My sons, ages 12 and 7, are experts at the art of negotiating with wishy-washy parents.
I, on the other hand, grew up with an old-school Southern daddy whose only moments of indecision came when selecting which belt to use to polish my fanny.
“Daddy,” I would muse but never say, “I think Mom’s woven cotton belt — the one with the buttercup embroidery — would be an excellent choice for you today. No need to wear out your good leather belt.”
And he wondered why we always bought him Sansabelt slacks for Christmas.
With no corporal punishment to worry about, my boys are always looking for ways to needle their mom and me until they get something they want. For example, my 7-year-old son wanted a cookie last Sunday at Hamilton Place.
We agreed, and then he immediately moved the goalpost to discuss whether we would purchase the cookie “now or later.” With that settled — in favor of “now,” of course — negotiations shifted to whether he would get a large cookie or merely a medium one.
My older son, meanwhile, has recently been locked in long-term negotiations with his mother that would make Middle East peace talks look like child’s play.
For about the last five years, he has wanted to get a first-person shooter game for his Xbox and/or Playstation. His mother and I have staunchly refused because, well, that’s what suburban parents do, we staunchly refuse any questionable activity until logic melts away our resolve like cotton candy in a rainstorm.
My son’s situation was shot through with irony. His grandparents operate a gun club; his mother is a former world-class trap shooter; and my son himself has an arsenal of Airsoft BB rifles and tactical gear that he uses to simulate guerrilla warfare at a local paintball emporium. At this point, to suggest that a cartoon video game would ruin his 12-year-old brain is a bit preposterous.
Still, when confronted with his most recent plea, my wife offered a settlement that she was sure he would refuse. She proposed that he write a long, detailed essay laying out his reasons for why he should be allowed to purchase — with his own money — a shooter game for his Playstation.
To her surprise he said, “OK.”
Then he promptly retired to his room to answer — in double-spaced type — the question: Is “Call of Duty: Ghosts” appropriate for me?
A few days later he emerged with a passable first draft filled with research on video game violence, a spirited defense of his powers of discernment and a binding code of conduct that he promised to abide by if we would only let him buy “Call of Duty: Ghosts” as soon as possible.
Here’s a paragraph lifted straight from the essay: “Common Sense Media states that out of 37 parent reviews of the game, most parents agreed the average age kid they would give the game to is a mature 12-year-old. In my opinion, I think we should make a family contract stating that if I use a cuss word then the game will be taken away. If I exhibit any acts of violence that are influenced by the game, I will lose the game. During summer, I must do one hour of math to be allowed to play for an hour. During the school year, I can play only on weekends. I will not be allowed to play if my grades are down, but can earn the privilege back when I pull my grades up.”
I panicked and pulled out my red, copy-editor’s pen. Not so fast, buddy.
“I have some questions and corrections for you,” I said, confident I could string this out indefinitely. “I’d like you to research why experts think video games can be dangerous, and what you think about this theory.”
“OK,” he said flatly, taking back his rough draft and returning to his room.
His next draft contained this new paragraph, among others: “Some video game critics say violent video games are the cause of teenage massacres and shootings. Research shows that some of the shooters didn’t play video games, so the games can’t be the only cause of the problem. So, I think that the events occurred because of bullying and family problems.
“In my opinion the parents and the rule-setters might be partially at fault. Maybe the adults did not take the right precautions and talk to the kid about how the game is fake and nothing in the games are supposed to be recreated. ‘Call of Duty: Ghosts’ is a fine game for me to play because I have been taught to make good decisions and will make the right choices.”
At this point, I gave up.
As a last ditch, his mom promised to hold him to the “contract,” requiring an hour of algebra prep for every hour of video game play. OK, he said, retiring to a room again, this time to work on math.
In the days since, he has played his new game a few times, but shows no signs of obsession. Honestly, he’d rather be outside zinging a lacrosse ball into a cyclone fence.
Sometimes as a parent you wonder if you’re doing the right things for your kids.
And sometimes you get an answer that stuns and amazes you.
Contact Mark Kennedy at email@example.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST and Facebook at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.
Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...