Thursday, March 22, 2012

A Good Reason To Let Kids Fail Online

I love eating dinner alone with my boys. About once a month or so, I take each out for dinner alone and listen. The key is not the food, it's the listen.

I hate the addictive nature of certain video games that have, at times, encompassed the lives of all the males in our house. I've seen everything from "Brood War" to "Runescape" to "Diablo" to "Warcraft." In fact, when I first married The Man Who Puts Up With Me, I had many fantasies of throwing the computer out the window because he disappeared into a game for hours every evening.

I know other women go through the same thing. Hubby and I had to work through this when we got married for our marriage to survive. So when our boys came along, the two of us set a rule of no more than an hour a day of video game time for each boy. Naturally, they cheat when I'm gone or whenever they can sneak it in. I know that. But for the most part, I'm pretty firm about this rule.

Likewise, I get after them about playing online games. I don't like it when they can enter a game where they can talk to another player. Oldest challenged me on this with "Runescape" by showing me that responses are preset. Players are given a choice of several prewritten responses when interacting with other characters. This leaves out any ability for a sexual preditor to engage a child in inappropriate conversations. And just in case you are wondering, no, I don't sit by their side and watch.

So you can imagine my surprise when Oldest began to talk about how he had been hustled on "Runescape." Apparently he left behind preset conversations long ago, without my knowledge. I decided to leave that issue alone, since he was actually telling me the truth and that was the behavior I wanted to reward.

"So this guy told me there's a glitch in the game and if I put a certain amount, it would double in my account. I did it, and he took my million gold pieces."

Huh? Doesn't this sound like the Nigerian internet scam? What a great teachable moment! Soon we were talking about what it meant to be hustled, who in our family had lost huge amounts of money, and how to spot other scams.

Then he said, "You know, there's these party hats that everyone wants on Runescape. They are really expensive, and they do nothing for you other than make you look like you are wearing a party hat."

Sounds like expensive jeans, Izod shirts, Rebok shoes. Is it possible this online game is actually teaching my son similar money values?

"It's so dumb," he continued. "Why would anyone want to spend millions on a hat that doesn't help you with your defense or make money?"

Holy cow!  Get my youngest online NOW!

Then, the answer to my prayers came true. When he was done telling me all about that, he actually changed topics. This is an amazing thing because there were times in the past when I've actually had to ask him to talk about something else besides his video game. Truly, I consider there to be nothing less interesting than listening about a computer game. But suddenly he was talking about ancient armor and crafting. It was related to the scamming issue, but soon it led to discussion about historical armor and crafts. This from the boy that I was convinced would never be able to carry on a normal conversation with other adults.

We agreed later how nice it was for him to lose a million gold pieces online rather than thousands of real dollars he spent a lifetime accruing. For a boy who lives in a small town where there isn't even a stoplight, it's a great way to get some street smarts. No doubt about it, my perspective about online games has changed. But mostly, I've gained a great appreciation of how a $20 meal has brought personal growth in a way I hadn't anticipated.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Balance of Raising a Teen

"I'm not going to ride all summer with Dad, that's for sure!" announced Oldest. We have been frustrated at attempts to find him a place to stay this June in Fargo-Moorhead, and I'm not interested in him lying around on the couch all summer playing video games. He's just one year off from being 16, and without a sponsoring family in Fargo- Moorhead, he can't attend Trollwood Academy, a theater arts program. So Hubby and I decided that Oldest can join his old man in the semi for the summer.

"Dude, I love you. But Dad could use a cook and you could see the whole country," I said.  "If you can't find a job, and you can't find some place to live up in F/M, you've got to do something with your time."

"Fine!" he announced, getting up and heading for the stairs. "I'll go live with my cousins in Minneapolis."

His "cousins in Minneapolis?" Ah, yes. This is the fairy tale land of all people who do not want to deal with reality. This is the place where you can live all the time, run around and do what you want, and not have chores, or wash your own clothes, or clean up the kitchen. This is where the food is the best, everyone is laughing all the time, there's money growing on the tree in the backyard so you can go to museums, concerts, and playlands. In reality, his "cousins in Minneapolis" are a struggling family of five, my nephew's family,  who would struggle worse if he showed up on their doorstep one day.

