What I do when I waver

This is a picture of my perfect homeschool moment: We are in New York City, waiting for The Lion King to begin. My sons have never been to a Broadway show. They are mesmerized by the grandeur of the theater, and I am giddy with anticipation of seeing their faces light up when the show starts. This is the most exciting kind of “educational moment.”

But the truth is, most of our homeschooling involves no grandeur, no lesson plans, and tons of video games. This is not to say we don’t do cool stuff. We do pottery and skateboarding and swimming, and well, you’ve heard the list before. It’s a dream-come-true childhood, really, all the fun stuff they do. But there’s a lot of time in between Broadway shows and private horseback lessons, and almost all that down-time is filled with video games.

Today we had the whole day at home. It’s always fun to have a day at home because we drive into Madison and Chicago a lot. The day was feeling great. I was able to write and we had lunch together and the kids snuggled with me on the sofa while I read New York magazine. But by 3pm I realized the boys spent most of the day with their Nintendo DS’s, and a few hours of watching CatDog episodes they have seen 100 times. I got pissed off. I said, “Everyone turn off their electronics. Whatever you’re doing. Turn it off. Go read or something. Go play with the goats.”

There is a pause. The boys look at me to see if I’m really angry or if they should try arguing a little bit.

I look at them. I see they are worried I am angry, and I don’t want to be an angry parent. I don’t want to scare the kids. I worry that if the kids are with me all day, with no school to mediate our relationship, then I really have to be a well-behaved parent. So I fix my face so that I look loving and nice.

The nine-year-old says, “But you told us we could be in charge of our video game decisions because we make good decisions for ourselves. Don’t you think we’ve made good decisions today?”

I forgot I told them this. I say, “No. I don’t like your decisions today. Wait. No. Your decisions are fine for you just I don’t want to see you playing your DS all day.”

“We watched CatDog. You told us you think CatDog is funny.”

“I don’t care. Go outside and play. Climb a tree or something so that I feel like you are having a charmed childhood.”

“How long?”

“How long do you have to climb the tree? Fifteen minutes.”


“Put on your coat.”

“I don’t need it. I won’t be out that long. And I want to be able to see my watch for when we are done in the tree.”

“Forget it. Just play the video games. We are not doing forced, timed, tree-climbing. I’m insane.”

“It’s okay, Mom. We’ll go outside for fifteen minutes. You’ll feel better. And anyway, we already turned off our games.”

Of course they came back inside and got their coats. And of course they played longer than fifteen minutes. And of course I let them play video games the rest of the day.

And they were right. I did feel better. But not because they played outside. I feel better because my friends sent me tons of links to discussions about why video games are good for kids. And I read them while the kids were outside. One of the best page of links is here, from Sandra Dodd. Some of the things I read:

If you practiced piano eight hours a day would you say it’s unhealthy? Then why are video games unhealthy?

If you don’t play video games you do not understand that world enough to know what’s going on. But that doesn’t mean there’s no learning.

The best way to show respect for a child is to embrace his interests.

It’s hard to watch my kids play video games all day. It’s not how I imagined their childhood would be. I mean, I imagined it would be in school, of course. But I imagined, also, that it would be full of the magic of a Broadway show. I just keep telling myself that I need to create a childhood that is enchanting for them, not me, and I’m pretty certain that their idea of enchantment is video games.



31 replies
  1. JML
    JML says:

    “I just keep telling myself that I need to create a childhood that is enchanting for them, not me […]”

    This is so fundamental. It seems so obvious, but it’s such a challenge to see our children as individuals as opposed to extensions of ourselves.

    • karelys.
      karelys. says:

      before taking the plunge and coming off birthcontrol I was terrified that my reason for being a parent was just wanting to have an extension of myself, to live vicariously through all the opportunities I didn’t have.

      I watched Real Steel last night and there are some scenes where the 11 year old is fixing the robot. I think it looks super cool because you have to be very smart to do that and I think I want my future children to be like that.

      But I can hear the voice in the back of my head: it’s okay that you want it but don’t force it. THe child might hate it.

      I am afraid to be one of those parents trying to live through their kids.

