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For many parents, breaking a child’s grip on his handheld device requires more than human strength. While there’s nothing wrong with video game play now and then – even some game play every day – a child’s reliance on the digital universe limits his own universe. Smart parents find ways to challenge a child to put down the game and do something else.

But what? What’s more fun than video games?

This is our problem. We want a child to do something different, we set limits, we crab and complain, but we don’t have anything else to offer that’s so interesting as game play. We think our child lacks imagination but really it’s we who are stuck in our ways. What’s more fun than video games? Think like a kid and you’ll know.

Power tools. Rockets. Medieval weaponry (like catapults and trebuchet). Parkour. Treehouses. Skateboards. Wood carving. Cooking like a French chef. Take your cue from cable television, which seems to be aimed right at the 12-year-old mentality, and help your child make and do cool things.

My grandson, a fan of the show Mythbusters, spent a several days this summer making things out of duct tape including a fully functional backpack. Another kid I know, who likes to skateboard, spent most of a month designing and painting his own graphics on a blank board, then attached the wheels and took his creation to the local skate park. What does your kid like? What activity will move her from being just a viewer of someone else’s ideas to a creator of her own?

Tinkering in the garage has a long history in this country but it’s a history that seems to be retreating rapidly from view. The modern garage is too neat and doesn’t hold any intriguing possibilities. What power tools are there are off-limits to kids. The only way a child is allowed to participate in rocketry, radio-controlled vehicles, building stuff, or even using the stove is when an adult is not just present but is directing the action. This is no fun. You know it’s no fun. Doing stuff with Dad (or Mom) lost its appeal at about age six. Older kids want to play around with their own ideas, try things out and see if they can make things work, without a grownup looking over their shoulder, giving advice.

Sure, there are safety concerns. No one’s suggesting you just turn your preteen loose with the table saw. But kids are smarter than we give them credit for. If you want your child to be more interesting and have more interesting things to talk about than what level she’s reached in Minecraft, then it’s up to you to loosen the reins just a bit. Here’s how to start.

  1. Find a local maker’s group or workshop. These are everywhere these days, though you might have to search. Most groups offer workshop space and classes. Go with your kid, of course, at least the first few times.
  2. Let your child do what she most wants to do. If your first answer is usually “no” trying going with “yes.” A child I know wanted to make a CO2 powered car. He needed grownup help and attention to safety, but he was allowed to not only do this but do it himself.
  3. Quit being so neat. Interesting bits and bobs are inspiration. Keep a box of nifty things that could have another life and let your child sift through them.
  4. Bankroll your child’s imagination When your child needs six rolls of duct tape to make a backpack, help her fund that. Sign her up for a class in welding or stained glass, if that’s what she needs. The cost of another video game is about the same.
  5. Be helpful without taking over. You’re the adult here and you are better able to foresee danger and help your child avoid injury. Do that, of course. But don’t manage the work so there’s no chance of failure, so things always go right, or so the outcome is perfect in your eyes. Let your child do real stuff on his own.

To broaden your child’s horizons and spark his imagination and creativity takes some broadening of your own horizons first. If you want your child to put down the handheld and do something, then let him find something cool to do.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.