Truthfully, our son is 15, and getting a job may or may not happen.  If he does get a job, and not attend the academy in Moorhead, I have to drive him to work. That's not a big deal until you consider that I have to work, too! So transportation coordination might get to be a hassle. First he has to get a job, a tough sell if he's under 16.

On Saturday, his cousin, David, from Minneapolis came for a visit. The man is 46 and has a son about Oldest's age and the boys get along great. I told David about Oldest's plan to come live with their family.

"Ah!" said David. "Where would he sleep?" he asked his son.

"Up in the attic," replied my grand-nephew. 

"Yep," said David to Oldest. "That's the only room we have for you. It gets hot in the summer and cold as the world in the winter, but you wouldn't get rain on your head."  Oldest nodded as though this were just fine.

"And, "David continued. "We can't afford much meat. So we eat beans and rice, and yogurt for our protein." Oldest hates beans.  But he nodded bravely, acquiescing that beans were food he could live on if he had to.  "And if you don't like the dinner, you have the choice of going to bed hungry. You can't just reach into the freezer and take out a pizza because there are some nights when we don't have time to cook and have to make pizza"

Again, Oldest nodded.  Maybe this experience would be good for him,  I thought. But I'd like to remain on good terms with my nephew David! 

He's in a funny age, this teen of ours. Tomorrow he could decide, "I'm outta here," and actually leave. I've learned to let him steer himself more. I'm hurrying to teach him skills I've forgotten, to make him take on more every day tasks so he can contribute to the home more. It burdens him to fit all this into his schedule since his has gotten more complicated. But we only have two years left to get him situated, and then he'll be gone, and I'm afraid I'll overlook something to teach him that he'll need. The idea of him wandering off just to avoid being underfoot is suddenly a headache to me. I want him home but not contentious, here learning but understanding that it is to ready him for the future, not to just have him as a slave.

Oldest has not mentioned spending the summer in Minneapolis since that conversation.  But the idea of vacating Mom and Dad's house for the carefree life of a hobo is still on his mind. One day he said, "I could pack my bags and go touring to California like Grandpa did when he was young."

"Then I'd have to call the police and report you as a runaway."

'How come? Grandpa took off when he was my age."

"No, he left when he was 21 because that was the age his father told him that he could be on his own."

This left Oldest mulling over the "Escape from Mom and Dad" plan further. A few days later, he said, "I'm going to live with my cousin on her farm in Iowa."

"What farm in Iowa?" I said, thinking of that particular cousin. This is Andrea, age 15, who lives with her parents in Wisconsin. They aren't about to let her go live alone in an abandon Iowan house that belongs to her grandmother. This troubled teen is not the best influence on our son, either.

"She's got a farm there," he said stubbornly.

"Ah! Well, guess what. I won't let you. She is a bad influence." I said. "Sorry."

"Have you ever considered that I might be a good influence?"

"So.  I'm not willing to risk you getting corrupted, " I answered. He slumped in defeat. No running to Iowa either. How bad can his plans go?

I remember turning 15, not because of a particular boyfriend, or wanting to run away, or a first job. No, I remember because of an incident. I was pulling weeds in our flowerbed when my father walked up to me. I'm sure my mother and I had had another row, and he particularly hated the fighting between us. "You are getting a job next summer," he said to me sternly. "That's all there is to it."

I remember feeling surprise, as though I had done something wrong. Now, looking back, I see my son struggling with the idea of independence, the square-peg feeling of being too old to sit around and do nothing, and all the while seeing others contribute. We've encouraged him to find his own work, make his own job. But he hates the lawn mowing, the finding work. He needs to work for someone else, give in to their scheduling, their rules. He needs to gain the experience of learning how nice it is to work for yourself, before he can appreciate doing it. He needs to have a boss before he can be a good one.  He needs to feel the comradeship of co-workers. I see this, and know that just about the time he is getting interesting, he needs to go.

And so he went to get his first job application. That's a story for another day. But in the meantime, if any readers know of anyone in Fargo-Moorhead that's willing to adopt a teen for thirty days in June so he can attend a theater academy, please let me know. He wants to run away, and that would be a great place to run to.