By Graeme Keon
The father’s sentence was abruptly cut off by the boy’s, “Well I don’t care! OK?!!!” shouted in a kind of sulky, “Look what you’ve done to me” tone of voice, then the “BAM!” of the slamming door. Another futile attempt at talking some sense into him was over. The father got a grip on his temper, mulled over some possible disciplinary actions, then finally walked away in a quandary. Coming down heavy on him had never helped in the past – it only seemed to worsen the situation. At least it was quiet – nothing but a few keyboard and mouse clicks from the other side of the door.
Wasn’t it obvious there would be consequences if his homework wasn’t done? And he hated doing poorly in tests yet didn’t seem to want to do anything about it.
The parents, in this all-too-typical case were uncertain how to handle this strange behavior in their once-rational son and struggled ineffectively with the problem for several months before finally making any progress.
What would you do? Angrily cut off his Internet connection to make him come to his senses? And brace yourself for the reaction? Including possible suicide? (I say that because it actually happened with one of my students’ classmates about four years ago. Under exactly those circumstances.)
Or say, “Well, leave him alone and he’ll grow out of it.” And just pray that he does before he reaches retirement age? (And I also know parents who are attempting to “handle” it that way. The result of one case, after MANY years of unemployment since graduating college, is an obviously wasted life.)
As a private English tutor in Taiwan I’ve seen plenty of parents tearing their hair out over this. And I’ve done my share of hair-tearing too. I hope that with this blog post I can share some of my observations and experiences, so that it might save some parents some anguish and set some boy or girl on a better path.
Computer game addiction, at first glance, seems very illogical. Why would someone waste so much time sitting motionless in front of a computer, achieving nothing except “virtual success”? Surely real life is more interesting and rewarding? And this question, I feel, takes us closer to the crux of the problem. It would seem that the “real life” of modern teenagers is seldom more interesting than a computer game. They are, after all, always telling us how bored they are.
And as for school, practically every student I’ve ever tutored has labeled it,”boring.” Here in Taiwan it can be quite intense, especially junior high school, with after-school classes and homework absorbing most, sometimes all of their free time. “Boredom” in fact, more often than not becomes “utter, teeth-grinding, wall-punching exasperation.” And getting someone in that state to “listen to reason” is pretty ambitious, especially when delivered as a stern lecture.
I guess an analogy for an adult would be having to suffer through a very boring conversation. Perhaps a well-meaning friend giving advice that you hadn’t asked for. Can you imagine how it would be if he or she had a LOT of advice to give and insisted you come back tomorrow to keep listening? And if he even made some special deal with the local police, so that if you tried to avoid him, they would drag you back, until all you could do was just suffer through it day after day, week after week, ….. year after year?
This is the predicament of the average child these days. And we expect him to pay attention because it’s “important,” but he doesn’t see why it’s so important, especially with modern day kids whose understanding of life has been shaped mostly by day care centers and TV. Even if we tell him why it’s important, in his mind it’s just our say-so. He has to have sufficient life experience under his belt to be able to weigh up what’s being presented, and see the usefulness in it for himself. Without that crucial step, he doesn’t think about what he’s learning but only memorizes it. Just long enough to spit it out on the exam paper and promptly forget it. This rather fruitless process, dragging on for year after year adds to his frustration enormously.
Computer games then, are at least a temporary escape from the frustration – an activity with understandable and invariable rules, where he can overcome the odds and win. Real-world or not, he is still “winning”. And when we add in the more recent developments of on-line social networking, and so many useful applications, there are plenty of things to do sitting in front of a computer for long periods, some of them quite valid (requiring some judgment on the part of parents).
The challenge then is to get them sufficiently interested in things they can do in the real world so that computers are not just a time-wasting escape from life. One has to find something interesting to them; not necessarily to you, that they can succeed at and enjoy. There’s nothing like “pride in a job well done” to lift somebody’s spirits. In fact the lack of this feeling of accomplishment in their daily lives is probably the main factor that turns their boredom to hopelessness, in which condition they don’t really even care if they’re wasting time on computer games.
The father of the boy mentioned in the beginning of this article finally made some progress with a very gradual approach that I suggested. He set up some woodworking tools on a table just outside the boy’s bedroom door and proceeded to cut up some wood to make something. On the first day, the boy only gave a curious glance. The second day he came out of his room and asked what was going on, so the father invited him to try out his new saw. He cut a piece of wood and said “Mmmm,” and went back to his computer game. (It wasn’t much, but at least it was the most civil conversation they’d had in ages.) On subsequent days the boy got more and more involved and began getting his own ideas of what to make. Before long he was discovering more things that could be done with the tools the father had accumulated. He was much livelier and became quite a handyman, surprising the parents with things he fixed around the house. The interesting thing was though, that as he regained some self-confidence, his difficulties with schoolwork started to look less overwhelming and he became more willing to do something about it. It was quite a long road, but right from the moment he got involved in woodwork he was in much better communication with the parents, so their lives became more livable. They worked on his schoolwork difficulties as a family.
Whether it takes woodwork, art, music, cooking, electronics or whatever, the point is they all have their individual talents and interests, and if those things are discovered and nurtured, they will find MUCH more enjoyment in them than any computer game. One thing in the parents’ favor is that those talents and interests do not have to be created. They are already present. It is just a matter of finding or rehabilitating them. After many years of straitjacketing by our production line education system, those interests may be submerged and long-forgotten but they are still there.
One rather rebellious student comes to mind who was sent to me many years ago. He’d apparently had some tough times learning English and didn’t want anything further to do with it until he was good and ready. He also had a hand-held computer game which he had his nose in at every opportunity. It turned out that he was keenly interested in physics and wished that one day he could work at the forefront of scientific research, investigating some of the deeper physical phenomena of our universe. Elementary school did not touch upon such stuff, and what did he have at home to inspire him? Nothing at all. He lamented to me once, “All I can do is just stare at the wall!” And this is quite a common situation; the parents provide an environment that’s simply unsuitable for children. Sometimes it’s immaculate furnishings, modern fancy stuff that the kids can’t touch etc.. Or there’s just nothing for them to do. Then when they finally give in to the kids’ whining and buy a computer, they turn around and blame them for wasting time on it.
Getting back to the boy, firstly, it helped a lot that there was someone listening to him for a change. Then with a little bit of playing around with some magnets, motors, batteries etc., he began to realize that he was learning things that truly interested him. Further, the realization that this was accomplished through his very basic command of English gave him a purpose for improving his English. From then on we studied English at a pace that he was happy with, interspersed with some excursions through my junk box to see what we could take apart or experiment with. The last time I saw him was a few years ago. He was reading English novels to build up his vocabulary. He had a laptop beside him which he was using to access on-line dictionaries. I didn’t ask about computer games but it obviously was not an issue. Just by his appearance and attitude one could see that his life was finally going somewhere.
“Computer game addiction” then, is merely one possible symptom of a deeper problem, and trying to handle it directly usually leads to upsets and arguments. One has to help a child recover his or her own interests and ambitions, and give them the time and space to make real progress towards them. Then any obsession with computer games will gradually fall by the wayside.
For more on the subject of straightening out a child’s development and education, buy and read the illustrated book “All About Motivation to Learn.” It is available on line here.