Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Freedom of Education

This story caught my eye. I'd heard rumblings before about homeschooling in Germany, but I never fully realized the extent of the situation.

Homeschooling is illegal in Germany, plain and simple. And so avoid further prosecution, one family immigrated to the US and is now seeking political asylum.

I'm not going to comment on the politics or the specifics of the situation; there may be more to this case than any of us knows. What struck me, though, was the lack of freedom and personal choice. I can't imagine NOT having the freedom to make choices regarding my boys' education.

The United States educational system is far from perfect, but at least here, we have choices. We can choose to send our children to public school, or to a private school of our choosing. We can choose from Montessori, Waldorf or faith-based programs. We can hire tutors, sign our older children up for community college classes, or teach our children at home using a variety of methods.

Sometimes, we feel limited by our choices. How many of us initially started homeschooling because we were frustrated with the available educational choices in our community? How many parents feel hemmed in, knowing that the public school in their neighborhood is not equal to the shiny new one in the suburbs? How many of us wish we had enough money to send our children to specialized schools?

Yet compared to Germany, we have a ton of educational freedom. Despite all the pressues pushing in on the American family, American parents still retain educational freedom. It's up to us to choose and provide the education that's most appropriate for our children and our families.

That's a freedom I'll longer take for granted.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Not as Smart as Cats

My husband and boys purchased a cheap red laser pointer this weekend. It was advertised as "fun for pets," and they imagined the cats going crazy over it. "It'll be good exercise for the cats," they told me.

Except that our cats, apparently, did not get that memo. Our cats were -- how to put this politely? -- less than interested. They glanced at the red dot and simply went about their business.

My boys, on the other hand, consider this laser pointer to be the best toy ever made. While the cats lie contentedly beneath the wood stove, Son #2 is flashing the pointer all over the house while Son #1 (the 11-yr-old) pounces all over it.

This game has been going on for 24 hours.

Someone, it seems, is getting exercise, but it's not the cats!

Friday, March 27, 2009

"Youngest Dad" is Not the Dad

Last month, I wrote about Britain's Alfie Patten, the 13-yr-old who,it was believed, fathered a child with his 15-yr-old girlfriend.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at this mess of a situtation), within days of baby Maisie's birth, a number of other teenage boys stepped forward and said, Hey, I could be the father as well!

So Alfie's parents demanded DNA testing -- which has proven that young Alfie is NOT the girl's father.

My heart breaks for him anyway. Either way, he will carry the scars of this tragedy for life. For months, this 13-yr-old -- who, at most, should be worrying about peer pressure and drugs and alcohol -- has believed himself to be responsible for another life. For the past month, he has been shuttling back and forth between his house and the home of his girlfriend and supposed-daughter, helping share infant care duties. And ready or not, I'm sure that some part of him has bonded with this child that is not his.

Check out this video:

Then please, please make sure your sons know the facts well before they need them. Make sure they know how babies are made, and how NOT to make them. Make it perfectly clear that your sons can come to you, at anytime, and talk about anything.

It might be too late for Alfie, but I never want to see another boy go through a similar hell.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Books for Boys

Notice how I havne't updated the poll for awhile. That's for a reason: I wanted to talk about it before we moved on!

Novels won the contest, by a hair (5 to 4, if you're keeping count.) Most of my children aren't yet independent readers, but that hasn't stopped us from sharing and enjoying novels together. Here are some of our favorites:
  • the Harry Potter series. I'm currently reading these aloud to the boys -- and let me tell you, it takes a LONG time to read a book that's over 600 pages! The good news is that I'm a huge Harry fan myself (yes, I was one of the crazy people who pre-ordered the last book and then stayed up for hours reading it), so reading these to the boys is a treat to myself as well.
  • the Fudge books, by Judy Blume. I was introduced to Fudge Hatcher in the 4th grade; my teacher, Mrs. Simon, made a habit of reading aloud to us. (That may be part of the reason I loved her so much.) Check them out: Superfudge, Double Fudge, and of course, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.
  • Junie B. Jones books. I know a lot of parents aren't crazy about Junie B. They don't like the way she talks and think she sets a bad example for their children. But I just find Junie B. fun. These books are simply FUN to read aloud, and even though Junie B. is a girl, she's spunky enough to appeal to most boy readers.
  • Magic Tree House books. Jack and Annie, a brother and sister pair, travel to all kinds of different lands and times in these adventurous books. A great way to sneak in a little learning! (Be sure to check out the website for a lot of fun learning activities.)

Here's another list of some novels boys might like. I read the first one here, and while I liked it a lot, take note that it's got some mature themes and language; most appropriate for older teen boys.

