Can Video Games Get Your Kid into Mensa?

images-2.jpeg

On a sundrenched Monday afternoon in 1986, my brother and I jumped off the school bus, sprinted past our bikes and skateboards in the driveway, and burst through the side door of the house. Shedding our shoes and schoolbags mid-sprint, we ricocheted off one another as we climbed the stairs, two at a time, in hopes of grabbing the little gray joystick first. Super Mario Brothers was our favorite game. We’ll save you, Princess Toadstool! But that Monday, the miniature mustachioed men and their magic mushrooms were missing. After searching the house with the fervor of dope starved junkies, my brother and I stared at each other in disbelief. We screamed in unison when realized what happened. “Mom! Where did you put the Nintendo?

“It’s gone,” she replied without a smidgeon of remorse. “It’s not even in the house so you can stop looking. Go outside and play!”

We hated her for taking our beloved game, but thirty years later, as I watch my two tiny tech-junkies glued to our TV, I understand why she did it. Too much screen time turns children from delightful, creative cherubs into grouchy, demanding trolls. A quick Google search will display dozens of articles linking video games and problem behavior. Several studies indicate a correlation with ADHD. Quick, throw out the X-Box.

A few more clicks of your mouse reveal another set of articles extolling the virtues Unknown.jpegof videogaming. One oft-cited study conducted in 2013 purports an increase in players’ visual spatial abilities, planning, and fine motor skills. There are games that promise to make you smarter by improving your memory and enhancing your reasoning skills. There are even games to cure your ADHD. Smarter, faster, nimbler! Quick, pull that X-Box out of the trash.

But here’s the rub. As it turns out, video games don’t make you smarter. Shocking, I know. For the last two years researchers have been replicating the 2013 study purporting intellectual increases from video games. They haven’t been able to generate the same results. Gamers do improve at individual video games, but the skills acquired don’t generalize to other activities – test performance, homework completion, reading rate – as the games developers would have you believe. A recent study at Georgia Tech reviewed the games designed to help kids with ADHD and concluded, “The claims made are largely unsubstantiated.”

You can find research to support either position, but common sense suggests interacting with real live humans, climbing trees, and creating art projects are healthier options than staring at a computer screen until your eyes bleed. You don’t need a medical journal to tell you that playing Grand Theft Auto won’t make get your six-year-old into Mensa. Neither will it turn him into a serial killer.

Here’s the simple truth. Video games will make you a better parent.

They are the ultimate carrot. “You want to play Just Dance? Sure. But first you need to finish your homework.” You’ll never see a kid complete long division with more passion.

Video games dry up tears (mostly yours) and stop stewardess’ sneers. Ever fly cross-country with two screaming children? I guarantee you’ll be downloading Angry Birds: Star Wars Edition before the plane lifts off the tarmac.

Video games are just plain fun. They are action-packed candy for the brain. Be honest. How many hours have you wasted spent crushing candy, cultivating farmland, and chasing that elusive yellow creature with the pointy ears? I’ll bet my personalized backpack full of Pokétools the figure is larger than you’d care to admit.

Nintendo.original.jpgWhile I try to limit my kids’ time on their Wii, I’m ever so grateful for it when I need to get things done. At this very moment, my six-year-old is enjoying the sweet sounds of Fantasia so that I might type these words. Excellent parenting. My mom was right to hide our beloved Nintendo thirty years ago, but she’s in for a shock this Christmas. NES is releasing a miniature version of the original entertainment system, and I’ve preordered one for my brother’s stocking. We’re coming to save you, Princess Toadstool! Click on this link and you can order yours, too.

Torn: When Does Risky Go from Stupid to Lethal? (SO, this post is actually on the HuffPo blog but I can’t figure out how to link it, so just check it out here or there!)

FullSizeRender

“I’ve got two tabs of acid in my car.” He lobs this fact across the coffee table at me with a bashful smile that spreads in slow waves to the edges of his face.

 

I roll my head back and groan. We’re not friends and I’m not amused.

“Ethan, why are you telling me this?”

 

“What’s the point of coming here if I don’t tell you the truth?”

 

I give a half-shrug. “But why that truth, Ethan? Why do you want me know about the acid?”

 

His thick, unruly curls lend a boyish look to his 6-foot-3-inch frame. He turns his head in search of distraction and notices the paint swatches on my desk.

 

“You redecorating, Doc? I like the blue. My mom’s an interior designer and she says blue relaxes people. It’s like Zen or some shit.”

