It was the other day that Youngest, now with a PS3, asked for permission to buy the Call-of-Duty: Black Ops game and my response was a firm no. I understand that he’s played the game elsewhere, will certainly play it again at some friend’s house and that’s alright. But I’ve made it clear that I won’t be purchasing such a game because I want him to understand that there’s a grim reality behind the virtual sterility of the two-dimensional game, a world of pain and loss that only the combat-initiated can truly understand. It’s a function of my own father, who returned home from the first year of the Korean War a changed man who sold his hunting rifles and swore to neither fire a weapon nor sleep outside again. It was this desire to teach the reality that led to a Swedish father’s trek with his two sons when they asked for a Call-of-Duty game.
This father took his two sons on a journey to the Middle East in early 2014 to show them the reality of warfare. Much of the game – like other first-person shooter games – takes place in an urban wasteland of ruins and debris. But it’s one thing to move among the virtual debris and fully another to see the rubble around you and recognize that it doesn’t go away as it does when the television is turned off; let alone the notion that the people there have to live among it with the knowledge that to them, that brick pile might at one time have been called home. It’s an admittedly over-the-top exercise, an expensive lesson that does however, prove his commitment to his personal beliefs. In the course of the two week excursion, they visited a refugee camp and had the figurative impact of young people paralyzed by taking rubber bullets to the spine with the commentary that these youngsters, their own age, would never again be able to engage in any of their favorite sports and activities.
This father does understand that he and his wife are not the only adults having a conversation with their sons. The reality is that the kids – all of them – are having an ongoing conversation with the media/entertainment complex and honestly, it’s occurring more readily with many than with the parents. The great majority of fathers in today’s world spend less than a half hour each day in any meaningful interaction with the kids while the kids themselves are having a good six hours daily in some interaction with the media/entertainment complex. That complex can be seductive and fun, requiring nothing of the kids apart from their brand loyalty and ongoing viewership. The complex has no other role in raising the child and demands nothing, holds none accountable for grades or chores and will never, ever have to clean up the pieces when the child or teen does something that goes spectacularly, explosively wrong. The only surefire option to competing with the complex is to go full-tilt Amish and for the great majority, that’s neither a valid choice nor even an option; what is required at the minimum is the understanding that the other conversations exist and more importantly, the ongoing effort to continually engage the kids whenever and wherever the opportunity arises.
We’ve had similar opportunities for mind-expansion in this household, although not to the extent of Mr. Helgegren. The first was the decision to let Youngest watch Saving Private Ryan as a third grader. I knew from conversations that he was playing Black Ops at friends’ houses, yet wanted him to have a sense of the reality of war and the Spielberg film was the closest that I could conceivably get short of taking the kids to an actual war zone. The effect was what I hoped as he was clearly moved at the grinding violence of the film’s opening invasion sequence and it served as the departure point for further, later conversations. The other major occurrence was the decision – only a few weeks after viewing the film – to take the kids to Athens’ Syntagma Square during the much awaited – and saved for – trip to Europe. The demonstrations that year took off on the first leg of our trip to Rome and I made repeated visits on the hotel computer to the US State Department website to determine whether there had been a travel advisory issued for Athens. Between that and touching base with the tour company’s guides in Athens, we decided to go ahead with that leg of the trip and while it was safe, it was eye-opening for the kids to see militarized riot police and to do so a full three years before the rest of America saw them in Ferguson, Missouri.
And that’s the point of exposing the kids to the reality. It’s important that we as parents act in what has become an almost counter-cultural fashion because the culture now promotes behaviors and norms that are crass at best and detrimental at worst to the well-being of our kids. There is liable to be blowback to our efforts at conversation and you might even wish to book tickets for a flight to Syria, one-way in the worst moments. But understand that if you keep chipping away at it, keep making an effort, keep finding ways to expose the kids to reality, then there’s a decent chance that they’re going to actually listen and adjust accordingly. Letting the kids’ reality be shaped by the media/entertainment complex is setting them up for future heartache, unprepared for what they actually see when the blinders come off and they have to live in the real world.