  2. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “But by 3pm I realized the boys spent most of the day with their Nintendo DS’s, and a few hours of watching CatDogLH episodes they have seen 100 times. I got pissed off. I said, “Everyone turn off their electronics. Whatever you’re doing. Turn it off. Go read or something. Go play with the goats.”
    My thoughts/reaction would be very similar to your boys – as in, what have we done wrong and why is Mom pissed off. One minute everything is peaceful and the next minute it isn’t. We didn’t even get a warning that something was amiss. In other words, they needed some words and time to transition from video games to something else if that’s what you wanted. You need to provide that transition to them.
    As far as video game time is concerned, I think it needs to be set to a certain amount of time each week which is agreeable to both you and the boys – a negotiated agreement. This is no doubt in my mind that there are benefits to be had by playing video games. And they are the best judge of type of game (age appropriate) for their interests. However, I think they need your guidance to make good decisions for them. They need diversification in their learning by exposure to various subjects by various methods. Transition gradually from a lot of video gaming to video gaming with other stuff included. But what do I know. I don’t have any children.

  3. Joy
    Joy says:

    I would not worry about it too much.

    In school, time is wasted on waiting or doing boring stuff or simply staring out of the window.

    To master a game, it takes anywhere from a couple of days to months or years.

    If I want my kids to do something different, I will make those things very attractive. For example building a fort myself…usually they will come to my activities.

    Maybe if you want them to go outside, you can get dressed and go outside yourself. They may follow or may not

    • penelopetrunk
      penelopetrunk says:

      Joy, I think you’re totally right that the kids would go outside and play if I did that.

      But you know what? I don’t want to. I want to sit on the sofa and read. The boys will do that with me sometimes, but not all day (I could easily do it all day.) I hate having to be the kids’ platemate. I do hide-and-seek and soccer, but I wish they’d just play without me. I am not the playing type, I dont think.


      • Liz
        Liz says:

        It’s a fairly contemporary and fairly U.S. notion that parents should be playing with their kids, isn’t it? I don’t remember my parents ever playing with me all that much past infancy (not that I remember them playing with me in infancy, but I saw them playing with my little sister as a baby and assume that happened with me, too); the occasional game of catch with my dad and my dad teaching me to play chess, a board game as a family on Christmas sometimes, and once when my sister was really, really into the American Girls my parents let themselves be roped into a play she and her friend put together. By and large, though, my parents were of the “go outside and play and don’t come back until lunch” variety. And being left alone and trusted to do my own thing as a kid was both empowering AND enchanting.

  4. MoniqueWS
    MoniqueWS says:

    Oh the mommy moments when we realize *we* are learning and growing and questioning the established norms and the norms we are trying to create and, and, and …

    For us it is all about the decisions we make as a family and how we keep and honor those decisions. We have come to the generalized rule that screen time happens when it is dark outside. There are exceptions to this and we can discuss them. The kids have found they like this rule because it has proven to be good for them and for me. They have found it really does feel good to have time set aside for things other than screen time – not unlike when I set aside time for me to do my self-care thing for me.

    Easy transitions are a wonderful tool for everyone. I am likely to burst out like you did in this blog post and the kids are startled by the sudden switch up. It is my lesson to learn about providing them and myself with some small comment and time to adjust/transition. It makes things run smoother for everyone.

  5. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    I don’t think 8 hours of anything is “healthy”. Eating spinach for 8 hours straight would not be healthy. Law of diminishing returns, anyone?

    • Natasha
      Natasha says:

      I agree, especially on the practising piano example.

      Practising piano is incredibly solitary, which is why most professional pianists have no social skills. Instrumentalists fare better, because almost all instrumentalists are part of small chamber groups, or larger orchestras where you have to work with others.

      • Ceceilia
        Ceceilia says:

        “Practising piano is incredibly solitary, which is why most professional pianists have no social skills.”

        This is absolutely incorrect. Most conductors are pianists, and their job consists entirely of honing social skills and body language in order to rally and motivate people behind a single artistic vision. They evidently learned something spending 8 hours a day alone, not to mention the other 4 they spent in the library studying!

        Also, pianists can participate in orchestras and chamber music all they want. Most American orchestra repertoire from the 20th century requires piano, and there are a myriad of arrangements (Rite of Spring? Beethoven Symphonies?) for multiple pianos and small ensembles. To paraphrase Penelope, if you don’t play music you do not understand that world enough to know what’s going on.

        As a homeschool kid who practiced 6 hours of violin a day for the majority of my life, I think one of my greatest strengths is my ability to find what enchants me in whatever task I’m doing. Is it a sound? Is it a feeling? Is it a mind-blowing phenomenon that I’m teaching myself to perceive? Is it learning how to communicate better in rehearsals? Or using my back to communicate a mood? As a kid, I found expertise and communication to be so enchanting!