What are some of your boys' favorite novels?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Tooth Fairy Has Landed

Son #3 just lost his very first tooth. As you can see, he's pretty happy about the whole deal!

And what's not to like? When you think about, losing a tooth is a pretty sweet deal: absolute physical evidence that you're growing up and precious treasures tucked under your pillow.

Like most kids, Son #3 was eagerly anticipating a visit from the Tooth Fairy. But did you know that there's more than one Tooth Fairy?

I didn't either, until I spoke to Sparkle the Tooth Fairy. She told me that she and her sisters, Esmeralda and Glenda, handle the United States.

"I'm the more consistent one," Sparkle said, explaining that she typically leaves a dollar or two. "Esmeralda likes to give away green socks and all kinds of odds and ends. Glenda, well, you never know what Glenda's going to give. Sometimes it's $2, sometimes it's $20!"

From the looks of things -- one crisp dollar bill, one golden dollar coin left under Son #3's pillow -- it appears that Sparkle was the one to visit our home. Which makes sense, given the fact that she's called us.

Yes, CALLED US! On the telephone.

I'd emailed Sparkle (yep: the Tooth Fairy has an email address) to let her know I needed to talk to her for an article. (It's one of the perks of the job. As a freelance writer, I've now interviewed Santa AND the Tooth Fairy.)

She called back within the hour. The only problem was that I'd popped out to the grocery store.

Son #1, 11-years-old, answered the phone. "WHO is this?" he said, and slammed down the phone.

Sparkle called back and again explained who she was and why she was calling. Son #1 was having none of it. "What are you trying to pull?" he asked -- and hung up the phone.

Sparkle had to call a THIRD time and let him know that she knew all about his brother's newly-loose tooth before he believed her. :)

Do you have any good Tooth Fairy stories to share?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Tween Boys

Liz Atwood at Charm City Moms writes about tween boys today. Specifically, she asks if tween boys are ignored.

Apparently, a Google search for "tween girls" gives you over 2 million hits. Search "tween boys" and get less than a million-and-a-half. Seems marketers, etc. have spent a lot of time investigating the needs, wants and desires of tween girls, but not so much studying teen boys.

I, for one, have no problem with that. I do, however, have a problem with the concept of "tween."

Tweens are loosely defined as kids ages 8-14 who are "in between" the traditional child and teenage stages of development. (For more on tween, click here.)

What bothers me about this "definition" is that it's entirely made-up. Certainly, a boy who is 12 is going to have different interests and needs than his 4-yr-old or 17-yr-old brothers. But can't we just consider that a spectrum of growth, instead of a "stage" which miraculously appeared in the last 15 years?

Tweens are a marketing concept, plain and simple. A few years ago, saavy retailers realized that kids have money to spend. They studied this age group and, for the first time ever, specifically marketed products and services to 8-14 yr. olds.

Now, instead of children finding themselves as they leave childhood and grow to adulthood, a host of marketers call them "tweens" and tell them what clothes to wear, what music to like, what shows to watch and even what foods to eat.

Disney has long had a corner on the tween market. (Think Hannah Montana and High School Musical.) But now, they're turning their attention to the supposedly-neglected and under-served tween boys. Disney XD (which, I'll admit, my boys have already been watching) is aimed at tween boys.

And if XD can do for tween boys what Disney's done for tween girls, heaven help us all.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Want More Insight Into Our Family?

Check us out at Homeschooling Is Freedom. Debbie often features different families telling their stories, and today, friends, is our day!

$$$ and Education

Newsweek ran an interesting My Turn essay a few weeks ago. The March 9, 2009 edition featured an essay entitled, "Autism and Education," which was written by a mother of two.

One of her children -- her son -- is autistic. Her daughter is not, and yet has special needs of her own. The daughter is gifted.

Yet due to differences in federal laws and funding, her son receives a multitude of services that her daughter does not.

Obviously, each of her children have different needs. Her daughter does not need an aide to navigate the social scene and curriculum of a mainstream classroom. But as the author points out, her daughter could benefit from some specialized assistance as well -- maybe even more so than her son.

It's a controversial point: Should we spend more money on the gifted and talented, even if that means cutting back services for the less able?

The truth is, there's not enough money to go around, so choices will have to be made. Currently, the differences are stark: $24.5 billion allotted to No Child Left Behind, to encourage all children, including the disabled, to meet minimum standards. $7.5 billion available in federal grants to fund gifted and talented education.

With limited money and resources, perhaps more of our money should go to those with the most potential, those with the innate ability to make connections the rest of us may never even see.

It's an intriguing essay and an intriguing proposition. Take a look and tell me what you think.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Working the Night Shift

Did you know I once worked the night shift? I did -- and learned that nights have blessings of their own.

