The other day I was in the waiting room at T.'s speech therapy place, grading papers and waiting for T.'s 45-minute session to end. T. was in the back with her speech therapist, and I was trying to make the most of the precious 45 minutes of child-free time I had. There were a few other parents there, in a waiting room littered with toys and books and puzzles. One mom, whom I had never seen before, was also waiting there with her young daughter, while her older child finished his therapy session. The little girl was about T.'s age. She kept climbing up onto the mom's knee for attention, and the mom kept sighing in frustration and putting her back down again on the floor to play. She was busy reading a magazine and listening to her MP3 player at the same time. Again and again the girl circled back to the mom for attention; again and again she shooed her away, with increasing impatience--and anger, even, I thought. Finally the mom's patience snapped and she dug into her purse, pulled out a handheld video game, and immediately gave it to the girl, who took it and spent the next 20 minutes punching buttons.
I hate seeing plugged-in kids. I hate seeing grown-ups plug themselves into their iPods and MP3 players and cell phones when they have small children with them. I see it all too often, though, and it upsets me. In a waiting room filled with books and games, would it have cost the mom much to put down her magazine, pop out her ear buds, scoop her child onto her knee and read to her? While I do love the 45 minutes I have each week to myself, to get some needed work done, I have logged many hours in that same waiting room with T. while L. was in occupational therapy in the back. I think together we've read every book they have, and completed every puzzle. There were many times when T.'s maddening chatter and insistence on reading the same silly book over and over again wore on me, but I did it anyway because, well, that's what you do when you're a parent.
I'm not passing judgment on the mom, because I don't know her; rather, I think I'm passing judgment on the increasing tendency I see to plug kids in as a way of getting them out of the way. We hand them video games when they act up in the least, or tune out their world with music players and portable DVD players. The other day in the walk-up line at L.'s school, a mom told me she gives her son's Nintendo DS to him in the shopping cart so she can grocery shop in peace. Another parent chimed in that video games are the only way they can make it through a car trip anywhere. I think we run the risk of creating a generation of kids who can't entertain themselves. Kids who can't learn to behave in stores because they aren't given the chance to; kids who can't look out a window and daydream, or count the cars whizzing by, or think their own thoughts, because they're too busy with a video game, or watching a DVD--plugged-in and tuned out.
I don't think video games are evil--in fact, I must confess I like a good video game, myself. L. plays lots of computer games, and loves his Microsoft flight simulator. But I don't think video games should be given to kids the way we stick a pacifier in a fussy baby's mouth. I don't think they should ever replace a conversation, or a chance to read a book, or to sit on the floor with your child and help him with a puzzle or a game. I think kids needs to learn how to be good in public on their own, with gentle guidance from their parents. They need to learn how to entertain themselves in creative and independent ways--again, with guidance from us. And when we start thinking a video game can replace a good old-fashioned cuddle and hug, or a chance to talk to our kids and teach them in the process, then I would say it's definitely time to pull the plug on them--at least until we grown-ups are old enough to take a stand.