Walking the tightrope- The parent's perspective between fun and frustration. (Part 1)

The challenges of young children facing frustration while they game, and how to handle it.

Alright readers, we're going to take a quick journey (sorry folks, my Tardis is in the shop)....

So you’re 8 maybe 9 or thereabouts, and you are sitting down to what is about to become an overly heated and competitive situation.  You're on the floor of course, since that’s where all the best early 90’s games were played. You are prepped with canned soda; maybe some microwave popcorn (the extra butter kind since the childhood obesity wave is still a good generation away).  It’s a decent day out, but you've logged the appropriate amount of time outside, and you finally have the OK from your friend’s mom to put away the jackets and unwind the controllers. 

So readers, now that you’re back to that warm, fuzzy, nostalgic place where the SNES lives in your hearts and dreams:

I’d like to turn your attention to life altering gaming related event from my past, which occurred on an otherwise unremarkable fall day in the mid 90’s.

My best childhood friend (we’ll call her “Peach”), Peach had an SNES at the time, and what’s better- is that she had all the right games. That’s right about where the awesomeness stopped in our gaming related interactions.  Peach and I had many an adventure that probably would have, and often times did, push the boundaries of our IQ's and sanity.  

This particular event is something I am now as a parent, absolutely f#*$ing terrified of.

Peach and I had decided it was a Donkey Kong Country kind of day, and we jumped into a level that she was trying to get a better score on; it involved a lot of mining carts and screaming at each other without tearing our eyes off the screen. Being something of an amateur completionist, she was absolutely set on not moving to the next level until all of the available bonus items had been completed. I was on board, at first.

As the evening went on things did NOT look good, and when the popcorn and soda were gone, Peach got a little scary. You know that kid who can’t beat the level, but tries about 9 million times doing the same exact thing over and over again- getting progressively angrier at the situation? They blame the controller malfunctioning, or their sweaty hands, or the glare, or the fact that you’re breathing too loud. This was the first time I met Peach the ‘Secretly Psycho-Killer Angry When I Fail at Video Games’ friend.  

After 4 straight hours of not being able to get that stupid gold coin, Peach threw herself back in anger so hard she split her head open.

No I am not kidding. At not even 10 years old, my dear friend Peach split her scalp open in a video game related injury while playing Donkey Kong Country on the Super Nintendo.

I walked home while they rushed her to the ER to get her scalp glued back together (yes I did say glued, I was pretty fascinated by that too). On that incredibly eye opening walk home, I vowed that I would never become physically injured in anger while playing a non-physical video game.

So far, so good.

This leads me to the predicament that I am currently in; my son absolutely LOVES mobile games. I spend more money on his games than I do on my own. When he was playing “peekaboo”, it was really cute watching him tap around and figure stuff out. Now that he wants to play “birdies” and “bouncing game” (which for the non-parent readers is code for Angry Birds and Doodle Jump) it’s still cute.

Or it was cute, until he got frustrated with our iPad the other day and whacked me upside the head with it.

At the time when I first wrote this post all out, my son was two.  He has since been diagnosed as having sensory processing disorder, and I find myself walking a daily tightrope: Gaming calms him, but also has the potential to infuriate him.

My son is now three, and can play through some parts of Cut the Rope, Angry Birds, Plants Vs. Zombies, and Doodle Jump completely on his own without getting frustrated.  He also loves interactive story books like the Mickey Mouse Road Rally, (please see game descriptions below) and Toy Story interactive.  He loves educational games like ABC Alphabet Lite, and Railroad Lite, and has recently become interested in trying Simon Says style games. I know that within over two to three weeks of installing apps like these and others, spending quality time with him helping him work through the initial frustration of their learning curves- my three year old started correctly identifying colors and letters 90% of the time. Through building that recognition skill with mobile games- I have been able to test his recall working in reverse. (Recognition is asking your child to pick out the letter A amongst other letters; Recall in this particular instance is taking J and asking him what letter it is.)


My son playing with our iPad after breakfast.

They did not teach me this when I had my Tamogatchi.

Herein lies the issue: as my son has become more comfortable with interactive games, both those designed specifically to be educational, and those not, he has looked to more challenging games with a very familiar gleam in his eyes.  I recently started teaching him how to play Mario Kart for the Nintendo DS, and he absolutely loves it.  I set him up in time trial mode, he picks a character (always Peach, go figure) and I usually put him on Baby park or a similarly basic course.  I do this despite the fact that he does understand the mechanics of stop, go and turning. I put him in simple courses because as soon as Peach gets stuck on a wall, he screams that she needs a time out and throws my poor antique DS Lite on the ground, Lonely Island style.  

Almost immediately however, he picks it back up- turns it off, turns it on again, and asks to start again. 