 

Ethan gets under my skin in a way I can’t quite pin down. He’s both offensively arrogant—“This ain’t my first rodeo, Doc. I know how this therapy thing works”— and heartbreakingly vulnerable: “Can I get a piece of paper? I want to write down what you just said.”

 

When he was 11 years old and jumping around in the backseat, his mother punched him in the face so hard she broke his nose. Late for a business trip, she dropped him at school with a napkin for the blood. “Stop crying, Ethan. Your friends will think you’re a baby.” Ethan didn’t see his mother for a week and the incident was never discussed. When he tells stories like this I have to fight the urge to hug him like I would my own child.

 

“Why’d you tell me about the acid, Ethan?”

boka

“I don’t know. Because I’m going to the beach this weekend and I’m gonna trip my balls off?” His smile fades as he looks up. “Seriously, though. You ever tripped?”

 

I could tell him about the time I took mushrooms in college and went snowboarding. How it took us two hours to buy lift tickets because we couldn’t stop laughing. How the snow looked like pixie dust and I dominated black diamond slopes like Shaun Palmer. How later I learned I had merely lumbered down the bunny hill.

 

I want to tell him: I get it. Drugs are really fun. Right up until they’re not. I want to tell him about James.

 

“Ethan, I’ve known other people who thought they were having fun with drugs until the drugs caught up with them. I don’t want that to happen to you.”

 

“You think I have a problem, don’t you, Doc? You think I’m an addict.”

 

Ethan is taking a gap year because his Ivy League admission was rescinded following his expulsion from high school for drinking on campus. So problem? Yeah. Addict is tougher to define.

 

“It’s interesting you use the word addict, Ethan. What do you think?”

 

“I think I don’t like being sober. Do you?”

 

I meet his third deflection with what I hope comes across as a warm, nonjudgmental smile. After a few moments he can’t take the silence.

 

“Look, Doc, I know when I need to be sober. I got a 3.8 last semester. Now I have two jobs and I never miss a day. I work hard!” He leans forward, palms up, like a defendant on the stand. In his mind I am both judge and jury. He doesn’t know how often I second-guess myself with him.

 

“Let’s review, Ethan. How come you’re not in school right now?”

 

He drops his gaze. “Because I’m unlucky, Doc. I’m always the one who gets caught.”

 

“Unlucky?” I ask, surprised by the sharpness of my tone. “Ethan, if you speed one time and get caught, that’s unlucky. If you speed every day for a year and get pulled over, that’s the Law of Averages catching up with you.”

 

At 19, Ethan is neurologically an adolescent. His pre-frontal cortex – the part of his brain controlling reason and planning – is still developing and trumped by the hormone dopamine, which triggers feelings of happiness when taking risks.

pre-frontal-cortex

Since he is legally an adult I can’t disclose his risky behaviors unless he reports a plan to intentionally harm himself. So I ask him.

 

“Are you trying to kill yourself, Ethan?”

 

“What? Doc, No! I’m just trying to have fun. Don’t you ever just want to party?”

 

I think of the Halloween party turned real life horror show the night James killed himself. Everyone had taken mushrooms. Costumed and perma-grinning from the drugs, we were dancing to House of Pain’s “Jump Around” when we heard the shot.

 

“I know you miss your friends, Ethan, but this party sounds ripe with opportunity to get ‘unlucky’ again.”

 

“Come on, Doc. Don’t tell me not to go. I really need this.”

 

Professionally, I can’t grant or deny permission. I can only point out the conflict between his goals and behaviors. His goals include graduating from college, landing a job that pays him shitloads of money, and marrying Gisele Bündchen. (Remember, he’s 19). I ask him a series of questions and together we develop an algorithm that looks something like this: (lots of) drug taking = getting kicked out of school = no college = crappy job = no money = living in a rusty van, down by the river.

 

“I get it, Doc. I do. Living in a rusty van does not equal dating supermodels.”

 

We laugh. He leaves. I have no idea if our conversation landed. As I type up the session notes, my fingers pause on the word progress. Has Ethan made any tangible progress?

 

I consider my college friends. Like Ethan, we partied, but then we graduated, cultivated careers, and traded in the partying for potty-training. Except James. He couldn’t stop and we hadn’t seen his pain. No drug could blunt our anguish that Halloween night. Our once-festive costumes drooping and our party make-up gruesome from hours of crying, we watched uniformed men carry him down the steps in a body bag.

 

Is Ethan like us or like James?

 

I pick up the paint swatches and worry I let Ethan leave too quickly. Should I have yielded to my maternal instincts and told him directly not to go to the party? My mind catapulted to my own child who is still in diapers. The mother in me wished I’d grabbed Ethan by the shoulders and wrapped my arms around him in the same way I’d embrace my toddler to stop him from stumbling down the stairs.

