Instant Experts

One curious byproduct of the video game era is how children expect to be able to master tasks in their first exposure to them. When confronted with a new video game, without reading any directions, an average player will sit in front of the game for three hours or more for the first time playing. If enthralled by the game that session can easily lead to the mastery of the game: beating the game. How many other activities in our lives can we experience this kind of learning curve?

I know that I’m looking specifically at video games, and that these are games – focus on the word RJ, game – but are these games changing how children interact with the world around them?

Few children have patience today: true patience. When talking about children in this scenario, let’s focus on elementary school kids, and restrict it to 3rd grade. Why 3rd grade? This is the first grade where developmentally they start to understand the concept of repercussions, which is important to this argument.

Of course there is a bell curve of patience. Some children – regardless of era – have no patience, and others have impeccable patience. What about the meat of the curve? Where are today’s norms?

The difficulty in making an assessment like this is in the difficulty associated with creating empirical data: something that is based upon more than intuition and casual observation. How do you measure patience? One benchmark we can use is the ability children have to sit still in a chair.

When I was a child kids sat in their chairs in class. No one wore a hat in a classroom. No one ever thought about disrespecting a teacher in any way at all. There were repercussions. Yes there were the occasional students who acted out in class, but the unspoken knowledge about those kids were that they were unlikely to make it to high school.

Walk into a third grade class in a well respected public school today and you will most likely find more than a few children thinking out loud, speaking out of turn, and regularly speaking – if not singing – when they are inspired. Delve into this cultural acceptance of free expression and I argue you will find other cultural changes at work.

As the attention of parents has increasingly been shredded by growing work pressures, larger logistical responsibilities in shuttling children from activity to activity, and now an economic maelstrom, video games become very attractive alternatives for occupying a child’s time. As we pour games into our kids’ laps as a path of least resistance – one that gains us a little respite – our children get used to immersion in a different kind of word: one that is the hyperbole of instant gratification.

If children live in a world replete with instant gratification in every aspect outside of sports, music lessons, or school – a world that takes up more time than everything outside of sleeping and school – we have to imagine that this world would influence behavior.

You could easily argue that the foundation of our sports culture has also fallen victim to instant gratification. Twenty-plus years ago trophies were the purview of older, excellent athletes. Today? In the I’m-OK-you’re-OK-coddle-your-self-esteem environments we’ve created, children receive trophies simply for showing up for sports teams.

I respect and am conscious that much of what I am saying can easily be explained by the age-old “when-I-was-a-kid” complaining of an adult disappointed and dismayed by the changing world before him. While I am a part of that TV generation that was able to plop in front of a screen and disengage from the world for a few hours, at no time in history have children been presented with a world of such instant gratification.

At least one good thing is coming out of this current economic downturn: most parents have slammed the brakes on the over-consumption that even trickled down to their children. Only a year ago my son complained that he did not have a television in his room while a number of his friends at school did. We told him that regardless of how much money we had as a family he would never have a TV in his room while he lived in our house

But we were not immune to that over-consumption. All too often we would succumb to the pestering of our children and buy them small toys during regular trips to Target. Four years ago we rationalized the purchases because our children were both upset from the displacing feeling of our recent move to the West coast. Later there was no rationalization, just a desire to keep them quiet.

I bring this anecdote up for a reason. I have to ask, is the changing demeanor of children – the shortening attention spans and inability to accept anything but immediate gratification – the result of video games, or of parenting?

When I look in the mirror I don’t like the answer, but it’s a question we all must ask of ourselves.


RJ Lavallee is the author of IMHO (In My Humble Opinion): a guide to the benefits and dangers of today’s communication tools on sale at, Barnes and Noble, and

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