Thursday, January 20, 2011

Vini, Vidi, Vinci

Amy, Amy, Amy, what have you started? You’ve churned the waters of the tranquil private lake of WASP parenting, causing unbearable angst and doubt for so many parents of young children. “Should I lock my child outside until he obeys?” they are asking. “What about food while he whines on the porch and shreds the screen door? Is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich okay, perhaps shoved through the doggy door, or must I still serve only locally-grown organic?”

A young miscreant
These are tough questions, to be sure, but what about those of us for whom it is too late, those whose children have somehow survived our oblivious coddling and lurched out of the nest? What are we to do? Are we to be consigned to the hell of regret for all the ways we failed to do what was best for our children? Oh, god, just push me off on the iceberg now and get it over with.

To those parents, the ones for whom the die of child raising is already cast, I say take heart. If you let your kids do what they damn well pleased, you have done the right thing. Even though you may now think (or perhaps thought at the time) that you were just lazy, you have been saved from yourself, and your children from you, by nature.

We have a game in our family called “What Would Darwin Say.” We play it all the time to try to link modern habits and traits to their evolutionary roots. For me, it’s sort of my way of saying it’s not my fault. What chance do I have to influence behavior when matched up against millions of years of natural selection?

Like so many others, I tried to limit the time my young children watched television and played video games. For my first three children, we didn’t even have a televison in the house for a long time. This resulted in them spending a lot of time at friends' houses and me finagling invitations to Super Bowl and Oscar parties.

Those first three babes were out of the house by the time the video game tsunami hit, but Meg’s and my boys were right on the beach, in little thatched huts. We were even contributors to the disaster. We like educational computer games, and Chris and Nick were solving math problems to find the puffer fish or save the planet from asteroid strikes at ages when attention still had to be paid to the risk of drool on their keyboards.

The result: they got good at math and hooked on blowing up asteroids. Naturally, when games like Nintendo came out, they were in. We resisted. But there were all those long cross-country car trips during one phase, and what parent hasn’t kept his eyes on the road and not questioned why it was so quiet in the backseat.

Later, when we started finding Gameboy handsets hidden under their pillows, we played hide and seek. I have to say, this was probably a significant contributor to their deductive reasoning ability, as they always found them, even in the freezer, under the French fries (no, extreme cold doesn’t seem to degrade performance).

We sparred like that all through high school. Some of the strategy games seemed pretty cool, I must say, but all of them were time sinks. That’s the problem, right? No one thinks that a little bit of Mario the Little Tailor or Civilization is going to rot anyone's brain (any more than an hour of Tom and Jerry over sugar frosted pops), but the damn things are addictive. They suck down time that the bit of Puritan in all parents thinks should be spent playing outside, making friends and doing homework.

Ask yourself this, though: Why are video games so addictive? Obviously they stimulate some pleasure center of the brain that keeps us coming back for more. What else does that? Sex. Daring risk-taking. As a species, where would we be without sex and daring risk-taking?

In fact, can you name an activity that stimulates us pleasurably that is not arguably good for us? (Not counting the ones that require ingesting other substances.) It only makes sense that nature would wire us that way: If it’s good for us, we’re programmed to like it so that we’ll do more of it. It’s more about dopamine than dopes.

So certain am I of this thesis that I have come up with a term for it: the Video Immersion Darwinian Imperative. VIDI, for short.

So, go ahead, rents, give in to the inexorable forces of nature. As Bob Dylan said, “Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command.” This has the added advantage of letting you sharpen your own video-game skills in plain sight in your living room instead of sneaking off to the bathroom or the garage.
VIDI is here. Can Vinci be far behind?

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