        The heart of this issue is the balance between repetition, moderation, staying open to new possibilities and knowing exactly why you do what it is you do. Can video games make you better at piano? Absolutely! Are piano skills transferrable to video games? Absolutely. Are both transferrable to pretend play and creative reimagining/problem solving? Absolutely. It comes down to leveraging the benefits of one type of practicing, i.e. repetitive, purposeful engagement, against another. And, regardless of the decision, “it doesn’t mean there’s no learning going on.”

        This is so inspiring, Penelope. Thanks for having the courage to recognize and permit learning in all its forms.

        • Natasha
          Natasha says:

          “Most conductors are pianists, and their job consists entirely of honing social skills and body language in order to rally and motivate people behind a single artistic vision.”

          Yeah – their artistic vision. Conductors are known to be ego-maniacs, and many have poor social skills. There are many examples of orchestras who end up kicking their conductors to the curb because of their ego.

          “They evidently learned something spending 8 hours a day alone, not to mention the other 4 they spent in the library studying!”

          Yes, they learn music. You do not learn social skills, or practice social skills, by spending time alone.

          “Most American orchestra repertoire from the 20th century requires piano, and there are a myriad of arrangements (Rite of Spring? Beethoven Symphonies?) for multiple pianos and small ensembles.”

          Yes, of course there is orchestra+piano repertoire, Piano Concertos come to mind (Beethoven is not 20th century, BTW), piano trios, etc., But there is a much, much larger volume of work for solo piano. Concert pianists spend the majority of their time alone, that is the reality. They build their reputations on their solo performances.

          I was a pianist, and am well aware of the benefits that it brings to your life, the richness, the joy. However, it does not build social skills. You need another person for that.

          Video games are different from piano, in that it can be much more social. You can play with someone right beside you, or over the internet.

  6. Leanna
    Leanna says:

    I am tiptoeing into unschooling from classical homeschooling, and I’ve recently begun to let go of some of my idealism when it comes to teaching my kids math, for example. That said, I think I see reading and unstructured outside play similarly to the way you view your boys practicing their instruments. To me they are necessary, in a way that memorizing spelling lists is not, and I feel a responsibility toward encouraging my kids to do these activities.

    While unlimited access to video games would probably not change my 10 year old daughter’s day very much, I really don’t think my six year old son would ever turn them off. My four year old son is somewhere in between. When I make the six year old turn them off, he very willingly moves on to something else, such as playing outside, building Lego creations, etc. I do see the merit in video games, but I do not see the merit in spending all day playing them.

    I wouldn’t let my daughter read all day either, nor would I allow her to stream Disney Channel garbage 24/7, which would be her idea of an enchanted childhood right now, especially if it included a diet of only macaroni and cheese! Isn’t it pretty much a given that any sedentary activity done all day long is not good for kids?

    When it comes to self-regulating, kids are each different. I have one who will turn up his nose at a chocolate no-bake cookie (madness) and eat Brussels sprouts for breakfast. The other two want to eat only mac and cheese and pizza every day and start the eye rolls when they hear the word broccoli. I have no problem making the completely substantiated claim that one of those choices is better than the other. Until my kids can regulate themselves intelligently, I will keep feeding them broccoli, explaining how their bodies work and why a variety of fresh foods is important, and hope that they grow into healthy adults without chronic constipation. :)

  7. LeAnn
    LeAnn says:

    I think every parent has those moments when we speak (or yell) before thinking, or we set things up a certain way expecting our kids to learn and make decisions the way they “should”, because we are doing “every thing right”. But that’s not what really happens, you can do everything “right” and they will still be their own person.

    One thing I have learned as a parent are that kids worry when their parents are upset. They want us to be happy – with them, with our own lives, with everything. It’s confusing when we’re not happy. But when you really care about something or someone you can’t be emotionless. I want to teach my kids that it’s o.k. to have good and bad emotions, but you have to deal with them appropriately, and everyone makes mistakes.

