Dear Dave

Friday 27 June 2008

The box of delights

Dear Dave,

Sounds like Daisy isn't enjoying her teeth coming through very much. It's somewhat hard to tell, however, since your last couple of letters have been slightly incoherent and occasionally mildly delusional. You need to get more sleep. If you've tried a selection of milk, cuddles, toothpowder, gum gel, chewy toys and Calpol to get her to settle in the middle of the night and nothing has worked then you're pretty stuffed for a year or so. (Been there, done that.) It's a case of putting Bob the Builder in charge at some point during the day and grabbing a nap on the sofa.

Sometimes a little TV to keep the kids distracted for a while is a life-saver.

But, yeah, as you've pointed out, my kids don't have the TV on just a little. It's on a lot. Marie watches some during the afternoon, the boys watch some before going to bed and they all sit goggle-eyed while eating their tea. The boys also spend a large percentage of their free time playing computer games. In particular, other parents can be surprised by the number of hours Fraser passes in interactive worlds inhabited by Pokémon.

Is the TV on too much?

Unfortunately, defending the amount of computer games my boys play always comes across as a little... defensive. The accepted wisdom is that children would be better off outside on the swings in the fresh air and sunshine, and the onus is on me to argue otherwise. Happily, much of the year there isn't a whole load of sunshine round here, so I get away with it - fresh air, biting rain and darkness conjures up a less idyllic picture of playing on the roundabout. Even on a nice day, though, I'm not hugely convinced.

Define better off.

If I chuck Fraser outside into the fresh air and sunshine, he's miserable. He can cope if there's someone willing to play a game with him but he's never been much good at entertaining himself. The outside is a bit dull, not very comfortable and is frequently too cold, too wet, too bright or too dark. Occasionally, it's too hot. He's not a fan.

When he was younger I used to regularly threaten him with extra time at the swing park if he didn't behave. That worked a treat but got me some odd looks from other adults, so now the removal of computer game privileges is my normal choice of punishment. The problem is, it tends to work out as a punishment for everyone else as well. Without a game to play, he hogs my attention or interferes with what the other children are doing. If we're lucky, he goes off to his room and reads a book. This feels like a step backwards, though. When he's playing games, he's in the same room as the rest of us and frequently holding a conversation at the same time. He's also doing something which requires patience, thought, concentration and skill.

It's not the case that he simply has nothing better to do. He loves videogames. He wanted to play with a computer the moment he saw one. I let him type random letters into WordPad and he didn't want to stop - he was hooked. He could switch on my PC and boot-up a CD-ROM when he was two but he's never much been one for toys. He'll check out how they work but get bored after ten minutes. It's not to do with attention span. He can play games for hours. I can't, though - I have other things to do. If he wasn't playing the Wii, he'd be playing board games against himself (which I remember doing endlessly as a child). Sure, he could play against his brother but they'd end up bickering over the rules and Fraser would always win and it wouldn't be much fun. Lewis would get fed up pretty quickly.

Computer games provide Fraser with the constant stimulation he needs, in a way he enjoys and without driving the rest of us mad.

Lewis plays plenty of computer games too but he's more willing to do other things. Sometimes there's cross-over. He plays games in the playground inspired by his computer games. I've seen him on many occasions leading a pack of little friends off collecting stars for Princess Peach or artifact pieces as Indiana Jones.

I was the same at his age... except I made up my own episodes of Dallas. Frankly, I prefer his source of inspiration.

The TV was on a lot when I was growing up. Even if I wasn't watching it directly, I'd put on whatever I could find to keep me company - usually a black-and-white film involving either John Wayne or Bob Hope. The big difference with my children's viewing habits is in what's on TV. It's all kid's stuff, whether it's cable programmes, a DVD or a computer game. Not only that, there's a vast amount of choice. It's always possible to locate something educational, fun and non-irritating and that doesn't involve Native Americans getting shot or Dorothy Lamour hiding in a wicker basket.

TV has improved since we were small. I'd rather the boys were playing Mario Party than arguing over the dice in Monopoly while I make tea. I'd also rather they were sitting still watching Shoebox Zoo while eating it than dancing about.

The only time I thought the computer games were getting out of hand was the summer before Fraser started school. Marie was nine months old and had begun crying for two hours at 3am every night. I was tired and busy, running after three children under the age of six. Fitting in all the changes and naps and feeds meant getting out and about was difficult. Fraser took the opportunity to plug himself directly into the Matrix while I was distracted. He began to spend the entire day on the sofa.

I had to find reasons to leave the house with them all. I took any excuse to head for the shops and we went to the swing park twice a day, just to break up his gaming sessions. Then, once he was at school, it wasn't an issue any more. These days, between school itself, clubs, grocery shopping, meals, friends visiting and homework, there isn't much free time left in the schedule. Then, when the weekends and holidays roll round, I don't mind if the boys install themselves in front of the TV and collapse. Being with people tires them out. Like me, they need some space and a chance to veg in order to recuperate. We've got trips and expeditions planned for later on but they'll spend the first week of the summer lying about in their pyjamas. (Wouldn't you, given half the chance?)

I, meanwhile, will be outside pushing a bike in the cold and wet. Every child is different. Marie hates being stuck in the house. She doesn't play videogames much and, when she does, they exhaust her. She has to go do some gluing to recover and then bounce on the trampoline. (She'd happily combine these activities if I let her.) She'll spend most of the summer exploring the garden.

I'll have to go with her but hopefully I can get her playing in the sandpit and sneak a quick shot on my DS while she's not looking.

Yours in a woman's world,



Gwen said...

Isn't it funny how kids from the same family can be so different? (And not just the boy - girl thing either...)

Anonymous said...

This all sounds good to me. It's not as though they'll be on computer games forever, anyway - hopefully at some point soon you can introduce programming... and the fact they could get paid squillions to be geometry/machine learning geniuses who sit round all day writing computer games... and they may well discover sport anyway. My husband was started on VBA (?) at 2, spent his entire childhood in front of computers learning new languages or playing completely daft games, but discovered rowing aged 12 ... managed to combine being a junior international with computer engineering and maths degrees and a sideline in electronic music, and still gets outside and does the occasional bit of non-screen stuff now he's too old and creaky to row properly...

DadsDinner said...

Gwen - The weird thing is, if asked which of my children are the most similar, I'd immediately reply Sprog1 ('Fraser') and Sproglette ('Marie'). Yet, they do entirely different things. I think it's tied to the particular manner in which they try to drive me crazy while doing them...

Dr Ellen - Sprog2 could easily discover sport one day. Sprog1, meanwhile, should probably be quietly directed in the direction of programming as soon as possible. I used to program my VIC-20 when I wasn't much older than him. Not sure where the place is to start, these days, though.

Anonymous said...

Not sure about the best way of getting kids to program (I will undoubtedly get to watch this in a couple of years), but I recently managed to get my (biologist) PhD student to start thinking he could program by showing him how CGI queries worked, and giving him a few bash scripts and telling him to pick lines out here and there to make a new script.

Until then he'd been going quiet and looking miserable every time his grad students' python & perl classes got mentioned... now he's really into the python at least. Perl might come later....

DadsDinner said...

Just remembered that I already have a plan for teaching Sprog1 to program - it's LEGO MindStorms. Even if it doesn't work, I'll be having too much fun to care.

Anonymous said...

oh, WOW!!!!!
how cool! it makes even meccano pale into insignificance...

DadsDinner said...

A legitimate reason to buy LEGO Mindstorms is the prime reason for having children.

I've still got a couple of years to wait yet, though (and a huge pile of cash to find...)