On afternoons when I have custody of my 11- and 13-year-old boys, the three of us sit near one another in the living room. They focus on their laptops — gaming, watching YouTube videos, writing stories — while I sit at my desk, in front of my computer, answering email and tying up the day’s loose ends.
If other parents walked in, many of them would probably cringe to see three individuals sucked into three different screens. They’d complain about what appears to be a lack of interpersonal communication. Why are we all focused on our individual devices?
Ours may not look like the kind of family time to which most of us are accustomed, but it does resemble what experts call “parallel play.” The term comes from a 1929 study by sociologist Mildred Parten Newhall, and “parallel play” refers to an early stage of child development during which toddlers play independently, right next to their peers. Walk into any preschool, and you’ll see it. Kids sit together at tables or on the floor; they’ll be engaging in the same activities but pay little attention to one another.
It wasn’t until the end of the 20th century that scientists realized what any preschool teacher could have told them: separate the kids, and you’ll provoke temper tantrums. That’s because parallel play is not as sequestered as it looks. Babies as young as two months are already intensely focused on their peers. Even in parallel play, they’re interacting with one another through imitation and other subtle means of communication.
Likewise, while my kids and I may be focused on separate digital tasks, we’re very much together. Like a married couple reading the paper over Sunday morning coffee, we call out interesting tidbits to one another. Or, we instant-message web links to each other, sharing the memes that make us laugh.
We’re not abiding by standard family etiquette and customs, but nevertheless, we’re communicating and interacting. At the same time, I’m quietly modeling behaviors, introducing vocabulary and encouraging them to think about the world in which they live.
Sometimes, my older son moves into his bedroom after a while. He wants to be alone at his desk. Without fail, the younger one goes there, too. He curls up on the corner of his brother’s bed and focuses on something separately. They swipe away at their screens. It is a peaceful sight: affection among siblings. They prefer each other’s company, even if they’re not directly interacting. They choose parallel play because they know that coordinated, cooperative play is often fragile.
While cooperative play looks more like face-to-face communication — which is why we prize it — it can be hard work for kids. It involves complicated emotional multitasking. It tests a person’s ability to concentrate on the game while simultaneously managing relationships. When he plays with his brother, my son must read social cues and practice empathy. At times, he’s forced to sacrifice his own playful desires to keep the peace. He also needs to stay fixated on following the rules.
Mastering the ability to shift between solitary, parallel and coordinated play is an underappreciated competency that directly translates to the workplace. Grown-ups in any job need to know how to be productive when alone, how to accomplish their tasks while sitting near someone else, and how to work with a team on a project that demands cooperation. Whether kids play on screens or with physical toys, they’re gaining opportunities to practice these skills. And as telecommuting becomes more common, as co-working spaces replace offices and cubicles in some places, and as cooperative work is increasingly done on networks rather than at conference tables, the ability to shift between styles of interaction becomes more important.
My kids and I practice these transitions every day. We’ve learned that we each need some alone time at the end of the day. Solitary play is the way we ease into being at home together, and parallel play is how we adjust to one another’s company. It is our strategy for managing the stress of shifting from one part of the day to the next.
But after an hour or so, I usually decide that family time should also include some direct play. I power up the Xbox or the Nintendo, and my kids close their devices and join me almost immediately. I don’t even need to ask.
We first started gaming together when my wife and I separated seven years ago. The boys were 4 and 6, and they used the Nintendo Wii as a kind of security blanket. It provided a sense of stability in their newly confusing lives. Games aren’t like divorce; they have consistent rules. They are made up of dependable systems. They are predictable and steady.
At the time, I knew little about video games, and what I knew, I didn’t like. I thought they were a time-suck, something that less productive people did when they could be reading or writing. But I wanted to spend time with my boys and help them through this difficult patch, and they wanted to play video games. If I’d told them to put down the controller and hike with me through the woods, they might have perceived it as punishment.
