I can't tell you exactly how it happened—I hardly remember. And neither does my son, Jake*, now 9 years old. At the time of what we now call "Screen-gate," he was 7. So, apologies if our collective memory of the details is fuzzy. But if I had to guess, I'm pretty sure it had something to do with...Minecraft.
Maternal bias aside, I can say that Jake, for the most part, is a really cool kid. He's fun. He’s funny. He’s friendly. He has more manners than I ever did at his age. Teachers tell me he's the class peacemaker and will voluntarily douse the fires of conflict before they even have a chance to intervene. He’s a talented conversationalist and an even more talented prankster. So, he’s no choir boy but really all kinds of wonderful.
As for me, I think I'm the every-mom. Not great, just "good enough" and one who tries her very best. Jake has told me on more than one occasion he thinks I'm a pretty cool mom, too (I'll take that. *modest shrug). But, but, but—if I could have a peso for every time I made empty threats and bluffed my way through the parental discipline gig, I would be sipping margaritas on my very own beach island. My mom says I was born a bleeding heart, a closet softie, and she's right. But it took one especially trying night for that sappy, sucker mama to change her tune.
The day of reckoning The night of Screen-gate was a typical Sunday. By this time, Jake was a true blue Minecraft-phile—eyes never blinking, fingers forever furiously tapping on an iPad. He talked in mods and skins and kilometric codes—a language that left me out in the cold. But I let him have it on weekends because we had imposed a total screen ban on school days.
That Sunday night, two hours before bedtime, I started rounding up the kids, but Jake was busy blowing up zombies and endermen on the iPad.
“Jake, time for bed. Turn it off, please.”
“Jake, c’mon please? Don’t make me ask again.”
“Okay. Hold on.” “No, now. C’mon, you have school tomorrow, and you’ve been on Minecraft for too long.”
Heavy sigh. “M is allowed to play it every day.”
Not this again. “Well M does other things. He doesn’t play Minecraft all day long. Besides, that’s M’s family. We have different rules in this house.”
Ah, yes, it’s all coming back to me—the conversation that continued to degenerate in this way until it thudded down like a lead balloon with the tearful, unforgettable declaration: “I wish I lived with a different family.”
“Fine!” I bellowed (because I’m so mature).
“Fine.” He turned on his heel and stomped off to his room. (Did I mention that he can sass me like a teenage girl? Like a boss?!).
Well frak this! I lost it. I marched into his bedroom, and in a performance only Joan Crawford would approve of, I said in a changeling voice I didn’t recognize as my own, “That’s it, Jake. You are banned from Minecraft for 365 days! As a matter of fact, not just Minecraft, ALL screens!”
Finally! At long last, I had flown my Mommie Dearest freak flag high and proud…for a second. “One year?” Jake managed in a small voice. “Well…yeah,” I cracked, realizing my impulsivity. But I refused to back down. Not this time. “One year,” I said with more resolve.
No backing out now By the time I was calm enough to have an intelligent talk and say good night, he was asleep, his breath shuddering. Oh, s**t. I noted, sadly, that his pillow was wet. With the direction my emotions were taking, I just knew Jake would be crafting away on an iPad after two lame days. Except he didn’t because of another transgression that made way for an even harsher sentence.
The next day, I made sure my husband Mark was all caught up on the previous night’s events. Naturally, he was upset but put his good cop hat on and spent the afternoon after school playing with Jake.
Mark and I had to step out for a while so on our way out, we reminded Jake, “No screens, okay?” When we returned, lo and behold, there was Jake on the bed, caught red-handed with an iPad, playing Minecraft! He dropped it as soon as he saw our shocked faces and sprang up straight like an army private. Jake looked guilty as sin, eyes downward and nervously darting side to side. Since his 6th birthday, taking down Minecraft was the theme of every empty threat. It was now about to get real.
Mark strode into the office and deleted Minecraft in a minute as Jake watched, his mouth a cavity of silent sobs and deep sorrow. Jake buried his face in my tummy. “Did he really take it down?” he asked, weeping freely now. “Oh, Jake.” I didn’t know what to say. I knew that this was just a lapse in judgment. He wasn’t one to break a promise. Still, direct disobedience merited some kind of consequence. I just wasn’t sure if it needed this kind of consequence anymore. “Until you can balance your life, Jake, show us that you care about other things and not live all day jumping from screen to screen, then we can talk about it.”
Don’t get me wrong. I think Minecraft is a great game in the same way Lego is. It inspires creativity, teaches pattern recognition, programming skills and all. But we noticed when Jake was on it, it was as if the real world didn’t exist. Not to mention he began spending most of his time creating villages he could blow up and network gaming, which made us very nervous. But he also had saved many universes that were pretty impressive.
Later that night, I had to ask, “Mark, you didn’t really delete it, did you? All his worlds…” I practically pleaded. “No, of course not. I saved them on the hard drive.” Phew! I was relieved we hadn’t turned into Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun overnight. But that the day had to end on this note left me more deflated than a collapsed soufflé.
The pay off So the screen ban was enforced, and Jake hardly ever brought it up again. And slowly, amazing things began to happen. One week into the ban, Jake discovered he could bike. Each day, he would visit friends, ride with them through the neighborhood, and stay outdoors for hours. He learned he liked writing books and drawing. Even if they were Minecraft stories, the handwritten books and pencil drawings he churned out were delightful. And suddenly, he became a voracious reader and “gobbled up” book after book, trilogy after trilogy, series after series.
Photo from Pixabay
On Mark’s desktop is a folder with a collection of at least five chapter books all authored by Jake. His latest discovery is a card game called Magic the Gathering, which uses language that is practically Elvish to me, but he’s bonding with friends and family over it, and I’m simply thrilled. One day came the mind-blowing admission, “Mama, guess what? I’m not looking for Minecraft anymore.”
To clarify, the year of Screen-gate did not bring on a total ban as promised. Concessions were made for family movie nights and Jimmy Fallon YouTube clips “because who doesn’t love Jimmy?” Jake wanted to know. So, Jake wasn’t living in a monastery, I assure you.
Recently I asked him, “When you look back at the year when Papa and I banned screens, how do you feel?”
“Well…I think it helped me...a lot.”
“If you didn’t ban screens, I wouldn’t have started Harry Potter, and I wouldn’t have finished the Hobbit in like a few hours. And I never would have gotten into Greek Gods and Percy Jackson. And I wouldn’t be writing books…I wonder what would happen if I got Minecraft back.”
“You tell me. What would happen?”
“Well...balance. Now that I’m interested in so many things, it would sometimes be reading, sometimes outdoors, sometimes Magic, sometimes friends, sometimes family, sometimes Minecraft. It would be a mix-up. So, my life would be balanced.”
Thank you, my love. That’s all I ask for.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy. Photos used here are for illustration purposes only.