No screens under two
Shapiro's first tip is to hold off on all screentime for any child under the age of two, and that includes not only tablets, phones, and devices, but also TV and even electronic toys that light up. As he explains, babies "need to master their own human bodies before they master the technologies we've built to adapt to our biological shortcomings."
I agree with him, and yet, I don't. There's something not quite right about a picture of an infant with a pacifier in his mouth and a tablet in his hand. Manipulating a device is a process that infant brains probably shouldn't try to tackle just yet. Finding bellybuttons and learning to crawl is tough enough. But a more passive experience watching something on a TV or device isn't really that different from taking a baby to a puppet show or a live performance. I don't know where I'd be if I didn't have good old Laurie Berkner music videos and Baby Einstein to help calm a cranky baby in the dead of night. Cuddling up to soothing songs and cute puppets helped both of us get through a few rough nights.
Rethinking screen time limits
If there's one question that every parent grapples with, it's how much screen time is too much. But as Shapiro points out, parents need to stop looking for the quick fix answer and instead look at the issue in a different way. Instead of asking how much is too much, parents should ask how they can teach their children to find a healthy balance in their relationship to a screen.
Shapiro is spot on with this piece of advice. Many parents don't have much experience with video games, and they're both intimidated and overwhelmed by gaming as a result. Any time spent playing video games is a waste of time in the eyes of many parents, and there's a feeling of guilt when they do let their children play. But as Shapiro points out, there's a lot of learning going on, even in games that aren't expressly "educational," and we looked at five types of learning that he mentioned in a previous column. But what parents need to do is remember that video games are just another form of screen time. Yelling at a child to turn off the iPad or laptop looks a little hypocritical when that parent has one eye on his iPhone to check his Facebook status and play Candy Crush. What's important isn't the question of "to play or not to play"; it's teaching children that video games, and technology in general, are a part of life, with the key word being part. If parents can teach children how to balance it with all of life's other responsibilities, they'll raise responsible adults in the long run.
Play with your kids
Of the three tips that Shapiro cites, this one is the most important -- and the one most overlooked by many parents. On the surface, sharing game time together helps parents keep up to speed on what their children are doing when they're gaming. But there's much more to it than that. Video games provide opportunities for "teachable moments." Children learn problem solving skills from emulating your actions in-game. They learn sportsmanship from watching you compete in games. They learn how to deal with frustration and failure by watching your reactions. And what they learn from gaming with their parents will carry over into the real world.
At the same time, children need time to play video games alone. As Shapiro rightly points out, children today rarely have the luxury of going outside to play without some sort of adult supervision. We live in a society where kids are no longer allowed to wander far from home out of an exaggerated fear for safety, where a solo trip on a subway train becomes a point of controversy. So the only place where children can explore on their own and have those mini-adventures is in a virtual world.
As Shapiro puts it:
They need to get their hands dirty. They need to touch the world of interactive storytelling. And they need to learn how to fit into that world -- representative of a future way of processing, thinking and relating -- on their own terms.
Jordan Shapiro's article is a must read for every parent who is raising a child in this age of technology because he has a realistic view of the place video games have in life. They're not to be feared; rather, they provide opportunities for storytelling, entertainment, and even learning. They are one part of the puzzle that comprises our lives, and his advice is invaluable if parents are to properly fit that puzzle piece into the larger picture.
The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to firstname.lastname@example.org.