Video Games, Part Bazillion in Parenting: Masculinity

As a parent, every time I think I have healthy video game habits figured out for our family, I learn that there is still room for improvement.

Though sometimes I wish that we were a family that didn’t play video games at all because of all of the bother, my partner in crime finds them very relaxing. They are here to stay in our home and healthy habits e-game remain imperative.

The lovely book club that I attend recently read a book by Leonard Sax called Boys Adrift. The book had some great food for thought when it comes to boys and video games and I wanted to share my thoughts and would love to further the discussion.

In the book, Sax, a psychologist and family physician, outlines why he thinks so many young men today have a difficult time launching into adulthood (failure to launch.)

I am defining failure to launch as a boy who is the age of a man but has not transitioned into an adult with a means to support himself and who has no passion or purpose.

Like many parents, the failure to launch is a huge concern. I have a son who is doing pretty well in school but just never seems to be motivated to do anything with the thought of mastery. Grades motivate him a bit, but he doesn’t care so much about getting an A. Even with things that he loves to do, like drawing or making little movies, he often gives up when things get a bit difficult. He is still young and I do see improvement when it comes to working on hard tasks but still…

Is it possible that I am worrying too much and my kid will launch just fine?

Of course it is.

But I must point out that the failure to launch is a particular issue that I worry about because I have personally seen so much of it in my lifetime and I truly do not want that for my kid. It is bad for the kid, hard on the family and a drain on humanity in general.

In Boys Adrift, Sax believes that the following factors influence a boy’s propensity to fail to launch:

  1. Changes at school (Kindergarten is now first grade as compared to earlier generations)
  2. Video Games
  3. Medications for ADHD
  4. Endocrine Disruptors (found in plastic)

All of these factors were very interesting to read about but I found video games had the most impact on my thinking.

Sax, pointed out that video games take up so much of the precious time boys need to explore the world with their hands. In real life. In particular, with male role models.

Sax realizes, as do I, that girls need to explore the world with their hands with male role models just as much. However, his point was that boys tend to take more of their free time playing video games than girls do, so it is often a more significant issue for boys.

Sax also emphasizes that boys are also adrift because many of them think that their needs for purpose in their lives are met by playing video games. For example, a kid that loves golf can feel they have had the experience of being a professional golfer by playing the game with fervor and mastery. They have not.

If you have a kid that loves gaming, you have seen how involved with mastering the game they become. Hours and hours of free time to explore and get really good at the specific point of the game. How elated they are when they succeed and how tantrum grade upset they are when their game time is interrupted or taken away.

I think that part of this phenomenon of so much time spent gaming is a naturally easy progression for any young human. Any kind of game is an essential part of play. And play is an instinctual part of human learning. In the book A Theory of Fun by Raph Koster, he explains that having something that is a challenge and doing it over and over again without any true physical peril, learning and perfecting with each failure brings a sense of fun to the player. As play is an important way that children naturally learn, children are going to be drawn to anything involving play – especially a product engineered for “fun” play.

However, Sax feels that boys need to understand that a sense of mastery in the real world is worth so much more than a sense of mastery in the gaming world. Though his thoughts on this matter are an opinion – it seems like common sense to me.

I certainly feel a lot more accomplishment writing something and sharing it, or learning a new piece of music and sharing it than beating a game. For me, beating an electronic game fills the same niche in my life as finishing a really good novel. It is artistic entertainment, it helps me blow off steam and relax. It is not work for a rewarding end.

Without electronic games or television, children have to make up their own fun. Everything requires more effort, even entertainment. Conversation with another kid, playing cards, running around playing tag…fun but with effort. So it is no wonder that children prefer technology to the real world. Even the idea of what to do and how to do it is done for you in an electronic game. You just play by the rules and master it. Couple that with the fact that one’s brain truly releases dopamine when they are successful playing an electronic game and the tantrum-like “withdrawal” you experience when “unplugging” your kid makes sense. It is easily additive for the young in particular.

Sax further argues that not only do boys need real life experiences to battle failure to launch, they need time with male role models as well to keep them engaged. I found this thought very interesting. Further, he states that it is very difficult for boys to find these role models easily. He feels that the role models in popular media either show men as on testosterone up to 11 (super heroes,) who are not real and impossible to be, or they are losers (such as the Homer Simpson archetype.) Thinking about it, I can’t pick out any realistic heroes in popular media these days either.

We have witnessed an amazing revolution for women in the last few decades. Along with the discussion femininity and its right to exist is the discussion of masculinity. What is it exactly? When is it good? When is it bad? What needs to go and what needs to stay if we are going to raise both healthy boys and girls?