Check out my guest posting at Nightshift NYC.

ADHD: Boys vs. Girls

konnie asked an interesting question after my last post. She'd heard that boys are 3 times more likely than girls to have ADHD and asked if that was true.

So I did a little digging. And discovered that it's not a simple question with a simple answer.

True: Boys are diagnosed with ADHD 3 times as often as girls. But some researchers believe that this is because teachers and parents are more likely to see ADHD as a "boys' problem."

Gender differences play a role as well. Girls with ADHD simply don't behave the same way as boys with ADHD. Teachers and parents, accustomed to the typical boys behaviors (inability to sit still in the classroom, acting out, obvious disorganization), may miss the more subtle manifestations of ADHD in girls. Girls with ADHD, it seems, are more likely to labeled as "daydreamers" than "troublemakers."

ADD -- attention deficit disorder -- comes in a couple different manifestations. One is ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This manifestation is the one we think of most frequently, the kid who can't sit still or concentrate. And as it turns out, attention deficit manifested in hyperactivity IS more common in boys.

Girls are more likely to have the inattentive version of ADD. Instead of acting out in ways that attract and demand attention, they're more likely to be quietly disorganized and overwhelmed. The theory is that many girls with ADD therefore fly under the radar, undiagnosed and struggling in school and in life.

Not to get all preachy on you, but to me, this underscores yet again the importance of understanding gender differences. Boys and girls ARE different, and if we want to effectively parent and guide our children, we need to know what's normal for them.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Brain Abnormality Found In Boys With Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

ScienceDaily (2009-03-18) -- Researchers trying to uncover the mechanisms that cause attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and conduct disorder have found an abnormality in the brains of adolescent boys suffering from the conditions, but not where they expected to find it.

For the full story, click here.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy St. Patrick's Day

The leprechauns were here!

Sadly, the boys didn't catch any. One trap -- the fancy, leprechaun-hat themed one -- was found in the garbage. The rest were found hanging from light fixtures. And despite the boy's determination, by the time they got up last night, butterfly nets in hand, prepared to capture any unruly leprechauns, the little buggers had already been here.

What a hungry bunch! They took the boys' bait (a mixture of Lucky Charms and broken crayons) and tried cooking it on the stove.
They emptied my kitchen cupboard, leaving only a few oat bits and marshmallows behind.

Any guess where the contents of my cupboard went?

And that rice box from yesterday? Well, let's just say the leprechauns like playing with toy trucks and machines too!

At least they left behind some gold (covered) chocolate coins!

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Rice Box

This, my friends, is our rice box. It's the newest addition to our playtime stash and a huge hit with the boys, especially Boy #4, my tractor-and-truck-loving 3-yr-old.

As you can see, it's pretty simple: just a big plastic container filled with rice. In this case, 20 lbs. of rice. (At least that's what it was initially. I'm willing to bet we're down to 18 lbs. or so at present!)

I won't pretend it was my idea. I got the idea when Boy #4 visited a friend a week or so ago came home all excited about their "rice box." The friend's Mom explained the concept to me, and since we were headed to the grocery store anyway, I figured, why not?

Within minutes of coming home, I'd dumped the rice into the container (which we already had), and a few seconds after that, all the boys descended on it. Everyone, from the oldest to the youngest, enjoys playing with it.

Yes, it's messy. But it's also easy to clean up, and for the fun they've had with it, totally worth it. Cheap, easy, multi-sensory and imaginative -- my kind of plaything!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Universal Preschool

I voted for President Obama, but I disagree with him about universal preschool. President Obama is a strong supporter of universal preschool, or free government preschool for every 4-yr-old in the country. I am not.

Those who know me know that I am most certainly not anti-education. In fact, one of the reasons I have this blog is because I care deeply about boys and education. I just don't believe that children entering school at age 4 is the answer to anything.

Supporters of universal preschool argue that poor children are unecessarily disadvantaged by our current system. They argue that the children of parents with means already have access to preschool. They argue that universal preschool would even out the playing field.

They also point to brain research that shows the incredible amount of learning that goes on in the early years, and argue that we need to engage children during this time.

But children at age 4 (and any age, really) are wonderfully variable, and what one child is ready and interested in learning at age 4 is not the same as what another child may want to learn. At 4, they are busy figuring out the world. They know the world best through experience and trial and error -- all things that, frankly, tend to get lost in classrooms of 20 or more children.

The biggest reason I am opposed to universal preschool, though, is what I call "creep." It's the concept that once universal preschool exists, it will soon be almost unheard of for a 4-yr-old to be at home. People will equate universal preschool with achievement, and will come to believe (as many parents already do) that preschool is essential to their child's later success.

