How We Helped Our Son Overcome a Gaming Obsession
This is the story of a boy whose brains got eaten by digital zombies, and how his parents fought the zombies and reclaimed their son.
When our son was two, he discovered the joy of puzzles. He could hardly talk, but every morning he woke up bouncing with excitement in his crib, lisping, “Pizzoo, pizzoo!” That was our first hint that this was one focused, single-minded little boy.
When he turned three, he began to collect every Thomas the Train engine and Transformer toy he could find. At four, he moved on to Legos. He wrote to Santa and asked for his first-ever Lego set. The wait for Christmas morning almost killed him. A few days before Christmas, he turned to me, clutching his tattered-and-taped-together Lego catalogue in hand. In anguish, he gritted his teeth and moaned, “I can’t stop thinking about Legos!” Poor sweet boy. His intensity can be a wonderful strength—he’s passionate and focused, diligent and hard-working—but of course, it can also be a weakness, especially where games are concerned.
So last year when my husband got an iPad, and casually introduced our kids to the game Plants Vs. Zombies, maybe we should have anticipated that our son could become obsessed, but we didn’t. It’s not like the iPad even belonged to our son—he didn’t have unlimited access to it. But even so, in a matter of weeks, we had a problem. He became consumed. Time limits didn’t help: If we gave him half an hour a day to play, he spent the other 23 hours and 30 minutes thinking about the games, strategizing how to win them, and planning when he wanted to use his next half-hour of play time. His behavior and attitude changed. He turned inward, and got lost in his own mind and in a digital world.
Something had to change.
We decided a total break from gaming was in order for all of the kids. (For us, that meant a break from games on Kevin’s iPad. We didn’t own any game systems.) The kids were not in trouble; they hadn’t done anything wrong; this was not a punishment. Our hope was that this break would allow our son to disconnect his mind from the electronic world, to reclaim some of his other interests and find some new ones, and to engage in a more meaningful way with the rest of the family.
The key to this whole experiment was the indefinite time period. It wasn’t enough to take a break for a week or a month—because all that would have done was get our son counting days until he’d get his beloved games back. He needed to be completely set free. Once the games were no longer an option, he would have to let them go altogether. He would be set free to move on, mentally and emotionally.
The Talk (no, not that one!)
We called a family meeting, and had The Talk about taking a break from iPad games. Even though there were a few tears shed, they turned into the good kind.
We started by talking about King David, and how he spent his boyhood years outside and in training, learning to kill lions and save sheep and pray and sing and just be close to God. We talked about how you can’t learn those things by playing computer games. You have to be outside, using your imagination and your heart and your voice and your creativity. We explained that God made each one of our kids special and gifted, and that he has big dreams for who they become and how he can use them. What fun we had talking about each child’s unique, wonderful gifts! And then we explained that they won’t become the people God intended them to be by spending all their time watching cartoons, or trying to defeat zombies on the iPad. (Meanwhile, the children were wiggling and laughing and being ridiculous, but somehow listening, too.)
When we got to the crux of the issue—the indefinite break from iPad games—our daughters immediately leapt to their feet and began exercising (?!), and our son began to cry. But we spent a lot of time talking to him and encouraging him, explaining how talented God made him, but that his gifts will be squandered if he spends his best mental energy learning to defeat digital zombies. We made this so positive, and in a few minutes, we watched a light turn on inside our son.
It was amazing, one of those epic parental moments you remember forever. He heard what we were saying—how God has great plans for him, and how even though he’s a boy, he can already start preparing himself to fulfill those plans. He can do that by having fun playing and learning and growing; by learning to play sports and have friends and build things. (Meanwhile, there was even more wiggling and exercising and general ridiculousness, but somehow there was a lot of listening, too.)
This was a Big Night for our family. A night when we decided to live intentionally—not just individually, but as a group. A night when Kevin and I more fully grasped what God intends for our children, and what our role is in helping them get there. A night when we recognized God’s purposes for us. A night when our entire family committed to growing and loving and living life to the full—not wasting our lives on stupid things, but being present, and being ready for God to use us as he sees fit. We decided to live our lives on purpose. We decided to grow, and to work together to become the individuals—and the family—God intends for us to be. (Wiggling and laughing and being ridiculous all along the way.)
Within hours of our family devotional, we felt like we had our son back. A fog had lifted, and he’d awoken from a coma whose power we hadn’t fully understood. When he came home from school the next day, for the first time in weeks, he talked my ear off about school. He happily played outside with his sisters, built things with Legos, and laughed and laughed and laughed. We were flabbergasted—we hadn’t expected such dramatic change so quickly. For our girls, we didn’t notice much difference; the iPad had never really been a problem for them. But we were taking this break, united as a family, for our son—and it turned out to be the best family decision we could have made. Overall, our kids spent a lot of time playing outside, playing creatively, and even playing the piano. Our family became an even louder and more active—and yet more peaceful—place to be.