 

“I forgot my umbrella.” A voice at the door shakes me from my thoughts. “You okay, Doc? I know that face. You’re torn, aren’t you?”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“Go with the blue. Definitely the blue. See ya next week.”

Cuts with Scissors

In a too-small chair, under a mural depicting the solar system, I watch a hamster spinning on a wheel, and consider the following list:

Number 1. Cuts with Scissors

Can he do this? Think back to Christmas. He wrapped his own gifts – so yeah, he can cut with scissors.  Check!

 

Number 2. Writes First and Last Name Legibly

Of course! He can totally do that!

But, the writing is pretty messy. Does that still count as “legible”?

 

Number 3. Handles Peer Conflict

Yes! Mostly. Unless you’re rushing him. Or he doesn’t get his way. Or he can’t get the TV to work. Hmm… What would my mother say?

 

  1. Maintains Attention to Task

Definitely room for improvement there.

  1. Jumps with Two Feet
  2. Hops on One Foot
  3. Toilets Independently 

Oh my god, this is so overwhelming!

 

Eyes closed, I mine the database of pictures in my head for evidence. I squirm in my seat waiting for my name to be called. The teacher will review each skill and tell me how my Kindergarten student measures up. Quite well, in fact. Her skills have progressed quickly. A model student.

 

But it’s not her I’m thinking about.

 

My 74-year-old father has recently been diagnosed with a neurological disease similar to Parkinson’s, but with a name so long and tongue-twisty I can never remember without looking it up. Progressive Supra-Nuclear Palsy. PSP for short.

 

“Sounds like a drug I tried in college, once” I joked flatly when my parents broke the news. Not that funny, as it turns out. The list of symptoms is daunting, and with no known cure, the prognosis fairly bleak. Every 4 months my father and his doctor review a checklist of motor skills, memory, mood, and social skills. A kind of report card of his disease. So far he’s beaten the odds. His symptoms have progressed slowly.   A model patient.

 

Each day my 5-year-old continues to sharpen the skills listed on her report card. She learns new words, her focus increases. Not only can she jump, and hop on one-foot, but the other day she told me all of her dreams have come true because she can finally do a cartwheel!

 

As my daughter progresses, my father diminishes.   I guess that’s as it should be. The natural cycle of things. Watching them together fills my heart with joy, but the anxious, uneasy joy of a mother who wants to protect them and fix everything.

 

I want so desperately to stop the clock.

 

To freeze this moment in time so I will always have my Kindergartener, and she will always have her grandfather – Pure and Whole and Happy and Healthy.

 

I know this isn’t possible. I can’t stop the hands of time. As a mother and a daughter all I can do is love them as they are and rejoice in their strengths.

 

Right now, they can both cut with scissors.IMG_5074
Five Star Mixtape

 

What’s At The Top?

We’ve all seen memes on social media professing “It’s Not About Getting to the Top, It’s About Trusting Your Journey” or some similar sentiment. These digital would-be encouragements stir up strong reactions in me, which differ depending on my circumstance. Some mornings, after a good night’s sleep and a sunrise run, I’m all about embracing the journey. Sure, life is hard. There are unpaid bills and between kids, marriage, and work, there is no time left for anything resembling self.  But, this is the life I chose and I choose to enjoy it.  I choose a path of conscious appreciation.

Cue a heartwarming montage of pastoral family bike rides, home-cooked organic meals with friends, and grateful patients progressing under my thoughtful guidance.  I have it all. I love it all! I’m trusting my journey and winning!

Inspirational-Wallpapers-with-Quotes-for-Desktop16

Look at me winning at life!

 

Other days (like most of them) I wake up exhausted, and throw on yesterday’s outfit as I  hop down the hallway to collect the screaming toddler who doubles as my alarm clock.   Babe in arms, I stagger down the stairs into the kitchen where I make peanut butter toast with one hand, and fashion a paper towel coffee filter with the other. The toddler smears the peanut butter on the sofa as I sip my grind-filled coffee and glance at today’s schedule on my phone. Oh shit! After carpool I have to finish a report by 10am, attend the annual Muffins with Mommies lunch at the big kid’s school at noon, and return to work for a 1pm client I can’t reschedule since I did that once already when the baby was sick.

I look at the clock in a panic. We need to leave in 20 minutes, the big kid is not dressed, fed, or even awake, and lunches are unmade. I should gulp down my coffee and pack bento boxes like a ninja, but instead, I sit on the couch in slothlike denial and distract myself with Facebook.