I'm worried too about the message it sends to parents, best expressed by a participant in a 20/20 interview about universal preschool, to be aired tonight at 10 PM EST: "Parents are being told that we’re not capable of facilitating our child’s learning.”

Far too many parents already believe that preschool is superior to their own parenting. I remember, years ago, overhearing a conversation between two involved mothers. The mother whose child was not in preschool told the other mother, whose child was enrolled in a local preschool, "I'm sure your son is getting so much more than mine is at home."

Her comment stopped me cold. This was from a Mom who read to her children. Took them to community events. Was involved in our playgroup. Facilitated her children's interests. Loved them deeply. And she really, truly believed that preschool was somehow better than her own mothering.

How sad.

In my opinion, John Stossel sums it up best with his comment: “It’s a waste of money and a government conceit that they can parent better than we can."

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Win a LeapFrog Tag Reading System!

Sarah at parentingbytrialanderror.com is giving away a LeapFrog Tag Reading system. This is the system where a special pen can be used to read it aloud, or to help children decipher unfamiliar words.

It's not a replacement for parent/child reading, but I'm starting to wonder if something like this might not good for some of my very independent boys. You know, a chance to work on reading on their own, without someone looking over their shoulders.

I'm going to enter the contest. (The link is here.) Meanwhile, if you have any other ideas on helping highly independent boys learn to read, I'm all ears!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Q & A with a Video Game Designer: Part 2

Last Wednesday we talked with Greg Wondra, a video game designer at Zindagi Games, about how to get into the video game industry. Today, Wondra talks about kids and video games.

What would you say to parents who are concerned about the amount of time their sons spend playing video games?

I’d say it’s an absolutely valid concern. It might be funny to hear me say this since I work in the gaming industry and played a lot myself growing up (and still play a lot), but I’d tell parents to carefully monitor how much their kids are playing as well as what games they are playing. Don’t let your kids overdo it and don’t let them play games that are too mature for their age level.

In my mind there is no doubt a link between electronic entertainment and our childhood obesity problem. No doubt. And I sometimes feel guilty that I’m contributing to this problem by trying to create addictive entertainment. It’s easy to just sit in front of your TV all day and play games, but it’s certainly not healthy. It’s not good for one’s physical development and it’s not good for one’s social development.

There’s certainly a place for video games in society both as a form of entertainment and a form of education. Used appropriately, video games can serve as a privilege, as a reward for your children. However, if supervision is neglected, I 100% believe video games can have negative effects on your kid’s health, social development, mood, and behavior.

What kind of parental supervision do you think is most helpful for kids who play video games?

I think playing games WITH your children is most definitely the best kind of parental supervision when it comes to games. If you’re playing games with your kids, you not only have a good grasp as to how long they are playing and what they are playing, but you are also spending quality playtime with your children. Video games are a great way to learn teamwork, cooperation and how to win and lose with grace. They can teach you the value of perseverance -- of trying again and again until you do something right.

And the good news is, you can do all these things with your child. Pick up a controller and play with them. You can teach them things and they can teach you things. Problem solving is a huge skill learned from video games. With both of you playing together, you can collectively work towards overcoming adversity and achieving a common goal.

Parents should always be conscious of what their children are playing. While there is certainly software available for all age groups, there’s a lot out there that is inappropriate for younger children. Follow the video game rating system located on each box to get a better idea of what’s suitable and what’s not. I can tell from having worked at a youth center years ago, there are a ton of kids out there playing games they shouldn’t be playing and their parents have absolutely no idea.

The video game industry is subjected to a lot of negative press. What are the positives parents should know about video games?

As strong an advocate I am for monitoring your kids’ gaming content and playtime, I also feel strongly about the positives of video games that are, unfortunately, overlooked.

Outside of the potential positives I’ve already mentioned (learning things like cooperation, perseverance, etc.), I think the content in certain video games can educate kids in a memorable manner that textbooks simply can’t match.

For example, there are a ton of video games based around the historic events of World War II. Playing a game and reliving some of those experiences (seeing the sights and hearing the sounds) will have a much more lasting impact on someone than simply reading about it in a text book. It puts you in the moment and you’ll remember those moments.

Games like “Civilization” or “Sim City” can teach people about social dynamics and city planning. In Sim City, you are essentially the mayor of a town that you create. Go ahead and raise taxes if you like and see what the consequences will be.

In fact, many video games offer this type of trial and error learning. By their very nature, video games ask that you experiment and try new things. They always offer you choices and you’ll immediately get to see the consequences of your actions based on the decisions you make.

