What unlimited video games looks like for teens

When we started homeschooling I realized that the real issue with self-directed learning is kids choose video games. Especially boys. And that scares parents.

I came to peace with all-day video-game sessions when I realized that research shows video game obsessions are really just the current expression of the traits that make men more successful in the workplace than women: extreme competition, single-minded focus, and bonding through interaction rather than conversation.

So I let the unlimited games continue, and slowly my experiment with unlimited video games has morphed into an experiment with unlimited YouTube.

The result?  One result is my kids are exceptionally good at understanding the ins and outs of online search. For example, they told me that if there is an illegal copy of something like a Saturday Night Live episode the network removed, people upload the illegal copy to PornHub and change the title to something pornographic. Because the network lawyers won’t wade through PornHub looking for copyright violations.

Another result is they do not treat me as an authority. They treat the Internet as the authority, and because of that, they feel we each have equal access to authority. This means that my parental role in homeschooling is more about teaching the kids to ask good questions than it is about telling kids the answers.

For example, I have a bumpy lump thing on my arm that I need to get it removed. But in the meantime, the boys started searching for pictures of skin lesions to diagnose me. I reassure: “I’ll be fine.” And deter: “At worst it’s probably just a sun spot or something.”

The boys disappear. They have decided to become experts on skin cancer. They come back to me with a link to a guy named Paul Kraus with mesothelioma. “Mom, look, it’s not fatal. This guy has had it for 20 years.”

The implication, of course, is that I know nothing about anything and they know everything. “Great,” I say. “So I’ll be fine.”

The place their determination to become experts is most apparent is sex education. I sent them a link to STD testing. “You can get it done anywhere!” I tell them as I prepare for a day when they are not living with me.

My older son says, “Mom, what’s an STD?”

I am thrilled to answer. We are going to have a safe sex conversation. I am such a good parent. And just as I open my mouth to answer him, both boys burst out laughing.

My younger son says, “Yeah. Mom. How exactly can someone get an STD?”

More laughing.

“Okay, okay,” I say. Fine. Very funny.

Then they show me a video. It’s about how to protect against STDs when having anal sex. Really. And in the middle of the video, near the advertisement for lubricant, is advice that limiting partners is an important part of safe sex.

I express surprise at their knowledge about safe sex.

My son corrects me: “Mom, there’s no such thing as safe sex. Only safer sex.”

They burst out laughing again.

Which is okay, I guess. This is sex ed for kids with unlimited YouTube.


26 replies
  1. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Good to see a new homeschooling post! I don’t use video search very often. If I do, it’s because I want to see how someone has diagnosed a problem, I’m looking for instruction on a procedure to fix something, etc. Video and photos are helpful (and can be invaluable) on some things while at other times are not the optimal media. Many times the judicious mix of text, photo, diagram, and video is optimal for me.
    The ability to ask good questions is key and if they’re asking good questions, each succeeding question becomes more refined and is better. I’ve found the elements of a good search to be persistence, focus, and the ability to filter through tons of research to extract only those parts which are relevant to your needs/answer your question(s).

  2. Sam
    Sam says:

    In my experience, video game obsessions in grown men are a way to channel boredom/frustration/a need for success when sources of external validation are minimal. I don’t know of any men who are obsessed with video games who also have “big” successful careers. Or fulfilling romantic relationships, for that matter. How could they when there are only so many hours in a day? I do know successful men who occasionally play video games, but they don’t have that same drive to play as those who will stay up all night to play and would rather play than interact with people or be outside in the world doing things.

    • Mysentiments
      Mysentiments says:

      I know successful people who game like mad. Not CEO types but six figure earners. They are more on the loner side and single and young. I think it’d be hard to do if married or w kids

      • Terri T.
        Terri T. says:

        Unless the family games too. Around Christmas you’ll often find all of us in the family room all playing separate games on our computers. But it comes in spurts. We may play a game nonstop for a few weeks but then we get back to other life.

