There's almost nothing that makes my 11-year-old son madder than video games.
We don't have any violent games in our house -- nothing with guns, blood, killing and the like. Our stock is mainly in sports games for our Wii system, with football and basketball the most popular choices. We also have a few non-sports options such as Pokemon adventures, Mario Brothers and Family Feud and Jeopardy in the game show category.
My two boys don't spend a lot of time on the games, partly because of parental rules and partly because they'd usually rather be outside. But sometimes, especially when the weather is cold or rainy or their friends want to play, they can get pretty wrapped up in games.
My younger son, who is 9, seems to handle the Wii experience fairly well, although he occasionally mopes more than I'd like to see after losses. For my older boy, however, doing badly in a game and losing can trigger major blowups. The fallout has included yelling, tears, an occasional cuss word and hurling of objects, including the Wii remote controls.
That behavior, in turn, has earned him long bans from video games until we let him try again. The last ban, which lasted three months, just ended last week. So far he has kept himself under control, but I'm not sure how long that will last.
I wonder, what is it about boys and video games? I've had other mothers tell me they're struggling with similar behaviors in their sons, whether the games are on their computers, game systems or iPods. I've never heard anything of the sort from the parents of girls.
One clear factor is that boys simply play more video games than girls. In fact, they spend four times as many hours playing, says Dr. Will Courtenay, a California-based expert on male psychology who's also known as "The Men's Doc."
Hormones associated with aggressiveness and competitiveness also play a role. "It's likely that testosterone is the main culprit when teenage boys get worked up and angry over competitive video games," Courtenay says. "Research has linked competitive video game playing with increases in testosterone. Even the testosterone levels of chess match champions increase, as they do in those simply anticipating the competition in sport." Societal pressures for boys to be competitive and aggressive only add to those emotions.
Outside of completely banning video games, is there anything that parents can do to can help boys get less worked up over them? I can tell everyone from experience that telling them to "calm down, it's just a game" is, not surprisingly, very ineffective. Asking my son to take some deep breaths generally hasn't gone much better.
Here's Courtenay's take: "Parents should help their boys to focus on the fun of the game and try to strengthen their sense of fair play. Basically, helping them to learn that it's not about who wins or loses, it's about how you play the game -- and how much fun you have! And this should be reinforced in a variety of settings or contexts, not just when a boy is the middle of a game. Because, there's a good chance he'll get up from his game and start arguing with his sister about who did a better job cleaning up their room."
I remember once getting similar advice from a coach, who asked me if my first question after my boys came home from a game I didn't see was, "Did you win?" It was. Now I try to ask other questions first, namely if they had fun but also what was their best play, favorite moment, something would they do differently in future games, etc.
When the boys come home from school, I've also learned not to pounce with (upon self-reflection) obnoxious questions about what grade they got on a test, how fast they ran the mile in PE, how many points they got in a classroom reading contest or if they won their daily basketball games at recess. Instead, I'll go with broader queries such as, "What did you learn today?" or "Did anything funny or interesting happen?" or "What was the high and low of the day?" I may get grunts in response, of course, but it's worth a shot.
When my sons wanted to participate in an online Fantasy Football contest this fall at the invitation of their uncle, my husband and I had them co-manage a team rather than each have a team. That, we figured, would take out the aspect of brotherly competition that can quickly escalate into fighting. So far, that's gone great.
Finally, we have tried to limit exposure to media that emphasizes the "macho" win-at-all-costs side of being a man, although the boys love do watching sports. We have conversations about sportsmanship and being a good teammate and person, and hopefully some of that is sinking in.
I know it's not easy being a pre-teen boy, just like it isn't easy being a girl of the same age. Everything can seem like a much bigger deal than it really is, no matter how much we as parents try to offer the wisdom of perspective. For boys, being good at video games -- perhaps, in my son's mind, an extension of being good at sports -- seems to be one of those things.
My son's next video game ban would be six months. Hopefully we won't need it, but I'm not too optimistic.
I don't think we've got this one in the win column yet.