He exhibits this behavior with more complicated games like Color Sheep (which I love and am NOT knocking by the way, he gets the concept but can’t manage the execution at his current level of development); He also has the “AppMates” Cars game, and when Lightning McQueen doesn't respond to his input fast enough, we don’t see Lightning McQueen for a few days.  Sometimes this is my choice, my executive parenting decision.  Sometimes however, I can't get there fast enough and poor Lightning learns what it is to fly and play a really long involuntary game of 'Hide-and-Seek.'

As a gaming parent, this is truly a conundrum for me.  More so as a parent of a child who is considered special needs, who has a developmental disorder which leads him to be overwhelmed by some types of sensory input (in his case he is largely set off by frustration due to a lack of independence).  Gaming has done so much for him already, and continues to do so- but I will not condone a level of frustration, or expression of that frustration at three years old which manifests physically. 

A trigger? Yes, but also an unmatched opportunity for sensory "Reset."

As helpful as it is, our iPad (and now his iPad Mini- Thanks GameSkinny!) goes up on top of the fridge for a few hours at least any time he hits or tries to throw it. 

On the flip side- if he is set off by something a few hours later, and is losing control of his little body.  When he’s unable to handle the sensory overload he’s experiencing- the iPad or the Ds, or my iPod when we are out and about; these are his safe havens.  I guess this is a tightrope I will continue to walk, as I hear more stories from parents who are also struggling with their developmentally delayed or disabled child. 

All I can hear through all of it, has and continues to be, that despite some minor setbacks or frustrations, interactive gaming is a godsend

It is up to us, parents (and future parents) to maintain a balance. 

Regardless of our children’s developmental comparison to their peers, it is completely up to us to teach them how to manage their frustration, and expression of that frustration, in a way that is healthy.  We have the power to help them remember and realize exactly how much they can and will get out of their gaming experience.

Do you want to face the tantrums and the fits, and the feeling that you just wasted your money on a game your child can barely play- because they got too frustrated and you made them take a break? No.  I can’t really imagine any of us do.  But as a young girl, I put my hand on the back of my best friend Peach’s head and tried to hold the sides of a bleeding wound together.  All because she got so mad that she couldn’t get a perfect score on a game, that she ended up in the emergency room. 

We have all rage quit a controller, flipped a table, or ripped a power cable out of a wall once or twice.  (Let’s be honest here guys)  We have the privilege, power and responsibility now- to walk that tightrope, with pride and love as gaming parents (with a great respect for the cost of emergency room visits and replacement controllers, if nothing else).

How do you manage the balance?


Featured Correspondent

Hey GameSkinny readers, I am a single mom who reads, writes, listens to music and plays games- not necessarily in that order of priority. I am loving writing for Game Skinny, and am also on www.IndieCombo.com writing their Indie Spotlight. Find me on Twitter, and don't be afraid to tell me to check out a new game, or talk to a great developer, I'm always looking for more!

Published Apr. 1st 2013
  • Stephen Johnston
    I think this advice is good advice for any interaction with a child. If the thing they are interacting with leads to them tossing, hitting, etc. then you take it away. The same is true for matchbox cars and boardgames.

    Your article does a great job of reiterating this fact in the context of gaming.
  • gamerdad76
    Balancing gaming with kids is difficult, and I speak from experience. Video games have been part of our household for as long as my kids have been around and they see it as another extension of everyday entertainment - just as kids of a time past sat huddled around the radio for the newest installment of Little Orphan Annie or The Shadow. Just as I waited to see what new story arcs the Transformers, G.I. Joe, and even the Gummie Bears and Smurfs would be facing.

    But now, there is no delay. No waiting for Saturday morning cartoons or the Sunday comics - it's always there and ready to be picked up for another adventure. That's where the conundrum lies.

    When I was a kid, and we were stuck on a particularly frustrating level, putting the game down for a break was really our only option. It let us work through the problem and talk about it. Maybe even hope there would be a solution in the most recent issue of Nintendo Power. Now, with the unending availability of online help (I'm looking at you gamewinners.com) and the multitude of games geared toward a "pay to succeed" model, it's easy to fall into the mentality of "just one more level".

    Mobile gaming has given all of us, not just kids, an avenue for instant gratification and the ability to consume our ever depleting free time with playing games. Games that are purely time wasters, albeit entertaining time wasters.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm an avid gamer and I support my kids playing video games, but many games now give such an easy path to success, that frustration and stress are easy byproducts instead of developing problem solving and critical thinking. I'm reminded of world 8-4 of Super Mario Bros. and trying to figure out the correct path needed to reach Bowser and Princess Peach.

    My son and daughter are both big fans of Minecraft. It lets imagination reign and provides levels of intensity that are suitable for both young and old gamers. But even games like this can be taken to an extreme. I applaud those that have a passion for something, and I think that those passions should be cultivated and nurtured, but I also think that a well rounded lifetime of experiences are important.

    Sometimes it's important to put the controller down, go outside and play in the mud, dance in the rain, or read a book.

    I'm lucky that my kids do, for the most part, have those balances. I've always made an effort to listen to, and value, their opinions and thoughts while at the same time remain the parent and decide what I think is best for them.

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