Our total break from gaming lasted about three months. Honestly, at first I resisted the idea of ever letting the kids play games again. (I know, I can be a little dramatic.) But the more Kevin and I talked, the more he helped me to be realistic. Our children are growing up in a technology-rich world. One of the best gifts we parents can give our children is the wisdom and self-control they will need to handle technology wisely for the rest of their lives. Children need opportunities to practice using technology in its various forms while they are still at home with us, under our supervision. We need to provide God-centered training in how to handle devices of all kind in positive ways. We need to teach them to use technology is ways that promote relationships rather than hinder them. And at our kids’ ages, games can provide a manageable introduction into that lesson. (I’m still not convinced that a game system would improve our family life, and so we have no plans to get one. For now, we’re letting the kids “practice” using technology by playing some iPad and computer games.)
We followed up with another family devotional, centered around the verse, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (You can find several devotions on this scripture when you sign up for the LizzyLife newsletter. It’s included as a free gift with sign-up.) We talked (again) about how we don’t want our minds to be so full of iPad or computer games (or email or Facebook or texting for the grown-ups!) that there’s no room for God or for people. We told the kids we were willing to give the iPad games another try, within certain clear parameters.
Here’s the thing about our “plan” for technology: It’s an experiment, not a lifetime commitment. It’s working for now, but we will continue to tweak it as our children mature and their needs change.
When we laid out the plan, we explained that each kid would have their own time limit that is appropriate for them as an individual. (Sometimes we cater too much to kids’ over-developed sense of fairness, and so we actually end up being unfair to everyone. Different kids have different needs, and that’s okay!)
- Our 8- and 9-year-olds get 2 hours of total game time per week, and our 6-year-old gets 1 hour per week. (In the summertime, when school is out, we let the older kids have 3 hours/week, and the 6-year-old gets 2 hours.)
- Here’s my favorite part about the plan: The kids manage their own time. (They do have to ask us first: Is this an okay time to play? Can I play for x minutes?) This freedom of choice is teaching them to manage their time, and is helping them to develop self-control and their own conscience about games.
- We set a timer for the amount of time they request, record it on the family calendar, and they stop when the timer goes off. And when their weekly time is up, it’s up!
- The most important part of this plan is that Kevin and I have follow-up talks with each kid. We keep an eye on our children, but we also ask how they think they are doing with games. This is a regular, ongoing conversation, especially with our son. We recently took another total break from games, and we periodically take breaks like that when we need a change.
For more on the kinds of questions parents should ask as you develop a plan for your children’s technology use, check out this article, Parents Vs. Zombies: 26 Questions Every Parent Should Ask About Kids and Technology.
Video games aren’t a problem for every kid, but for some children, who tend toward obsessiveness or laziness, they are a big problem. We have to watch our children as individuals, and know them well enough to recognize when they are not handling technology well.
A complete break from games can be a helpful way to reset your family dynamic and give parents some time to reevaluate how you want to handle games and devices. (I love this article about the benefits of periodic technology fasts, and the parenting opportunities we miss when our kids are too plugged in.)
Parents must be engaged and intentional in how we introduce technology to our children, and stay engaged in monitoring it. We can’t just let technology happen to us accidentally.
Devices and social media will play a part in our children’s lives. They will all have to learn self-control and appropriate behavior with games and devices and social media. The more that we do as parents to equip our kids to handle technology now, the better their life will go in the future.
The long-term goal is to equip our kids to handle technology wisely on their own, without our constant supervision—but every child needs an age-appropriate level of vigilance and guidance.
From a big-picture parenting perspective, games and technology can also provide a great teaching tool for our kids’ character. They provide a way to talk to children about such biblical concepts as self-control, selflessness, discipline, gluttony, training, integrity, godly thoughts, and (eventually) purity.
This is not a one-and-done conversation. Parents have to continually evaluate how things are going and make decisions about what happens next: When do our kids get phones or tablets of their own? When do they join social media? What about school-related computer time? The list of decisions is endless! (Again, for a list of questions to ask about technology, click here.)
To summarize: ENGAGE. THINK. PRAY. DISCUSS. MONITOR. REEVALUATE.
REPEAT. REPEAT AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN.
After all that we went through last spring, we got our son back. His brain resurrected after his incursion into the land of the Walking Dead. We hope our family’s battle against the zombies can give other families some ideas and strategies for successfully navigating the tricky terrain of technology.
Want more on this topic? This is my favorite article yet about kids and electronics, written by a blogger I love, Renee Robinson. She articulates so beautifully the gifts we hope to give our children (and ourselves) by not handing them an iPhone or tablet every time they get bored.
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Elizabeth works from home as a writer, editor, diaper changer, baby snuggler, laundry slayer, not-so-gourmet chef, kid chauffeur, floor mopper, dog groomer, and tantrum tamer. She is always tired, but it's mostly the good kind.