Unknown

Trust Your Journey

That’s when it happens.  A woman, seated serenely on the beach, her legs twisted in perfect double lotus position, gazes out over the glorious ocean waves and tells me to… trust my journey.

This does not inspire a sense of serenity. No indeed!   It inspires raw, sanctimonious rage!

I’ll tell you what you can trust! You can trust that today’s journey will include the shoving of this meme right up your yoga-panted asana. Yeah, you read that correctly. Take that, Brené Brown! In truth, I love Brené,  but I need a strong cup of properly filtered coffee before I can absorb all that positivity.

I can’t take the journey memes any longer!

If I had a meme it would look like this:

FullSizeRender-1 2

Yeah You Fucked Up But You Tried Hard And That’s Good Enough

Or possibly: You Made it Through Your Day and No One Died – Good Enough.

Late for a meeting? It’s cool. Earned your kid a tardy slip for arriving after the bell? No problem. It’s all Good Enough because I just punched that Journey Meme right in its metaphorical face. (I’m not condoning actual violence here, just a little meme-to-meme scuffle. My Good Enough meme can totally kick your Journey Meme’s yoga bunny butt!) Now don’t you feel better? I know I do!

I should come full circle to a thoughtful summary detailing all the philosophical reasons why you should, in fact, trust your journey, and should not, in retrospect, sweat the small stuff. I could assert that everything happens for a reason, and implore you to conclude that it’s not about getting to the top, it’s about having the courage to start.

But hooray! I won’t!

I will tell you what is at the top of that over-referenced allegorical ladder. Not Giving a Shit is what’s at the top, and you, my friend, are nearly there. You just need to take that final, indifferent step. You’ve spent years toiling at work, countless hours parenting with the best of intentions, only to find that you’re juggling more than you can handle. But, hey look!  You’ve reached the top, and your prize is Not Giving a Shit.

You’ve done your best, and for that you need not be confronted with even one more inspirational meme.  I will not do that to you. Instead, I will leave you with this gem:

153-c-you-are-doing-a-fucking-great-job-card_1024x1024

You can check out this card and others at emilymcdowell.com

 

This is what’s at the top!

 

<img src=”http://yeahwrite.me/wp-

The Plan is the Plan

IMG_0182

 

This message was posted in the teacher’s lounge at one of the schools where I work.   As soon as I saw it I took a picture and texted it to my mother. If no one is credited for coining this phrase then I’m giving it to her. She lives by this manifesto and is one of the most efficient people I’ve ever known.

 

It’s the reason why she’s such a clear communicator.   You always know where you stand.

 

It’s also very clear what the days and week will look like while you’re staying at her house. Everything is planned in advance. During family get togethers she compiles a list of fun activities, puts them on a calendar, and even assigns meal responsibilities. While this may sound a bit rigid, it is actually just the opposite. Careful planning frees up our precious time, since we’re not wasting it by constantly figuring out how to handle each task.   Time is available for more important things – like drinking wine and playing Quiddler.

 

 

The Plan is the Plan. There it is. So beautiful in its simplicity. Yet, not everyone appreciates its genius.

 

You’re either a planner or you’re not. I’ve learned this the hard way through 10 years of marriage to a member of the latter category. “Let’s just play it by ear” is a favorite phrase of his. This strategy is great for avoiding uncomfortable conversations and living in the present. Who wants to spend all that mental energy planning things?  Yuk!  I get it. But “playing it by ear” can also lead to miscommunication, confusion, and divorce.

 

Ok, maybe not divorce, but oh my god can we just make a plan and stick to it!

 

Question: How are we going to handle (insert any routine task here – carpool, dinner, bedtime)?

Answer: By following the plan we’ve already discussed, that’s how! No need to reinvent the wheel.

 

Planning is a frequent topic in my work with children and families, too. Kids crave the security that plans provide, even if they push against the boundaries. Rules-lame! Having a plan doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible, it just means you have a place to start. A familiar place from which to deviate when something unexpected happens. If you don’t have a plan in the first place, the problem-solving becomes even harder.

 

Bedtime is a perfect example. On school nights we try to get the kids fed and in the bath by 6:30pm. If, instead, we decide to “play it by ear” and let the time tick much past 7:30pm, a series of whining, stomping, and tantrumming crescendos until everyone faints and falls asleep in a puddle of tears (mostly mine). If we stick to the schedule the kids are much happier because they know what to expect. We have time to relax. We play in the bath, read a few books, and even have time for snuggles before the lights go out.

