At what age should parents give in to kids’ demands for a games console?
Is six too young; is 10 too old? This is the dilemma facing many parents, like Joe Donnelly, when it comes to the question of video-game consoles
A sobering thought hit me recently: It's exactly 20 years since I did the Leaving Cert. How time flies. My favourite part of studying for the exams was playing Super Mario Brothers on the Nintendo at my friend's house, while listening to Nirvana and not studying.
If I'd had my own Super Nintendo Entertainment System, to give its full title, I don't think I'd have even passed.
Twenty years later and my six-year-old son, the eldest of two, wants to get a games console. We managed to dodge the issue at Christmas, and we had a further narrow escape at his birthday in March, but we're not sure how much longer we can hold out.
The plan was to wait until he's 10 before he gets a console but I'm not sure it's going to work.
He may not be doing the Leaving yet but we don't want him becoming a gaming zombie before he's even made his Communion.
I've seen how absorbed he can become in some of the games on my phone and it's a bit disturbing. He totally zones out; he literally will not respond to questions or instructions unless you physically remove the device from him.
We don't want him glued to a screen when he could be out playing, kicking a ball against a wall or setting a wasps' nest on fire.
My brother is a primary school teacher in the UK and was telling me about pupils he's encountered who appear to be in a permanently catatonic state as a result of excessive gaming. Is it too much to want to keep our two boys as far away from this as possible?
Maybe we're being a bit naïve, or possibly harsh, in our 'no console until 10' plan. A recent incident cast doubt in my mind about our embargo.
The eldest boy's cousin was over at our house and he had his Nintendo DS with him. My son excitedly said: "I've got some cool computer games too," and he fetched a video camera he'd received last Christmas.
In addition to being a camera, the device has two extremely basic and graphically inferior 'games'. As he sat on the couch playing these next to the sophistication of the Nintendo, I felt a bit sorry for him.
So are we being a little bit hard on the poor fellow?
Sheila O'Malley, of the practicalparenting.ie website, doesn't agree. "Firstly, I would say that six is too young for a games console," she says. "I don't know what the average age is, but the point is that just because everyone else has one doesn't mean you should.
"No means no, it doesn't mean maybe," she insists. "I would say to parents to trust their gut instinct and stick with it. The child picks up on any indecisiveness.
"Parents have lost the ability to say no. We are doing them no favours by not being able to say no to them. Once the parent says it in a way that is solid and strong, then the child accepts it as being the norm."
However, Sheila acknowledges the need to balance this seemingly tough approach with a softer side.
"It's also important to empathise and acknowledge their feelings," she says. "You can take a hard line but have some feeling too. It takes the heat out of disappointment."
Sheila gives me an example from her own family.
"We only got Sky very recently, before that we were RTÉ only with an aerial," she says. "But our kids grew to accept it and, in fact, it made them pursue a lot of other interests. We have three teenage daughters.
"TV was never a big thing; it wasn't on all the time. It wasn't as big in our house as other houses. There were incidents when one of the girls would come home and bemoan the lack of channels but it never jeopardised a friendship or made them depressed. They're not emotionally scarred!"
Sheila reckons kids are getting too much and too early. "Childhood is getting shorter, 'through a chink too wide there comes no wonder'; it's very true."
I agree. My wife and I strive to make sure our children don't develop a sense of entitlement that seems so common. But is the older lad entitled to a games console?
What if it resulted in not just zombie-like non-responsive behaviour but tension and rows? That's how Kildare mum-of-three Sharon McCabe described the situation in her home, before a plan was implemented.
"Our eldest, Jamie, is 10 and he has a Nintendo Wii. Mary Beth is almost four but isn't quite as interested in games. Senan is a year-and-a-half and already wants to play games on the phone."
Sharon explains they've a family iPad and a Mac too, and Jamie has access to those as well as the Wii.
"He was seven when he got the Wii," she says. "We felt it was probably time he should get one. My husband James is big into games and has a PSP.
"We had the device hidden for three years; Jamie never knew it existed. James would play it on the sly, or at night when the child was in bed.
"I really wanted to put off that time when he'd be playing games. But once Jamie found it, the cat was out of the bag."
Is Jamie prone to spending long periods of time glued to the screen?
"When he got the Wii he definitely became addicted to it, absolutely. It'd get to the stage where I'd ask him to get off and he'd repeatedly say 'in a second'. Invariably it would end in a row.
"Our system is he can play with any of the devices, during the week, for a maximum of one hour. We're more relaxed at the weekend."
This plan works, up to a point.
"There's often tension. The problem is getting him off the console. He always wants to finish the game. Not only that, he can't sleep if he's been playing late into the night.
"We have to be vigilant. I have to tell him to go outside or go play with his friends, but of course then he'll go and play the Xbox or whatever at the neighbour's house. It's hard to police."
It sounds like a losing battle, but Sharon assures me the threat of taking away the games console works very well.
"And at least with the Wii they get a bit of exercise," she says, "although it's a complete myth that sports games and fitness games help keep children fit.
"There is simply no substitute to going outside and running around."
What does she think of our plan to be a console-free house for at least another four years?
"Ten is very old. I think you're going to drive yourselves insane if you wait for another four years. I think it's inevitable you'll get one before then.
"I would advise to have very clear rules as to when he can play it and for how long."
Maybe my wife and I should familiarise ourselves with the popular consoles that the two boys won't be allowed to play.
Jessica Kelly is the technology reviewer on Newstalk's 'The Right Hook'. "There are essentially two types of game consoles," she tells me, "hand-held consoles and video consoles which connect to the TV.
"The most popular hand-held consoles are the Nintendo DS and 3DS, the PSP and the PSP Vita. The latter are aimed more at teenagers and adults."
What are the younger kids happiest playing? "I think the Nintendo DS would be the most child-friendly, both in physical form and game selection," says Jessica.
"The handheld device has two screens and a small stylus, which makes it easy for children to interact with the game. Nintendo brand some of their games as 'edu-taining' (education and entertaining).
"They have games which help kids with their reading, drawing and musical skills."
Even though I secretly regard terms like 'edu-taining' as marketing hogwash, I feel they could somewhat justify lifting the sanctions on games consoles. Surely a 'game' that helps reading and music skills is only a good thing?
Jessica thinks we're setting ourselves up for a stressful few years with our 'not until 10' embargo. "Everyone knows someone who has a games console so the kid will get to play on one at some stage."
Hearing all this makes me feel like the Dutch child with his finger in the dam hole.
As to whether the eldest will have to wait until he's 10 is not certain -- I'll report back in four years.
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