Parenting and Voice Search by Mark Stone

December 2014. One stroke of good luck in my life is that my youngest son is a terrible liar. So when he approached me with this question, "Dad, is it okay if I join a public Minecraft server?" I knew from his body language that I already wasn't getting the full story.

My wife and I have been fairly tolerant with his Internet usage. This consists almost exclusively of YouTube and endless videos of whatever interests him at present. Now, when I say "tolerant" that doesn't mean unsupervised or without rules. I go through his viewing history regularly, and we've had several conversations about what is appropriate viewing for an 8 year old. There have even been a few occasions where he has asked me to remove something from his viewing history. But to some extent it's a war of attrition. On the one hand, I'm not going to shut him off from YouTube completely just out of fear on my (or my wife's) part. On the other hand, I cannot review every single video he watches; he has way more time for watching videos than I will ever have for policing them.

Every once in awhile, however, something happens that makes you realize that the arms race has escalated way faster than anything you, as a parent, were prepared for. So when I was asked this nominally innocent Minecraft question, my only thought was not "Should I let him play on a public server?" but rather "How the heck did he figure out how to get onto a public server?" He's 8. His reading and typing skills are those of an 8 year old. And of course his knowledge of computer networking is zero, right? Right? It turns out that parenting is little more than an endless series of faulty assumptions.

Don't get me wrong. I think Minecraft is the best thing to happen in computer gaming in many years, especially where children are concerned. It's creative; its constructive; it's cooperative. It teaches patience, and long term planning. It can be a shared activity that parent and child bond over. It even teaches math and the virtue of saving. So my youngest's enthusiasm for Minecraft is most welcome. And in general I see computer games as a huge net positive in a child's life. My oldest son and I spent many happy hours over Civilization, Heroes of Might and Magic, and especially the Age of Empires series of games.

I remember when my wife and I had just started dating, and she was just getting to know my oldest son. She was skeptical of the amount of time he spent with computer games. Then one night she and I were sitting on the sofa watching Jeopardy while he was on the computer playing. A clue came up that said, "It's the oldest written language, expressed in symbols we call cuneiform." My son promptly called out, "What is Sumerian?" and went back to his game. When the answer (question) proved correct, she turned to me and asked, "How does he know that?" I shrugged and said, "It's in one of his games." She never questioned his time spent with computer games again.

But when our own son came to me with a question about public Minecraft, I had a moment of pause. First things first. I responded to his question by asking, "How did you get onto a public server?" He looked startled and started to say, "I haven't..." but then thought better of it and finished with "I'm sorry." I sighed, and said, "Don't assume I'm going to say 'no'. Honesty is always best." Then we talked about how he got onto a public server.

Here's the sequence of events as best I can reconstruct:

  • When playing PC Minecraft he likes to have his tablet at hand for doing searches. Yes, he could use a browser for that, but he doesn't really know what a browser is, and he's most familiar with using a tablet. To him a desktop computer is just the appliance that runs PC Minecraft. For everything else, he has his tablet.
  • He's seen videos on YouTube that indicate there are public servers where people play Minecraft in various PvP variations, frequently under the heading of something Hunger Games themed. So he knows these public servers are out there.
  • I should point out that I've never read Hunger Games, nor seen the movies, and neither has he. From what little I know, I don't consider it age appropriate for him.
  • Anyway: entirely on his own he's figured out that his tablet has voice search, something neither I nor my wife ever uses.
  • So he used his tablet to voice search YouTube for 'public minecraft servers' and browsed the search results until he found a Hunger Games themed result.
  • He then watched that video on his tablet until it showed logging into a server, and he paused the video.
  • Then he brought up Minecraft on the PC and at login typed in verbatim what the video had showed. Sure enough, he was able to log in.

One of the toughest jobs in parenting is inventing a new policy on the spot because you need one, right now. At this moment I didn't want to shut him down and tell him he'd done something bad. First of all, I'll never win that fight. As he gets older and smarter, he'll just try and find more clever ways to go around me. I'd rather have him share this experience with me from the beginning than try to hide it. Second, multi-player gaming online with people you don't know is an inevitable part of his generation's experience. I need to work with him on this, not against him. Finally, he'd actually done something pretty clever with the tools and knowledge he had at hand. I want to reward that (while pointing out the importance of honesty).

So I grant him permission to play on public Minecraft servers. And we talk about rules for interacting with strangers online. Ugh. Not a conversation I was planning to have with an 8 year old, but it is what it is. After we talk about the rules I write them down. And I make him read them. Out loud.

And so, from time to time, he plays on public Minecraft servers with total strangers. Sometimes I watch over his shoulders for a few minutes to reassure myself about what's going on. Often I talk with him about what he did on public Minecraft today. But I can't cover it all. At some level I have to just trust him. And see what the future holds.

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