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Encouraging your kid's passions, even when they're video games

Pax Prime 2011: Geek Parenting panel

Photo credit: GeekDad.com/Tim Post

A few weeks ago, I had the honor of sitting on a panel of speakers at the PAX Prime gaming conference in Seattle, WA. The topic: Geek Parenting.

Geek parenting. What does that mean? Geeks as parents? Parenting geeky children? How to encourage a geeky family culture? And why would a massive conference devoted to gaming — video games, role-playing games, board games, online games — carve out time in the schedule for a talk about parenting? And why was the talk so well-attended and so enthusiastically received?

“Geeks,” those nerdy, eyeglass-pushing, D&D-playing kids deemed least likely to procreate, have indeed spawned a new generation. And they/we want to talk about how to raise kids to embrace the joys and benefits of geekiness while sidestepping some of its pain.

The conversation was wide-ranging, but a theme emerged: that geekiness is, at its core, passion. Passion to follow a train of thought, or a line of enquiry, or a field of knowledge. Generally, if you’re a geek, your passion is something intellectual and/or outside the mainstream. In other words, if you’re really into chemistry or the Renaissance Faire, you’re a geek. But if you’re really into football or the stock market, you’re not. (An oversimplification, but you get my point. Geekiness is rather arbitrary, and the rules change.)

What kept coming up over and over again, from the panel and from the audience, was the importance of valuing and encouraging your child’s passions, even if they aren’t what you would consider to be valuable.

Case in point: video games. I have a love/hate relationship with video games and the arguments they’ve caused in my family, but I’ve (begrudgingly) come to see their value. Time and time again, audience members in our talk and others I attended spoke of the refuge video games provided during their socially painful adolescence. A place where they could “play” with like-minded friends away from the “regular” world inhabited by “normal” kids, and, to some extent, parents. A place where they understood the rules, had fun, and could win.

These now-adults were not talking about hiding or withdrawing from the world, a common criticism of video games. They were talking about connecting and engaging and reaching out to friends in a way that felt right for them. And a fair share of them now have lucrative jobs in the tech and video game industries.

I will never be a 100% enthusiastic proponent of video games (certainly not the super-violent varieties that somehow pass for entertainment). I advocate introducing electronic games to kids later rather than earlier, and noticing if your kid plays to the exclusion of everything else. But I have come to appreciate the role they play for my son, who closely follows game releases, stats, and advances in the field, and uses video games as a bridge to talk to kids he doesn’t know.

Your kid’s passion may be beetles, sports, weather, video games, dinosaurs, Pokemon, or Thomas the Tank Engine (my sympathies; I went through that phase). Notice these passions, encourage them, and give them space alongside all of the other things you hope to share with your child.

If you’re a geek, prepare yourself. This means you may be attending scrimmages with your possibly-football-loving kid.

With thanks to the organizers of Pax Prime and the rest of the panel: Ken Denmead, Michael Venables, Dave Banks, Jonathan Liu, and Curtis Silver (GeekDad), Cathe Post (GeekMom), and my husband Rael (engineer at Twitter; the one with the cute glasses). It was the first time Rael and I shared the stage, and it was fantastic.

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