“I have a strange question for you. Do you let your son play video games?”

I received this text while engaged in a contentious game of Mario Party. My 7 year old, 5 year old, husband and I were in fits of laughter, crackling at my inability to grasp the proper button pushing to get even close to succeeding. My 2 year old was excitedly jumping up and down, cheering on her brother. It was a moment of pure joy.

As I replied to my friend, a mother of a classmate of my 7 year old, I wondered if I should let her know how timely her text was. Our sons had just hit it off, and I clenched my teeth as I replied, wondering if I would get a chastisement for allowing screen time or if I would receive radio silence, with a sudden stop to any play dates. I ultimately told her the truth, that we were a Mario-loving family that often raced, jumped and ground-pounded our way through level after level.

Turns out her question wasn’t to form a judgment of screen time, but to seek counsel and camaraderie over something I had seen in my own son—the inevitable tantrum that follows when they lose a race, level, or mini-game. 

When we first allowed our son to play video games, we ran into this constantly. And it wasn’t just losing. Anytime we told him screen time was up, time to turn off the game, he’d fall to the floor and cry. While I was tempted to immediately put a stop to all video games, as clearly he was too attached, I remembered the fun I had with my siblings, and my father, as we went “once around”—our term for playing through all 16 races on MarioKart in one sitting. I didn’t want to deny that fun to my kids, but it was clear that limits were needed and that if we were going to play video games, we were going to use it as a tool for life lessons.

First things first, he would need to learn how to lose graciously. This isn’t something easily taught. In fact for us it was just something that had to happen over, and over, and over again. There was yelling (my son at the game), there were tears, there was stomping. But each time, we would remind him it was unacceptable and that losing was part of playing. If he wanted to keep playing, he needed to be ok with losing. While this was a tough pill to swallow for many of us, I was happy he was learning this here and now, in the comfort and safety of his own home. In learning this lesson playing video games in my living room, he has become a gracious loser on the ball field, encouraging teammates that “we’ll get them next time” and not throwing tantrums at every missed catch, strikeout or off the mark throw.

If my son is playing a game by himself (which let’s be honest, with work from home parents he often needs to), we still struggle with the “nooooo! 10 more minutes!” response when asked to turn off the game. But from the beginning, we established a simple rule: if there was whining when mom or dad said screen time was over, there was less screen time the next day. It was a privilege, not a lifeline, and it simply wouldn’t happen if chores weren’t done or respect wasn’t shown. This has helped my son establish priorities, show respect, and, much like in learning to lose, discover how to cope when things don’t go your way or you disagree with someone. I have heard a number of impassioned rationales as to why gameplay can continue, and sometimes if well enough reasoned, I give into 10 more minutes.

But my favorite lesson video games have provided my family is a love for teamwork & family time. While my son is by far the most interested in video games and his younger sisters are starting to enjoy them as well. We have limited them to sports themed or Mario-themed games, as we believe just like books, movies, and tv shows, it is our duty as parents to make sure what they are exposed to is age appropriate (no Uncharted or GoldenEye games yet, but they will likely be coming). And not only have they learned (for the most part) to negotiate to a game they all want to play or how to split the time between the games they each want to play, they often choose to be on the same team rather than direct competitors. However, competition is healthy and well needed, and that’s where family time comes in. Sometimes mom and dad just need to put you (or each other) in place on the race track or in a mini game. If the time is spent engaging together, that’s all that matters. We love a good family board game night too, but in defense of video games, life lessons, laughter and love can also be found in front of a tv, with a controller in hand.