Instead, I plopped down on the sofa with them and before I knew it, we were spending hours each day playing New Super Mario Brothers together. We argued over who gets the best magic mushroom. We high-fived when we leveled up. We laughed. We hugged. It was a great bonding experience.
However, I knew that just because my kids enjoyed playing games didn’t mean it was good for them. They’d also be happy eating gummy bears for breakfast and staying up all night watching zombie movies. My conscience nagged at me. To ease my anxiety, I read books about video games, cognitive development and play theory. I learned my kids were, indeed, escaping into another world. But that was not necessarily a bad thing, especially if I was playing with them.
I learned that when I got involved, it showed my kids that I took their imaginative play seriously. It also showed that I acknowledged the strategies they were using to cope and I appreciated the things that mattered to them. And it offered us a fun and safe space in which I could help them cultivate social and emotional skills.
When we played together, I took on the role of father, mentor, teammate and therapist. I asked them questions like, “What emotions go with jumping high enough onto the flagpole that you get a free life?” or “How do you feel when you lose?” or “Don’t you think it’s interesting that you get better at winning by losing over and over again?” I pointed out how difficult some adversaries seemed to be. I observed how crazy the game’s graphics were. Together, we guessed what future levels would look like.
After we put down our controllers, we headed to the dinner table. There, the game world provided the analogies I used to ask them about certain situations. “How would you describe the game-world solution to a playground fight? To a hard math problem? To a conflict with a classmate? To feeling alone from your friends?”
The comparisons to video games gave them the distance they needed to find a new perspective on their life-world problems. They also made it easier to experience the emotional roller coaster of their school-day social interactions separate from the pall that my divorce had cast over their lives. It. Most important, they helped them reimagine everyday scenarios in ways that felt empowering. It put a metaphorical game controller in their hands.
Most grown-ups recognize the benefit of playing family board games, building wooden train tracks with kids, and tossing balls around the backyard. Unfortunately, when it comes to screens, parents are most likely to use them as babysitters. But why is the screen-as-babysitter phenomenon such a common practice if every parent I talk to agrees that it’s a bad thing? Is it because adults are selfish?
I suspect that grown-ups realize there is nothing inherently wrong with using the screen as babysitter; the problem is when it’s used only as babysitter. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with solitary and/or parallel screenplay — by all means, let your kids play on your phone while you make dinner. But for today’s children to be well-adjusted, that shouldn’t be it.
“Joint media engagement” is the term experts use to describe the way kids and grown-ups engage in media together. In the late 1960s when Joan Ganz Cooney established the Children’s Television Workshop, Sesame Street was created to “stimulate the intellectual and cultural growth of young children — particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds” (according to the press release).
Test studies made it clear, however, that if this ambitious project were going to make a difference, young children and their caregivers needed to watch the show together or “coview”. Everything about Sesame Street was designed to keep toddlers and their parents sitting together in front of the television. Grover and Big Bird’s colorful silly faces appealed to children, while celebrities and sly adult references ensured the show operated on multiple levels of content sophistication. The kids learned phonics, and the grown-ups enjoyed performances by Johnny Cash and James Taylor.
Families who watched TV together developed a shared vocabulary, making it easier for caregivers to help their kids learn and grow. Every time a grown-up reacted to one of Kermit’s jokes, it sent a message about what parents valued. Later in the day, when Mom mimicked how the Count sounded out numbers, it reinforced lessons in math.
Coviewing was the perfect way to integrate TV into family life, but TV is no longer the primary screen in our lives. So, when the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop released a 2011 report entitled “The New Coviewing: Designing for Learning through Joint Media Engagement”, it updated coviewing to include screens other than the TV. It addressed the interactive content that computers, smartphones and tablets offered. But more important, it acknowledged that parents, teachers and caregivers needed a new model for child-rearing in the 21st century.
We grown-ups need to acknowledge that we no longer live in the TV era; the current world requires us to interact with a very different set of devices. And while our work lives have changed to accommodate new technologies, our home lives are largely stuck in the past. We must figure out how to model positive ways to live an always-connected life. We need to create rituals that inherently promote good values for a networked world.