Resources for Parents of College-Bound Students Challenges for the college-bound student



newsletter — December 22, 2015

The beastThe appeal of videogames

—and the hazards they bring

by Diane & Roy Speed

Here in Connecticut, as part of The Blend, we're continually teaching reading skills, and Diane conducts regular reading sessions focused on essays selected by Roy. Each week she and a group of students go methodically through each essay, pausing to paraphrase key ideas, decipher obscure allusions, look up words in the dictionary, and so on.

In one recent session, they came to the word compromise, and Diane was surprised to discover the students' limited acquaintance with this word. After all, in legislative history it plays starring roles (Missouri Compromise), and it figures prominently in diplomacy, business, family finances, and — most important — virtually any relationship, including marriage. What's more, we often use the word to describe a commitment to principle: her refusal to compromise.

When the students were challenged to articulate the meaning of this word, one volunteered to Diane: It's like when your position is being overrun by enemy forces...? — Then others chimed in: Yeah, the perimeter is compromised.

If you celebrate Christmas and already know there's a new Xbox or PlayStation under the tree, don't put off reading this newsletter.

Make no mistake:
The moment when you turn
that machine over to your
kids is a big deal, and you
may want to think it

By now you may have guessed that all the students in Diane's reading group were boys, and their only shared experience with the word compromise was first-person-shooter videogames.

'Tis the season...

If you celebrate Christmas and already know there's a new Xbox or PlayStation under the tree, don't put off reading this newsletter. But regardless of the holiday, birthday, or other occasion that brings video games to your home, make no mistake: The moment when you turn that machine over to your kids is a big deal, and you may want to think it through.

Here we're focusing on videogames, so primarily on teenage boys. We have listened to all the arguments in defense of videogames, so we understand the importance of boys' imaginative play. We can even appreciate why so many boys are drawn to wargames and fantasy violence — how in the real world, boys experience almost no power or authority over anything and are therefore naturally drawn to worlds where they can take command, feel completely in charge. — We have no problem with any of this.

So what's the big deal?

In The Wall Street Journal a prominent scientist at Vanderbilt recently noted that children today are deprived of a "key ingredient that has powered many a young person to a career in science:  boredom, and lots of it."

He goes on:

When I was growing up, summer was devoid of organized activities. We were released into the suburban wilderness at the end of May and left to our own devices until our parents gathered us up for school in the fall. So what did we do during those endless, empty summer days? We daydreamed, explored our neighborhood, and invented games.

Daydreaming, exploration, and invention happen to be the core of what scientists do. That is largely what I still do for a living.

Yet how can we expect junior scientists to daydream, when they can be playing computer games instead? — It isn't that these games are bad, it's that they're far too good. [Emphasis ours]

Of course, the average teen's media environment comprises more than just video games; it includes music, movies, TV, chat, messaging, Instagram, Facebook, and much more. The fact is, whether we like it or not, supremely talented designers are competing for our teens' time and attention. Their aim is to make their wares addictive and, in doing so, stake out as large a claim as they possibly can within a limited resource: our teens' waking hours — and their youth.

When you and I were kids, the available distractions were not as numerous, nor so readily available, nor as vibrant or appealing or as seductive as what bombards our kids today. Our teens are growing up in a completely different world, and we parents seem ill prepared to support them. We also underestimate the threat: when it comes to video games, many or us are in denial about the quantities of time involved, so we underestimate what's at stake.

High stakes

What's at stake with video games is probably best understood as what economists call opportunity cost — the value, that is, of the activities our teens are not undertaking during those hours and hours in front of Call of Duty or Halo.

What they're not doing: readingThe one thing we're certain of: Left to their own devices, our teens end up reading less. And to weigh the opportunity cost of not reading, we must estimate reading's benefits.

To begin with: Our teens will not be strong writers unless they are first strong readers.

Next, a sampling of the mental muscles students exercise through reading in large quantities:

  • They become more articulate. When they read, our students encounter vocabulary they might otherwise seldom encounter. They also internalize complex sentence structures — structures rarely heard in speech.
  • They build their capacity for sustained concentration. With a steady diet of challenging texts, our students build their ability to concentrate for long periods of time.
  • They expand their capacity for entertaining multiple, complex thoughts. Reading texts of any complexity challenges the student to hold ideas or facts in mind while those arguments and information are developed and explored.
  • They develop a tolerance for hard work with delayed rewards. Social media continually stoke and stroke teen egos, and video games provide continual bursts of rewards and excitement. Most reading operates on a completely different plane, requiring the student to cross intellectual deserts, in which the oases of rewards may be more deeply satisfying but are widely spaced.

We realize that for most families, when it comes to social media and video games, the horse is already out of the barn and cavorting out in the pasture. We also realize that by insisting on corralling that horse, we risk seeming old-fashioned, even reactionary. But we felt that the negative effects we're seeing all around us warranted this discussion of the hidden costs.


We recommend that you issue household rules to accompany that new video game player. We also recommend that you post them in writing, so that you can point to them: Sorry! That's our policy. — Among the issues you may want to consider and that your rules should address:

  • Games as an earned privilege. Establish from the outset the ground rules for when video games may be played — all homework completed, chores done, room clean, etc.
  • Time limits. We recently asked a parent about the time constraints on her teen's video-game playing. The answer: Oh, he has carte blanche. Big mistake. During the school year, some parents constrain video games to the weekend — a constraint that goes a long way to control the beast and sends a clear message about family priorities. You need to decide what constraints are appropriate and then stick to them.
  • Password control. The idea here is that you control access: the only way to activate the game player is via a password that you alone control. You may also want to constrain video games to one machine or one computer.
  • Who makes the rules. You do. It's not a democratic process.

Finally, we recommend that you regularly point to the rules and then be thoughtful about their enforcement, so as not to come off as the video-game grinch. For instance, if you know your kids must stop playing at a certain time, give them notice: The game's going off in 30 minutes! — That way you seem less of an ogre marching into the room and saying, That's it. Game over.

Feel free to share in the comments what has worked in your household. Also feel free to share this newsletter with other parents.

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Online Courses

View all our online courses here.

Honors Science

Instructor: Diane Speed

Online Science Intensives

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Honors Biology With Lab

Twice weekly sessions for two semesters

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More Online Courses

Shakespeare Intensives

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An introduction to Shakespeare's comedy
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ONLINE: English Language Arts

— Now open for registration —

The Writer's Guide
to Grammar

Weekly online class
in the essentials of English

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Essentials for writing clear English: grammar, usage, punctuationThis two-semester course is taught by the author of The Writer's Guide to Grammar. It puts in place skills and knowledge foundational to the study of English and the mastery of clear writing. The weekly class is live and online, and students master all the most important principles of the English language — grammar, usage, punctuation, and more.


Online Writing

Logical Communication

Two semesters of online classes
Two classes per week

Instructor: Roy Speed


Online Literature

History & Literature
of the Middle Ages

Two semesters of online instruction


Training for parents

Homeschooling the
College-Bound Student

Now an online series!

Instructor: Diane Speed

This program addresses the principal concerns parents have about homeschooling through high school — curriculum and credits, standardized tests, transcripts and record-keeping, the application process, pursuing scholarships, and more.

Terrific. Full of information. The materials were so thorough. I now have a plan of action. Also, this workshop is inclusive: No matter what type of homeschooler you are, you will understand better how to prepare your student for college and present him or her in the best light.

Mother of two


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