as we were leaving the house in the wee hours of the morning.  Filling the gaps were letter searching games, 20 Questions, and quizzing Daddy on how many dinosaurs he could name in thirty seconds.   A break (or three) at rest stops carefully selected for the presence of a Dairy Queen and we were good.     

In the three years since my daughter was born, our car trips haven’t been as long.  A few times a year we take a weekend trip about four hours from home.  It’s punctuated with a ferry ride at either end, but the same rules apply.  No portable DVD players.  And we certainly don’t own a car equipped with headrest monitors — not that my son hasn’t sat in a dreamy state in a fully loaded minivan on the floor of a car showroom on more than one occasion.    

Between this and my ban on handheld video games, you might think I’m willing to sacrifice my sanity before I give in to an electronic babysitter. But that’s not quite the case. 

I am at the ready with my credit card when it’s time to swipe the TV monitors on board an airplane.  In fact, my husband insists we only fly airlines that offer in-flight satellite TV.   Amanda knows what I’m talking about.   When our families took a four-hour flight together two summers ago, we couldn’t reach into the row in front of us fast enough to activate the TVs where the three older ones were sitting together.  Nobody cared who was paying for it.  We just ran those cards through as quickly as possible.   And that’s because we didn’t have the option of singing Kumbayah and searching for license plates while flying through the clouds and worrying about the tolerance level of our fellow passengers.    

But as soon as we landed, and set out for the driving part of our trip, those kids were busy with everything but portable devices (well OK, maybe they had a little fun with the walkie-talkies — when the could pry them away from their CB-calling fathers).  As we spent hours driving through a national park, they searched for wildlife that they would never see in our neck of the woods.  We chugged up to elevations where snow was still piled high in July.  There were cabins to spot and streams to follow along the road.  And then there was always an hour or so of cartoons to satiate them when we returned to the condo at night.  

It’s not that I’m trying to prove a point that my kids don’t need TV.  We certainly don’t live a TV-free life. 

It’s just that when we are somewhere new and there are things to soak in and experience, that’s what I want them to be doing. My ulterior motive — and the reason I’m priming them this way — is that we will soon take a road trip that will be the grand-daddy of them all. 

My husband and I did a coast to-coast-and-back-again road trip over three weeks before the kids were born.  In a few more years (when our youngest is in first grade and the oldest is in sixth) we’ll set out to prove that with good old-fashioned creativity, a family road trip of any length can be managed without bringing along the TV. 


Amanda and I agree where it really matters, like how to keep SpongeBob out of our cars.  See what she (unconsciously) promised her kids and didn’t deliver.


Handheld Video Games — A Gateway to Friendship?

I can never decide if this story makes me a “good” mommy or a “bad” one.

When my son C. was 4, there were no video game systems in our house — handheld, console or PC-based. There might have been one or two random Winnie the Pooh or Sesame Street games for the computer, but if there was, he didn’t play them very often as both T. and I used our computers to work. And certainly he had some electronic devices, but nothing that required the regular purchase of cartridges or discs.

So no video games. We weren’t taking or stand or anything, we just saw no need for a little kid to have one. Eventually we’d get something we figured.

And eventually came  – much quicker than either of us anticipated. C. started kindergarten. And began to get invited on playdates. “Yay!” I cheered inside. “He’s making friends.”

And then he started to get made fun of for his lack of aptitude in all things presided over by a little black controller.

Playdates for five year old boys, I quickly learned, had lots of different components and variations, depending upon who was hosting. At my house, they went outside or played Legos or superheros or watched a movie. At other places they played video games — PSPs, Playstations, XBox — whatever the hosting child has in his possession or whatever game the visiting child brought with him.

We would always bring a snack — wasn’t that good enough?

Apparently not.

And C. was quickly losing his street cred. How could that be? Boys his age were still sleeping on Power Ranger sheets! How could a 5-year-old possibly be uncool?

© Nintendo

© Nintendo

So what did I do? I tried talking him through it. Attempted to tell him that he would be fine, that he would learn how to play the games, to be patient, to hang in there.

Also, I panicked and began to privately lobby my husband — we needed a PlayStation 2 and quickly.