 

So, when all else fails and you don’t know which end is up, I refer you to the message in the teacher’s lounge. The Plan is the Plan. If you have trouble making one I’ll give you my mother’s phone number. She’ll be happy to send you a laminated copy.

IMG_0142

-my mom and dad enjoying themselves during a recent (well-planned) family vacation-

What Did the Doctor Say?

 

IMG_0124

When I tell people I am a school psychologist most folks conjure an image of me in an Eames chair seated across from a child on a couch, saying things like, “Tell me about your father.”   In reality, I test kids in borrowed broom closets – the makeshift offices of all special education staff.

Testing is mandatory and useful, but insufficient. Observation yields the more important data. I watch kids in the cafeteria and on the playground.   I see how they interact with peers and how they respond to requests from teachers.   I’m gathering information to give to the adults who love them.  The parents and teachers who struggle to help them each day.

A list, in no particular order, of the questions I’m frequently asked:

Does my kid have AD/HD?

How do I teach a child with Dyslexia?

My kid bites/ hits/ picks his nose …insert any behavior here. Is that normal?

How can I get him to sit still for more than 2 minutes?

Should I put my kid on medication?

Why doesn’t he follow directions?

How do I get her to do homework?

Is it okay to give Ambien to a 6-month-old?

No one has actually asked me that last one, but since the birth of my second child I’ve dreamt of marketing a sleep aid for babies and calling it Bambien (patent pending).

I do my best to answer all of the questions.  This is the fun part. I get paid to spend uninterrupted time with still-developing humans. Since the sole function of my job is to evaluate, I’m not busy trying to make dinner or teach 24 other students at the same time. Parents and teachers don’t have this luxury.

I observe, play, prompt, listen, interpret, and document. It’s like assembling a puzzle from an incomplete set of pieces. Parents and teachers supply the corners and build out the frame.  I find the middle pieces, one at a time, and build inward until a clear picture forms. A mosaic of a child’s mental health.

Except, it’s rarely as pretty as that.

The final report is not a colorful mural, but a typed document of black and white intended to convey the same level of complexity. This is the not-so-fun part. Charts and diagnostic codes, as required by law, make the reports clunky and difficult to understand. The beauty of the child is lost. When I hand evaluation reports to parents and teachers they jump to the last page in search of the bottom line.

Is there a diagnosis?

I tell them a diagnosis is not an answer, but a lens providing a more focused view. A diagnosis helps us understand behavior.

The real answers, the things that foster change in day-to-day life, come from each child’s individual quirks.  The way she talks to the lunch lady instead of her classmates. How he’s memorized all the state capitals but is flunking geography.   The detailed maps she draws when she’s supposed to write words. His love of cats and all things Star Trek. These are the data that should drive intervention. This is the stuff of healing. Join in their interests and celebrate their differences. When quirks are recognized as strengths the real treatment begins.

So, what did the doctor say?

She told me our child is a work of art.

Love

288295_4218557031898_1516535325_o

It happened this morning. I did not get out of bed. Just laid still while our 18-month-old perfected his WWF moves on my head and neck. Our 5-year-old snuggled between us in that adorable let-me-poke-you-in-the-face-and-scrape-my toe-nails-up-and-down-your-bare-legs sort of way. So sweet. Normally, I’d mutter something about how I really need to get more sleep, but get up anyway and make some coffee.

 

Not today. I rolled over, trying to hide my tears from the 5-year-old.

 

My husband, who had found me sobbing in the bathroom just a few hours earlier, picked up the baby and took him downstairs. He came back a few moments later, kissed my cheek, and silently placed a cup of tea on the nightstand. I cried some more while I listened to the sounds of morning routine. The clink of dishes, the endless chatter of the 5-year-old, and the stampede of little feet running up and down the hallway.

 

Seriously, how can two tiny beings weighing less than 40 lbs. generate that much noise?

 

I could explain why I was crying, why everything seemed so overwhelming, but that part doesn’t matter. My story is not different, bigger, or more interesting than anyone else’s.

 

The part about my husband is more profound. We haven’t always been the perfect couple. Our bond has grown over the past 10 years into something I can’t explain, but for which I’m humbled and grateful. Where there used to be blame and anger there is now compassion and understanding. It’s been a winding path, but it leads uphill.

 

To be fair, some of the blame and anger stuff is still there, but we talk about things differently now.  And sometimes, like today, we don’t even need to talk. We just know. It’s not all rainbows and lollipops but there are more good days than bad.

 

I fell in love again. It happened this morning.