  3. Cáit
    Cáit says:

    I was thinking in Penelope’s absevcd what would be my dream guest education post– I think I’d like one from the commenter who lives in London and has some kind of bee in her bonnet about how klassy she is but was somehow educated with abeka…I’ve always wondered how this bio makes sense.
    I feel bad for Erin and have wanted a guest post where her contrite ex apologizes and writes how lame leaving his family was.
    I written before I don’t care for that ”victim of her own family’ in WA…but we’ve never had a guest post from that divorced computer engineer. Maybe he could explain the basics of what computer science actually is….and isn’t..as a field of study …that would be interesting.

    • Bos
      Bos says:

      What would you think of a guest education post from a long-time homeschooler who let his kid go back to school and had all his preconceptions about how horrible school can be confirmed, but then felt like the kid had to keep going once he was there? Would you like that? Because I can do that.

        • Bos
          Bos says:

          He’s doing fine now, YMKAS, thanks for asking. Last year was very difficult for both of us. We are glad it is no longer last year.

          • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
            YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

            I’m sorry to hear that it was a difficult year last year. But it sounds like things are looking up!

            Last night after fencing practice my oldest daughter said to me “Mom, I don’t love math.” Because half the time our conversations are literally just random statements to each other that have nothing to do with the present.

            But, math is one of her strong suits…not sure what to do with her proclamation.

          • Mark W.
            Mark W. says:

            YesMyKidsAreSocialized, I don’t know why your oldest daughter said to you “Mom, I don’t love math.” It could be any number of reasons. One of those could be she feels she’s understanding all the mechanics of the subject but isn’t being shown the ‘why’ of it all or the applicability to her interests. I just read this piece ( https://www.middleweb.com/36068/how-important-is-the-why-in-math-class/ ) recently published which includes link resources. Hopefully, it will assist you in some way to find some answers or ask more good questions so that your daughter can find a way to love math more.

      • Connie Trepanier
        Connie Trepanier says:

        Geez I wish I’d read this before this school year happened :(
        Here’s hoping for next year!

  4. Leslie
    Leslie says:

    You’re such a fraud. Your kids take endless lessons and tutors. Their gaming time is what we normal folks call free time.

    • Kristin
      Kristin says:

      But it is my understanding that those lessons and tutors are what the kids want — it is their choice, so it’s all free time. Just because someone unschools, doesnt mean they never take classes. Kids have goals too and sometimes they choose to fulfill their goals by taking classes, sometimes they choose video games.

  5. alberton
    alberton says:

    Have you read nothing about the anxiety these screens cause kids in the long run? If you’re going to homeschool your kids, you should start by parenting them!

    • Mysentiments
      Mysentiments says:

      My kids use iPads three hours a day and I don’t think they’re anxious even remotely. They take breaks. We are all addicted. Have you ever noticed the people most vocal about game addiction are old or totally anal control freaks. Just an observation. I don’t think tv is any better and the world is addicted. People don’t make eye contact anymore. At a certain point we all must self regulate. Yes using games as a babysitter is lame but my whole generation grew up with babysitter cartoons. At least Penelope was there. Most moms put infants and toddlers in day care or school and this obsession with separating kids from parents doesn’t end.

    • Kristin
      Kristin says:

      Where is the evidence? I always see these articles about the damage that video games do, and anxiety caused by screen time, but from what I have seen only a couple studies have shown some kind of negative impact and in my opinion those studies don’t mimic real-world video game experience. For instance — one flashed a bunch of video images in front of toddlers quickly. Performance was measured before and after this and there was a negative result after the images. This is NOT what video games are. However, Penelope has posted a few studies that show the benefits of video games. All this hype about damage done by video games etc is just the opinion of adults who thing they know better.Sorry I don’t have links or references. I don’t have time to look for those now but I’m sure you can find it.

      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        Kristen, I have the time but I didn’t have to go looking for it as I like to keep up with and know the arguments for and against different aspects of learning. This article published yesterday ( https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2017/10/26/three-ways-parents-can-make-digital-media-a-positive-for-young-kids/ ) and associated TED talk embedded in the article outlines three fears about screen time and one of them was Fear #2: Digital games waste time that kids should be using to learn. I think it comes down to perspective (glass half full or half empty) and how games are utilized. As the article and TED talk point out, there are many opportunities to make screen time and gaming a very positive experience.