T. wasn’t convinced, but the more I saw C. in action with his friends, the more determined I became. He wasn’t good — not unexpected, he had never played before. But because his game play was so weak, he was either left out entirely or the other kids would do things for him — getting him to next levels and such so he could keep up. Which basically meant he was sitting there, watching his friends play.

So on a day that was neither his birthday or Christmas, T. and I took C. to the store and plunked down over $250 on a PlayStation2 and a handful of games, essentially securing his place with his peers.

I think back to that moment — and while I still have no regrets, I can see where it was definitely the gateway to what happened over the next few years.

Because that original console lead to a PSP and a DSi and a Wii for C. And a Leapster and a DS for our daughter, A. And who knows what our son S. will eventually wind up with (although at nearly 18 months, I’m *pretty sure* I won’t be running to the store for him anytime soon). Now would we have gotten those things even if I hadn’t succumbed to the peer pressure exerted by a bunch of 5 year olds? Most probably. Most likely. But still, I have to wonder about my original question: were my actions that of a good mom or one who was being a little silly? Hmmm.

Now while it sounds like we have a lot of video game systems, compared to some others I know, we have relatively few. And I don’t mind them — especially handheld video games. Car rides are peaceful. Waiting for the doctor has become a pleasure. And believe it or not, sometimes they learn something — math, vocabulary, reading — even their fine motor and problem-solving skills are strengthened.

We have rules though — strict ones. I try to limit them to about a half hour a day of “screen” time during the week (not including television). That means they can play whatever they want on any device of their choosing, but once their 30 minutes are up, that’s it. (And they are completely off limits during certain times, at the dinner table, home or out, for one.) If they choose to spend a half hour of their playdate with their friend (and sometimes I will allow it to be longer) playing a game sitting side by side, eyes trained on the little devices they are holding in their hands, that’s fine. I think video games are how this generation connects and socializes with one another and I don’t have a problem with that.


What do you think? Was my decision to buy C. a video game system necessary or desperate? Does your child play video games?

Holding Out On Handheld Video Games

Ssshhhh, don’t tell my son — but he just might be the last eight-year-old around who doesn’t have a handheld video game unit like the DS.

The original verdict came down from my husband about four years ago. We were having dinner in a restaurant where the family next to us included two bug-eyed boys glued to their handheld video games.

“He is not getting one of those.” And with those words, the ban was in place.  (This coming from the guy who was sitting with his feet up on a desk, playing Playstation with a friend in a college dorm room, the first time I met him.)

I went along with the ban on handheld video games though, because I also agreed that we were seeing more and more instances like this where kids were detached from anything going around them — whether it was a visit to grandma’s or a trip to the beach — all because of the hypnotizing force field they held in their hands.  But I also thought it was one of those parenting decisions we would gradually let slide, giving in to what is socially acceptable.


In the meantime, when L. was five, we bought an Xbox 360 for the house.  (See, we’re not ogres and didn’t really intend to deprive him of the video gaming experience entirely.)  It was different (or so we reasoned) because 1) it wasn’t portable and wouldn’t interfere with our family activities and 2) even his time at home playing video games would be limited since he was in school or playing sports outside most of the day anyway. 

It turned out to be quite the male bonding experience, father and son, facing off in football, baseball and hockey.  To this day, these remain the only games that interest him.  Once he gained some skill (and outgrew the whiny remote-throwing phase), I could see where video games might actually be a welcome presence in our home.   

So while still being DS-less and PSP-free at this age certainly puts L. in the minority, he has never challenged our decision (translation: we’ve never had to enforce it). He seems content to get his fill of gaming on our console unit. Even after all the times he’s peered over a friend’s shoulder at a party or on a playdate, he never comes back and begs for one.

I think he’s just figuring out ways to respectfully outwit us at this point. He has been zeroing in on my husband’s smartphone more often — and most noticeably on a recent family trip while we were in restaurants waiting for our food (the art of conversation just might die with this generation). Only an incoming call from work prompts L. to break free from his baseball video game or fantasy football trades and hand the phone back over to his father.

But I guess we’ll let it slide at this point, because he seems to (mostly) know the place and time for things like that.

The only thing I’m worried about (after attending a recent demo on robotic surgery technology at work) is that we might have to eat our words someday. I can picture it now: L. ends up in medical school, but is left in the dust by all the other PSP-trained surgeons who are seated at their video consoles suturing ten times faster than him.