For example, let’s say you’re playing Sim City and as mayor you decide to spend taxpayer money on a new football stadium instead of new police and fire stations. Several simulated years after you’ve made this decision, you’ll see that while building the football stadium may have temporarily increased your popularity, the quality of your city has degraded with an increase in crime and hazard prevention. Perhaps that wasn’t such a good decision! At least it wasn’t real and now you’ve learned from your mistake and people always learn more from their mistakes than their successes.

Video games are vastly superior to other forms of education when it comes to this type of “trial and error” learning. You’re in an environment where it’s OK to make the wrong decision since you can press “reset” and try something different if the choice you made the first time around didn’t go over so well. This is something you don’t get with traditional schooling where your choices are made for you and you’re only asked to execute (a book report, for example).

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Let Them Be Boys

The issue of boys falling behind in school is attracting attention on the other side of the pond as well. The Times Online yesterday published an article called, "All Work and No Play is Bad for Boys." In it, the author points out the academic achievement gap between boys and girls and concludes (based on the research of others) that the current school system is detrimental to boys in a number of ways.

The push toward earlier academic education, a lack of male teachers and increasing emphasis on theory, rather than immersion and experimentation, alienates many boys before they even reach middle school.

So I'd like to know: How has school affected your son, either positively or negatively? What changes do you think might make school a more boy-friendly place?

Also, be sure to head over to Weird, Unsocialized Homeschoolers today for an interview with the authors of Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys. They talk about education too!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Duct Tape

My boys are duct taping each other to chairs. For fun.

Apparently, this is what they do for fun when I'm otherwise occupied. I was on the computer, doing some online banking, when I heard, "Mom, come look!"

Son #1 was completely duct taped to his chair. Son #3 was grinning. Son #2 was watching the clock. It took Son #1 less than a minute to break his bonds.

Somehow, I just can't see a group of girls playing the same game.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Showing Love

There's a cute little questionnairre going around Facebook lately, where you ask your kids questions about you and post the answers for all your friends to see -- questions like, "What is something Mom always says to you?" and "What's your Mom's favorite thing to do?"

It's a fun little questionnairre, but I was intrigued by my boys' responses to this question:

"How do you know your Mom loves you?"

Their answers? Boy #1: "She goes fishing with me and takes me to sports shows." Boys #2 & 3: "She takes us fun places."

Notice: not a word about hugs, kisses or "I love you's." All three of my boys instead talked about a thing I did with them.

This tendency -- to focus on concrete actions versus verbal or emotional expressions as a marker of affection -- is common to males. According to Dr. Jim Houran, "women desire more emotional sharing and affection than men. To this end, women tend to say, 'I love you' more often and exhibit more nonverbal emotional expression and eye contact...men are more likely to show affection through direct actions."

That's something for me to keep in mind everyday. I might hug and kiss my boys all day long, but to them, getting down and playing cars with them may be a more meaningful expression of love than all the kisses in the world.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Smokeless Tobacco: Ick!

A new study out today finds that increasing numbers of teen boys are using smokeless tobacco products, such as snuff and chewing tobacco. According to a report by the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, between 2002 and 2007, there was a 30% increase in the number of boys ages 12-17 who admitted to using smokeless tobacco products. Teen boys in the South and Midwest, particularly in rural areas, were especially likely to have used smokeless tobacco products.

Unfortunately, many teen boys think smokeless tobacco is somehow safe -- or at least safer -- than cigarettes. But nothing could be further from the truth. Check out these myths (from www.ucanquit2.org):

  • MYTH: Smokeless tobacco products are a safe alternative to tobacco smoking with none of the risk for serious illness.
  • FACT: Smokeless does not equal harmless. The list of serious illnesses connected to any form of smokeless tobacco is almost too long to print, but it does include mouth cancer, cancer of the pancreas, tooth loss, and bone loss around the roots of teeth.

  • MYTH: When you chew tobacco you spit the nicotine, and all the other poisons, out with the chew.
  • FACT: When chewers place snuff or smokeless in their mouth, cheek, or lip, they give nicotine a free pass to do its nasty thing. A high dose of nicotine enters the bloodstream from the mouth and is then carried throughout the body. From there it takes its toll on many parts of the body, including the heart and blood vessels, hormones, metabolism, and brain. The amount of nicotine absorbed from a can of spit tobacco is equal to the amount delivered by three to four packs of cigarettes. Nicotine is absorbed more slowly from smokeless tobacco than from cigarettes, but more nicotine per dose is absorbed from smokeless tobacco than from cigarettes. Also, the nicotine stays in the bloodstream for a longer time.

