Stan Voit: Gaming systems popular, but not good for families

Dec. 10, 2012 @ 12:49 AM

Having just typed in hundreds of letters to Santa, I have some idea of what children in these parts are hoping they get for Christmas. Like last year and the year before and the years before those, it all comes down to one big thing: electronics.

From pre-schoolers to kindergärtners to those in first and second and third grades, boys and girls want Xbox, PlayStation, Wii, iPads, iPods, computers and the games that can be played on those devices. Many ask for all of those things.

How many asked for books? A dozen or so. Maybe.

I am no fan of game systems. I don’t own one, and if I had children that young I like to think I would refuse their pleas to buy one. I appreciate how much fun they can be. I played on a Wii two years ago. I just find them mostly time-wasters, devices that keep children from being their best.

I don’t image there are many households these days where families sit down and eat a meal together. The statistics prove me right. According to the A.C. Nielsen Co. (the firm that does the TV ratings), the average parent spends 38.5 minutes per week — per week — in meaningful conversation with their children.

Research by Harvard in 1996 shows family dinners are more important than play, story time and other family events in the development of vocabulary of younger children. It’s for sure games on Xbox don’t promote vocabulary.

Kids who play these games are so entranced by them, so engrossed in them, that all else around them is meaningless. Try to get a child’s attention when he is involved in a game. Many of the games promote or glorify violence.

Yet there they are, dominating children’s wish lists for Christmas. Why is that?

I have some theories.

I think parents choose not to spend quality time with their children. Parents work hard these days, and coming home to some energetic kids who demand attention can be difficult.

My father ran a dry-goods store for 25 years. He had no employees other than his kids on occasion. He opened at 7 and closed around 5:30, six days a week. No air conditioning; just a fan at his feet. Sometimes after closing he had to deliver plumbing to households in remote areas of the county.

It was a hard life, but each night he came home and we had dinner together, all five of us around a crowded kitchen table in quarters so tight that if you needed to reach the kitchen sink or refrigerator you had to go down the hall through the living room and back through the dining room.

Too many of today’s parents see kids as a burden, a nuisance, demanding too much time. So a gaming system keeps the kids occupied while the parents can relax or unwind free of distractions. Some parents like to play on them too. I know that.

In typing the letters there is certainly a distinction between the presents boys want and the presents girls want. Boys ask for army men, footballs, BB guns, “Star Wars” figures. Girls still want dolls (American Girl is a big request), Easy Bake ovens and makeup. Both asked for Legos. Both asked for DVDs of cartoons they like. Many asked for clothes, but not specific brands — I found that encouraging.

But always the game systems. Xbox and PlayStation and the like are not helping the family unit. They are wedges, things that keep families apart, not together.

If you think a simple meal together at night is of little value, consider this:

- Frequent family meals are associated with a lower risk of smoking, drinking and using drugs; with a lower incidence of depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts; and with better grades in 11-18-year-olds. (Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 2004).

- Adolescent girls who have frequent family meals, and a positive atmosphere during those meals, are less likely to have eating disorders. (University of Minnesota, 2004)

- Kids who eat most often with their parents are 40 percent more likely to say they get mainly A’s and B’s in school than kids who have two or fewer family dinners a week. (National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University).

So turn off the TV, shut down the gaming systems and hide the cell phones for 30 to 40 minutes a day. Eat together as a family. Talk to each other. Engage your children. You’ll be better parents and they’ll be better kids.

Isn’t that the goal?

— Stan Voit is editor of The Mountain Press. His column appears each Sunday. He can be reached at 428-0748, ext. 217, or e-mail to svoit@themountainpress.com.