Family Life


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Rule #5: Care about important things

Boy playing video game - rule #5: care about important thingsThere’s a reason they call it Minecraft.

It’s because it has the skillful (read: crafty) ability to suck hours away from my 12-year-old – it’s also an on again/off again obsession for the younger two.

Minecraft. Mario Kart. Thundercats. Defender. Superfriends. The Lone Ranger. Rewind through any generation of the last 70-odd years and there’s been something to entertain and distract. The problem isn’t really the games, TV, movie, books, whatever – it’s the fact that kids get fixated on stuff and aren’t at that stage where they can self regulate all that well.

Self regulation. In the world of emotional intelligence, this one’s a biggie – spoken in the same sentences as “grit” and “optimism” as predictors of future success. The infamous marshmallow test completed in the 1960s is an example of the way scientists have uncovered the importance of self-regulation. In it, individual kids were placed in a room with a tester and given a marshmallow. The tester left the room and promised a second marshmallow if the child could resist eating the thing during the time he was gone. They returned to the subjects years later and found that those who demonstrated the greatest amount of control were the ones who were succeeding in life (there’s a long story about the test and its original intentions here).

So like any parent who watches a child get lost in virtual worlds, or consistently order the biggest thing on the menu, simply because it’s the biggest thing on the menu, I start to wonder about the child’s ability to self regulate. There’s a real internal battle here. The “come on, he’s just a kid,” thinking versus the “this is the time to establish good habits” thinking.

I’m trying to strike a balance, and the way I’m trying to do that is to not force self-regulation. Instead, I’m trying to do two things – create awareness and to listen to the kids to ensure that they care about important things.

The first one’s easy. My 12-year-old sees a triple burger/mega poutine combo on a menu and he goes for it immediately, not caring about the long-term health consequences, nor the $17 cost of the thing. I’ve started to include him in those conversations so that he understands what he’s choosing. My internal rule is that I’ll let him order a bigger thing every few meals, but there’s always veggies on the side. Eventually, I’ll get him to understand that half the burger is OK with more of the good stuff. We’ll self regulate through information.

It’s that second one – care about important things – that’s a whole lot more tricky. Part of the reason is that I look at myself. How’s my self regulation? The answer is better, but it took awhile to get here. Awareness has made me a smarter eater and better with money, but it’s the idea of caring about important things that made a real difference.

I was a terrible university student. I was always late for deadlines and not dependable at all. My colleagues these days would say the opposite of me. Why? Because I found something I loved to do. It’s that concept of flow again – the ability to do something for hours with determination and lust. As my kids grow and find that flow, they’ll do what they can to chase it.

So flow is one way to get him to care about important things. I put interesting things in front of him – a recent purchase of an Arduino kit and the suggestion that he has to start writing to the kids we sponsor are good starters. I also model that idea of caring in my own life. I include him in conversations and decision-making.

And I do a lot of listening.

When you’ve got six kids, the hardest thing is to spend enough time understanding who each is. They’re individuals – people with opinions, ideas and pathways. When our 13-year-old showed massive interest in a local theatre group, we gave her the leeway to chase that dream. It was an important thing to care about. My sense is that the 12-year-old will find it too.

Unless he can make a career in video game competitions…

a man carrying two children

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