  • MYTH: A little dip or chew won’t hurt you.
  • FACT: Even a little smokeless tobacco has enough nicotine in it to get you addicted if you keep using it. Don’t be fooled by thinking you can use just a little and not get addicted. Smokeless tobacco contains nicotine, the same drug that makes cigarettes addictive. If you hold an average size dip or chew in your mouth for 30 minutes, you get as much nicotine as you do from about three cigarettes. It is so addicting that some smokeless tobacco users sleep with it in their mouths so they keep getting nicotine through the night.

  • MYTH: Good gum care will offset the harmful effects of dip or chew.
  • FACT: There is simply no evidence that there is anything you can do with floss, toothbrushes, mouthwash, or toothpaste to undo the toll you take on your teeth and gums when you make the decision to dip or chew. Brush and floss as much as you want, but there’s no way it will undo the harm of smokeless tobacco.

Unfortunately, these facts alone may do little to dissuade your teen from using smokeless tobacco, since teen boys are, by nature, risk-takers. Add in the fact that boys in groups tend to do things they wouldn't do alone (as Dr. Leonard Sax writes, "A boy is much more likely to do something dangerous and stupid when he's in a group of boys than when he's by himself."), and your best bet is a) modeling healthy behavior and b) being aware of what your son and his friends are doing.

If that's not enough, send him over to www.trashyourcan.org. There are some graphic pictures, but some stories are best told in the first person.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Q and A with a Video Game Designer

Got a son who plays video games all day long? He just might grow up to be a video game designer! That's exactly what happened to my brother, Greg Wondra, now a video game designer with Zindagi Games. That's him above -- with Derek Jeter, cover athlete for 2K7 Major League Baseball. I talked to Greg about life as a video game designer:

What was your first video game system?

The Atari 2600 was where it all began for me. In fact, I still remember the day we got it. It was Christmas and I was probably about 5 or so (I’m now age 31). My dad got it from somewhere and I remember it coming with the games “Air Sea Battle” and “Combat” among others. I’m not kidding when I say this may be the oldest memory I still retain. Shortly after we got the Atari 2600 I remember my father buying a Colecovision off of a family friend (along with several games).

The first system I can say I actually helped buy with my OWN money was the original 8-bit Nintendo. That was back around 1988 or so when I was 10 years old. The original NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) cost $100 back then and I was so determined to get one, I saved up $70, my brother Tom kicked in $25, and my sister MaryBeth gave $5. One of the best purchases I’ve ever made. I still have all 3 of those systems….and they all still work. I now own more than a dozen gaming consoles.

How many hours a day did you play video games when you were a kid?

A LOT! It’s hard to put an exact number on it. I definitely had more time to play during the summer as a kid than I did during the school year but I bet I averaged a couple hours a day.

It was not uncommon back then for me to get what I called “Nintendo thumb.” “Nintendo Thumb” is when I played so long that I would literally have an imprint of a button left in my right thumb after hours of playing (and my thumb would be really sore.) “Super Mario Bros. 3” was responsible for giving me “Nintendo thumb” more than any other game.

That said, for as much as I played (and continue to play), I was always very conscious not to let games dominate my life too much. I played a lot of sports outdoors growing up as well.

How did your background in video games lead you to your current job?

I’m a little bit of an oddity in that almost every person I work with (about 90 – 95%) went to college with the idea of getting a job in the video game industry. They either studied computer science and became programmers or studied computer art applications and became artists. Some even went to schools with programs specifically catered towards video gaming degrees! I researched some of these schools but found them all to be way too expensive.

I was really one of the lucky ones. I saw a job posting on a web site about 5 years ago for a company that made sports video games looking for a designer. I’d never designed a video game before and had no formal training, but applied anyways since I felt like a lifetime of playing games prepared me well for such a role.

Fortunate enough to get the job, I soon realized that, while I had a LOT to learn about the actual process of making games, the foundation of my knowledge was strong. From day one, I felt I knew more about game design than anyone else there, because I didn’t just “play” games -- as I got older I got to understand them. I would try to figure them out a bit, find out how they worked, find out what they did to make the game fun or accessible.

Before I got that job, I’d actually started writing video game reviews for a now defunct website online for free. They’d send me free, burnt copies of games. I’d play them for several hours and write up a review. Being exposed to so many different types of games helped me to see common design practices games would use, everything from how they’d structure a game to how they’d design their menu screens. Reviewing games made me ask what was good about each game and what was bad. It made me think about what I’d do to improve the game and so forth. Doing this for several months greatly improved my ability to study a game, not just play it.

What’s it like to work in the development of video games? What is your job like on a day to day basis?

The biggest misconception about making games for a living is that the only thing we do all day is simply kick our feet up and play games. Nothing could be further from the truth. Making video games is a LOT of work, and nothing about this job is ever easy. It is not uncommon for people within this industry to regularly put in 50 – 60 hour work weeks – and sometimes more in the final months leading up to the game’s release.