    Anyway, we basically have unlimited video game time also, although my kids are not homeschooled and they are expected to do homework. I’ve tried the “you’ve been in front of that screen too long” approach which works sometimes, but I really try to pull them away by offering them a better choice. My 7 year old son loves to cook so it’s easy to get him away from the Wii by asking him to help cook dinner. It takes 1/2 hour longer but it’s fun, and he’s learning a lot too. My 12 year old daughter is learning about the Holocaust in school, so when I thought she had too much time on the iPad I pulled out our pictures from Dachau and showed them to her. Then I helped her make a powerpoint to show her class, which she had fun doing and her teacher liked it too.

    It takes a lot of effort to engage kids, even if you don’t homeschool, but like you say – it’s so important and so worth it. I just try not to get so hooked on worrying about doing what is “right”.

  8. Greg
    Greg says:

    Video games are how gen y dads (like me) have fun with their children and it will be the same for your sons’ generation. Your sons’ gaming will help them create a connection with their children and make them better fathers.

    • penelopetrunk
      penelopetrunk says:

      This is such a touching comment, Greg. I believe you. And You create a new-millenium version of parenting that I really like.

      My husband doesn’t play video games but he likes zombie movies and books and so does my older son. The zombie stuff strikes me as crazy and ridiculous but I like it because its a way my husband and son bond.


  9. helen
    helen says:

    If you practiced piano eight hours a day would you say it’s unhealthy?

    omg, yes. is this even a question?

    if they were playing slots for eight hours a day, would that be okay?

  10. MichaelG
    MichaelG says:

    You don’t mention academic subjects much. Are you even trying to teach them math or science or history or writing? Do you really expect them to pick it all up as a result of natural curiosity?

    Video games are fun, but there is limited demand in the world for people good at video games…

    • Zellie
      Zellie says:

      Writing is learned by reading and perfected by writing. Lessons are not necessary and can disrupt the pleasure. This is no small effect since pleasure leads to practicing more of it. Science is learned by observation and exploration, math is learned by living and, surprisingly, a lot of historical/cultural feeling can be learned through gaming. Historical events are discovered through reading and many places. Traveling kids will run into a lot of history.

  11. Karen Loe
    Karen Loe says:

    I know that moment exactly when, suddenly, you look up and see that THIS IS NOT WHAT I MEANT when I told the kids that I trusted their decision making. It looked a whole lot more like a child in the library reading a physics book for fun…

  12. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Why is it hard for you to watch your kids play video games all day?
    Once you can truthfully and fully answer that question for yourself, I would be interested to know. I believe the answer to that question will really help you get even better with your unschooling efforts.
    Leave the enchanting to books, movies, plays, etc. It was my Boy Scout training with my Dad and his friends that made it possible for us to survive a winter camping trip in the Adirondacks where the night time temperature went down to -30F. And later while deer hunting in my late teens that I got lost in the woods, I didn’t lose my cool and used my map and compass to find my way. I know how to use electronics (and they are helpful) but the sun doesn’t rise and set with them.

  13. kristen
    kristen says:

    “But by 3pm I realized the boys spent most of the day with their Nintendo DS’s, and a few hours of watching CatDog episodes they have seen 100 times”
    It seems to me that if you are not actively enriching your kids’ lives with private horsebacking riding, pottery classes or Broadway theater then they are playing video games. Many, if not all, of these enrichment activities could be done in conjunction with schooling but you don’t like your kids’ school. You can do better. You don’t have to convince me of this, I believe that you can. However, are you? A lot better or only a little?
    One of the concerns about too much screen time is that it acts as a babysitter. Just like school.
    So, OK, you need a babysitter. I do, too. I can’t play with my kids for any significant amount of time either. Reading on the sofa, snuggling, sure. Legos and pretend play. Sorry, not this mom.
    But, I make my kids get bored. It is not my job to entertain them all day long nor will I provide electronic devices to do so.
    Why not?
    It just feels wrong to me. Video games allow that old saw “children should be seen, not heard” to be OK with the kids as well as the parents. That moment that you had when you got pissed off and said, “Everyone turn off their electronics. Whatever you’re doing. Turn it off. Go read or something. Go play with the goats.”
    Maybe that was your gut telling you that this is not OK. Just like it told you when your kids’ school was not OK.
    I agree with a previous reply, if you had led the way to the goats, your little darlings would have followed.
    I don’t want to go play with our goats either.
    Not gonna happen.
    I, too, want to read and do grown up things. I guess, what I’m saying, is that I get why you need a babysitter. It is one of the reasons I’m not homeschooling until middle school. Also, I really like my kids’ little charter school but if they were in our regular town school, I’d be right there with you – homeschooling and needing my own time/space for a good chunk of the day.
    I don’t know what to tell you to do. If you try to negotiate some “reasonable” amount of time that they can spend on video games then you are in constant negotiation with 2 little attorneys who can smell a moment of weakness or play on your heartstrings. It’s why I’ve opted to not do any video games (yet). I can’t deal with the negotiations. And at least one of my kids would play them all day long as well. As it is, After a day of enrichment, mine are playing a board game, where I occasionally have to chime in to help. I don’t know if this is the best way for them to spend their time (there is still a lot of arguing going on) but nothing about it makes me anxious. Trust your gut and watch your decisions- make sure you are not justifying what you want to do. If your friend had sent you tons of links on how good bad public schools are for kids, would you have bought it?