  6. marta
    marta says:

    I guess teens get sex education everywhere – movies, paper publications, school, online, just actually living (at least part of) their lives unsupervised – and no media guarantees the info they’re getting is either correct nor safe. There’s nothing extraordinary about this. It’s been like this for thousands and thousands of years, give or take a medium.

    What I find a bit unusual on Penelope’s story is the willingness of her teenage kids to share/talk/show about sex and sex ed with their Mom.

  7. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    I think that I, in part, have bookmarked this blog because I enjoy reading the hair-brained ways that P justifies what she does. She’s endorsing her kids scouring of pornhub?! Come on! She’s endorsing her kids searching for illegal content? This may be part and parcel of parenting teenagers who are good with computers, but let’s not be PROUD of this and hold it up as shining examples of the benefits of unfettered access to the internet! Please readers….I want to believe that the rest of you are with ME and simply reading this for entertainment.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Even though my kids don’t cheat, because they don’t have tests, I also endorse cheating. People watch illegal content all the time. You probably do, too. For example, my blog posts get copied without my permission constantly. So the idea of what is illegal content is not working anymore. And people define copying best practices in school as cheating and in work it’s celebrated. So I’m just saying we need to be open to the idea that the rules we tell each other to follow (kids shouldn’t go to pornhub) are outdated in today’s world.


  8. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    AND another thing (I’m a bit fired up): I, at some point, recall you mentioning that one or both of your kids has aspergers. Maybe I’m mistaken, I know that you’ve made this claim about yourself. As a parent of a child with Aspergers, I know for a FACT that my child would be dismissed from our neurophychology practice if I reported to them that I allowed unlimited screen time.

    This nuance may be lost on some of your readership without children on the specrtrum. To me, it’s slightly maddening.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      My child with Aspergers is now 15 and he still has unlimited video games. At this point he wants to be a chemist, so he spends all his time studying to get into his first choice college. Video games are something he does only periodically – usually when a new game comes out. He will take a day off from studying, beat the game, and then go back to studying.


  9. Karen Murphy
    Karen Murphy says:

    Heya, this is my first time here (linked from a Blake Boles email) and I appreciate the article because it mirrors my own experience with my kids (17 & 12). Yes, they stray to the edges that poke my tranditionally raised (whatever that means) conditioning at times but they constantly amaze me with their knowledge, curiosity, out of the mainstream box thinking. Yesterday my younger son caught me saying the phrase, “maybe it’s a guy thing” – his response – “Mom, I don’t believe in guy things and gal things. I like to think of it as masculine and feminine and we all have both regardless of gender.” “Agreed, thanks son.” AND we talk daily about all the topics he explores on youtube from boobs in nintendo gaming to photoshop tips to pewdiepie’s last trip to lisbon (he shares one or two with me most days). My older son is 110% self-directed and comes to me with his latest supreme court ruling research adventures and keeps me up to date on current events. My main job these days is to listen, ask more questions & support them when off track to notice the signs and do what they know to do to re-balance. Thanks!

  10. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “This means that my parental role in homeschooling is more about teaching the kids to ask good questions than it is about telling kids the answers.”
    I couldn’t agree more as it’s one of those skills kids can and should learn as it will be invaluable for the rest of their lifetime. Frank Sesno, former CNN correspondent and now director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University came out with a book this year titled ‘Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions, and Spark Change’. There’s an interesting podcast of him being interviewed about the book at https://theartofcharm.com/podcast-episodes/frank-sesno-the-power-of-questions-episode-651/ where he discusses six of the eleven categories of questions he has defined. This comment is a bit off topic from the post but asking good questions is important for good search.

  11. Lizzie Smith
    Lizzie Smith says:

    You do realize that mesothelioma is NOT skin cancer, don’t you? You also don’t “deter” a question if you don’t want to address it now; you “defer” it. Regarding an earlier post of yours that I read, “proscribe” is the exact opposite of “prescribe”; given the context, you clearly wanted to say “prescribe.” These are just the errors I found in five minutes on your blog, and yet you present yourself as an expert on reading, educational standards, testing, etc. All I can say is, good luck to your homeschooled kids!

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