A typical work day at Zindagi Games runs from about 9:00 am to 7:00 pm. We get off an hour for lunch and have off every other Friday (this work schedule of having off every other Friday is totally unheard of in the gaming industry….I’m very fortunate). However, I typical work longer hours than most as I usually get into the office around 8:00 A.M. and leave around 8:00 P.M. The more experience and responsibility you take on as you grow with a company, the longer your hours typically become.

In my current role as game designer / producer, I’m responsible for the entire design of the game, as well as creating everyone’s schedule (their “task lists” as we call it) in order to ensure the game gets built as intended -- both on time and on budget.

In my role, I decide everything from how the game should be played (what every button does, for example), what sounds and music should be heard, how the game should “flow” from one area of the game to the next, how CPU opponents or enemies should behave or react to what the user (you) are doing.

To do this, I must coordinate the efforts of an entire company. Zindagi Games has more than 50 employees and so one of the most important aspects of my job is ensuring that everyone is working towards a common goal and vision. Communication is vital. Everyone involved must understand what needs to be done in order to get the game built as intended.

Another part of my job is working with our publisher. I have several conference calls a week in which I must update our publishers on the current status of our game. If there are problems or issues that arise, they help us find solutions. This could come in the form of extending our contract to allow us more time to polish our product or providing us with necessary resources.

What are some of the perks of being a video game designer?

Seeing others playing and enjoying the game YOU worked on is an immensely satisfying feeling. Seeing the product you worked on in stores like Target and Wal-mart is very cool.

The perks of the job are great as well! We do, in fact, buy a lot of video games from the local video game store for us to research. (Checking out competing projects is an essential part of our job to ensure we are keeping up with the Joneses). As employees, we’re free to take these games home at night to play them in our free time, which is outstanding.

We also get to attend select video game trade shows and conventions not open to the public. Ever heard of an event called “E3?” (Electronic Entertainment Expo). For years this has been THE event for all things video games exclusive to people within the industry.

Lastly, depending on the game you’re working on, you might even wind up meeting some celebrities. Having worked on a Major League Baseball title for several years, I was fortunate enough to get a chance to meet with our “cover athlete,” Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees as well as Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan, who did some of the commentary in our game. A lot of other video games use Hollywood actors to voice certain characters in their games.

Oh, I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention one more job perk: NO DRESS CODE!!! This is huge for me since I hate dressing up and feeling like a corporate shill. I show up for work everyday in a T-shirt and shorts. It’s a very casual work environment and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

What do you suggest for boys who may be interested in a career in the video gaming industry?

Learn all you can about games. Learn about the different genres and different gaming systems. Learn about their differences and similarities. If you’re young, that means reading about games online (try IGN.com or Gamespot.com) or in magazines. Watch the channel “G4” on cable TV. Play a wide variety of games and see what kinds you like best. Talk about them with friends. Write reviews in a local school or city newspaper (if they are willing to accept them).

If you’re old enough and are interested in a career in the video gaming industry my best advice would be to contact someone who works in the industry and find out what it is they exactly do. Job shadow. See if you can spend a few hours at work with someone to see what their life is like on a day to day basis. There are a lot of different jobs within the video game industry (everything from programming, designing, artwork, sound, managing, marketing, quality assurance testing, you name it) that it would be good do some research into finding out what each person’s job entails and see if that’s something you could see yourself doing.

For those just coming of working age, working in a local video game store or electronics department is a good step. Doing that, you really get a sense of what the public is buying (which is critical knowledge if interested in making games you hope will actually sell).

Applying as a game tester at a local video game studio would be a good step for those of age that live close by a game studio. You’ll learn a ton about the development process working in such a job.

Lastly, I just want to say that having a passion for games (and for making games) is more important than anything else. I work with a lot of extremely intelligent individuals (people that have gotten perfect scores on their SATs, for example), but intelligence alone doesn’t make you good at your job. Above all else, having a passion and drive to make games can take you as far as you’re willing to go.

Having a strong work ethic and can-do attitude is way more important than just being smart and capable. I can tell you first hand that the most important aspect to a game company, when looking for individuals to hire, is to find someone who is willing to shoulder a part of the workload, to help the company rather than just punch a clock.

Have any more questions for Greg? Next week, he'll talk about video games and learning -- and answer any other questions you may have.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Leprechauns are Coming!

We've turned the calendar to March, and in my house, that can only mean one thing: Leprechauns!

Each year for the past six years, leprechauns have terrorized our house the week before St. Patrick's Day. I'm talking real chaos here -- overturned couches, plastic bowls dangling from the ceiling fan and greeen toilet water. One year, they even managed to flip our kitchen table upside down!