  14. kristen
    kristen says:

    I got through 6 or 7 links from your Sandra Dodd link and I noticed something pretty striking. Most of the games mentioned are RPGs. I think there is a difference between World of Warcraft and Spongebob on the DS. Just as Sesame Street is different than some of the Disney channel crap.
    I am constantly on the look out for games that both my 8 yo and I would enjoy and that would be somewhat educational. As he gets older, I look very forward to joining him on RPGs. My husband and I used to play Dungeons and Dragons in college for days on end. (One of the things I liked about my then boyfriend/ now husband – he was a great DM) But he’s not ready for it yet, nor is our family. It would exclude my 6 yo and that’s not OK, particularly because I think we will spend a lot of time doing it.
    The only game we play at present, after the younger son has gone to bed, is Lure of the Labyrinth – a free computer game.
    It is being used as a math curriculum in a gaming friendly school and we both like it.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I don’t know if everything on the DS is multiplayer, but everything my kids play is multiplayer. I actually think that generation z will be so accustomed to everything being social/multiplayer that they won’t even talk about it like it’s a feature.


  15. Meg
    Meg says:

    I’m just glad that I am not the only mother who thinks kids should play with other kids, and parents certainly can wrestle with them, play tickle, joke around, etc. but the idea that a parent is lacking unless they get down and play pretend as though they were children too, is silly. When my kids can challenge me to Scrabble or a good hand of cards, great, I will play.

  16. Mark K
    Mark K says:

    You may find this easier to manage if you think in terms of a week as the smallest unit of time you evaluate for results. Work up to a month when you master the week.

    School kids have these things called weekends and holidays when they pretty much don’t do any school work. They even have “christmas break” and summers off.

    Human beings of any age are going to have high performance days, and days where they are basically in r&r mode, which can look a lot like slacking.

    When you’re unschooling those days off are probably going to happen organically: when the kids feel like they are appropriate–not necessarily on weekends or when you expect them.

    If you judge that the slack days are overwhelming the productive learning time, discuss that with the kids, and come up with a plan together to bring things back into balance.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Wow. This comment is really life-changing for me, Mark. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it myself, actually :)

      I never felt okay about how I managed kids and work until I thought of larger units of time than one day. I think of month-long chunks of time when I evaluate if I am handling work and kids in the way I want to.

      So I need to think in month-long chunks of time when I am evaluating if I think the kids are having a childhood that I’d want them to have and if we have a family life I want to have.

      Thanks, Mark, for making me think about homeschool time and family assessment in a new way.


      • Mark K
        Mark K says:

        That made my day! I felt a little responsible since I was part of the chorus pushing for minimum limits on video games :)

        In Ohio, we always had a requirement for an annual evaluation, where my son would present a portfolio of his work to a certified teacher. It covered a year in a format that could be explained in one hour.

        Even though your state may not require such a thing, encouraging your sons to measure what they are learning and keep a basic record might be worthwhile.

        My family had little practice evals every month or so, and that gave us an easy way to review and stay on track. The annual portfolios thus assembled will be a lifelong keepsake of his childhood for him.

        • Mark W.
          Mark W. says:

          I couldn’t agree with you more Mark – measure and keep a record. I’m not thinking of any requirements that a state may have. Just to have those records for yourself and the kids as evidence of the progress being made is valuable in itself.

  17. Ira
    Ira says:

    When my kid wants to play video games I usually allow him to play Kinect (controller-free gaming and entertainment experience by Microsoft for the Xbox 360 video game platform) – at least he is not standing in front of a screen doing nothing, but moving around and … having some physical activity. Somehow I feel relieved, nevertheless he is not playing outside – at least he is having fun and he is exercising:)

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