I think we are definitely in new territory when it comes to gender definition and culture these days. It’s just going to be super confusing and uncomfortable for awhile. While we sort things out, we are noticing things we have not before. As a parent of a son I feel I am learning the responsibility of understanding masculinity and what it means to our family.

Personally I think it makes a lot of common sense that boys need a male role model. Where else are they going to learn what it takes to be a decent human being with all of the special tips and tricks they might need when they encounter things that women might rarely? Even though it is changing, the world of men and the world of women remains a unique experience.

Sax suggests that boys engage more in sports and hands on activities that coincide with the trades (fixing things, building things, etc.) with dad or another male role model. He suggests boys spend 40 minutes a day playing electronic games. Personally I will have a revolt in my home if I put a 40 minute limit on games every day. However, his suggestions have made me think a lot.

To get ideas of things to do with your son in real life, Sax suggests that you should look to see what kind of games your son is playing and see if any of those games correspond to anything in the real world. If your son likes fantasy football games, sign him up for a football team for example.

As parents, even when we know this, it is very difficult to do something about it. In our household, my partner needs some relaxation time after a long day working. This he does by responsibly enjoying electronic entertainment, watching football, or doing a small model project. Now I am asking him to add another thing to his day. Help fix up the house a little with the kid. Take a bike ride with your son. Things like that.

But I suppose that is the rub of modern life. So many activities to choose from and a limited time to do them. We are constantly being challenged to choose wisely.

I do wonder if there are other activities that boys can do with a role model which are equally as beneficial as sports and trades; I did find Sax’s recommendations of activities to be “typically masculine.” I wonder – could motivation stem from boys doing activities because that simply require strength and heavy activity because they are hard but help you feel proud in the end? Or is motivation linked more closely to what we think of as masculine in our culture?

The final thought that this brought about was the discussion of trades. Throughout my life I have wondered about the state of our trades in our country. I have relatives and an in-law who were or are in the trades. Sax poses that the trades have many jobs that go unfilled because boys are not being trained with male role models to be able to do physical work. Personally I think his observation has a ring of truth but is not well informed.

I think Sax has a point in that today’s youth has a hard time with the physical demand of the trades because they come from a less physically demanding environment. However, knowing tradesmen throughout my life, they have put so much of their body into their work that they have physical problems from it relatively early in life (i.e. their 50s.) The trades are hard on tradesmen’s bodies and tradesmen should to be compensated for that.

Sax also poses that the jobs in the trades are high paying jobs and boys are not taking these jobs because they do not want to work that hard. From what I’ve seen these jobs are well paying…and they aren’t.

First of all, I am considering “well paid” in my own experience. For me “well paid” when you are young (25 years old) is around 40K. Well paid at the height of your career (40-50 years old) is around 80K – 100K. I think the jobs in the trades pay well when you are starting your career (40K? 50K?) But unless you start your own business, the growth to 80-100K is not there. I have not heard of a plumber making 100K a year unless he/she owned the business. And most of the trades businesses are small businesses. Most of these businesses cannot afford the benefits that you see in other professions such as the same level of vacation time, health benefits and retirement benefits. In addition, many trades require the tradesman to own their own tools, which also cost thousands of dollars, an extra expense they must cover.

Finally, these jobs are often technically challenging. The technology is always changing and tradesmen have to constantly be trained in the latest and greatest. So, tradesmen are doing more physical work than “white collar professionals” and they are doing just as much, if not more mental work. In short, the trades are really getting the short end of the deal when it comes to work in America. It isn’t fair.

If a kid is looking at how he will best be taken care of in the future as far as compensation for your body, pay and benefits, that kid is going to go with a “white collar” job if he or she can. The kid would choose this even if they are great with tools and love to build. The deck is stacked against the tradesmen these days, which is short sighted because 1) the trades can be very fulfilling work – you directly help people who appreciate a job well done 2) the trades cannot be easily outsourced – you aren’t going to employ someone from across the globe to fix your toilet, which brings money into your own community and 3) technology is only getting more complex and we need smart people who understand how things work to fix it.

Getting on my soapbox further, I genuinely hope that business owners, tradespeople, business school graduates, and economists start looking at this concern more closely and come up with solutions. No matter who we vote into office, we will still need someone to fix the garage door and that person needs to be just as well compensated as the engineer who specified the spring that broke.

Anyway, the book was a great read and it certainly sent me down quite the rabbit hole of interesting connections. I would greatly appreciate any further discussion about its ideas, especially about the trades. Maybe the outlook on trades is better than I am thinking – I just shared my indirect impressions.

About LornaGovier

Lorna Govier lives in Tucson, AZ.
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