So ever year, in an attempt to contain the chaos (and capture some leprechaun gold!), my boys construct leprechaun traps.

They spend weeks preparing. For those of you who don't know, leprechauns love to eat crayons. So the boys spend HOURS smashing crayons into bite-sized pieces, just right for leprechauns. They also insist that we purchase Lucky Charms, because apparently leprechauns are partial to Lucky Charms as well.

Then it's on to the traps. In years previous, we've always had simple box traps. But this year, we were inspired by Family Fun magazine. Apparently, we're not the only household that's invaded by leprechauns each year, because the March issue features 3 innovative leprechaun traps. That's Son #2 above, with the beginnings of his leprechaun hat trap. For directions and pictures, click here.

Then tell me: How do you celebrate St. Patrick's Day with your family?

Monday, March 2, 2009

Classic Toys

We exchanged toys today.

To prevent boredom (or at least keep it at bay), the bulk of the toys are stored in the basement while a select bunch are in active rotation upstairs. Every few months or so, we put some of the "old," now-boring toys in the basement and bring up some even-older but now-exciting toys.

To paraphrase Aragorn from the Lord of the Rings, today was that day.

Down went the plastic kitchen, the dinosaurs and the blocks. Up came the Lincoln logs, Bob the Builder machines and some random cars. In 15 minutes or so, we'd managed to perform a mini-toy overhaul.

The beauty of the toy-switch, of course, is that the boys are then happily engaged for at least half an hour. And sure enough, just before noon, I looked around the house and saw: Boy #4, above, playing with playdough and Bob the Builder. Boy #3, playing with Legos. Boy #2 was building an elaborate fort the Lincoln logs, and Boy #1 was exploring on the computer in Civilization.

And it hit me: those are all classic toys. Playdough. Lincoln Logs. Legos. Even Civilization, one of Sid Meier's famous games, is considered a classic in the world of computer gaming.

What other toys would you consider classic boy toys?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Honest Scrap Blog Award

My 1st blog award -- courtesy of my sister-in-law and fellow blogger, Heather. (If you're at all interested in infertility or PCOS, I encourage you to check out her blog, Journey to a "Wondraful" Baby.)

Honest Scrap is a chance for bloggers to recognize each others' work, and an excellent opportunity for blog readers to find some gems they might be missing. Here's how it works:

1) Choose a minimum of 7 blogs that you find brilliant in content or design.

2) Show the 7 winners names and links on your blog, and leave a comment informing them that they were prized with "Honest Scrap." Well, there's no prize, but they can keep the nifty icon.

3) List at least 10 honest things about yourself.

So first, my 10 Honest Things (and since this is a blog about boys, I'm going to try to keep it raising boys):

1) I'm not-so-secretly glad that I have all boys. No testy mother-daughter relationship to worry about!

2) But happy as I am to have boys to raise, I fear I'll miss having a daughter when I'm older. It would be amazing to see my own child go through pregnancy and childbirth.

3) One of the reasons I'm glad I have boys? My genetic history, which is positive for breast and ovarian cancer. My boys are still at an increased risk of cancer, but at least they don't have breasts or ovaries to worry about.

4) Changing a girl diaper now just seems weird to me.

5) I know the whole Bob the Builder theme song.

6) My boys have shown me the wonder of so many things I'd missed before: throwing rocks into the river, crafting dams out of mud, catching insects, etc. The list is ongoing.

7) I really got into learning about dinosaurs too.

8) Another reason I love having boys: I don't have to do anything to their hair. I rarely, rarely, RARELY comb their hair.

9) I fully appreciate the convenience of boys. If we're out-and-about, say at a park, and there's no bathroom nearby, I let them pee on trees.

10) Hubby and I have been taking a series of classes to help us improve our marriage. As crazy as my boys think that is (actual quote: "Why do you have to learn that stuff? You've already been married for 16 years!"), I believe that marriage is the base of the family. Anything we do to strengthen our marriage also strengthens our family.

Now, onto the nominations!

1) Weird, Unsocialized Homeschoolers : I'm a new visitor to this blog, but I love it already.

2) Pack of Hungry Snails : Firefly Mom simply has the best music on her blog. Plus, her homeschool group does some pretty cool things.

3) Sandra Dodd : One of my homeschool inspirations.

4) Free Boys : This blog is by a father who lives an unschooling life with his family. Thought-provoking!

5) Something Good Happened : Let's face it: we all need to remember to look on the bright side. This is a new blog, but I think it can grow into something great.

6) Making Meaning from the Mundane : One of the first blogs I followed. Lynn is a fellow writer, and the writing here is just fabulous.