Anyway, fourth grade. It's going pretty well so far, at least academically, but I think we've entered the age where we really need to start watching his friends and keeping on top of their activities and interactions. And while this all would likely be true regardless of the existence of Minecraft, it sure doesn't help.
For those of you blissfully unaware (meaning you know no kids between the ages of, oh, say 5 and 21), Minecraft is a video game, and to call it a generational obsession would be understating things somewhat, like calling Pol Pot a pretty mean guy. I agreed to get the game for Cal because it seemed innocent enough--basically an open-world action adventure game, building things with blocks, resource management, that sort of thing--and more to the point I didn't want him to be some sort of out-of-the-loop freak if every single other kid in his class was playing this game and he wasn't. I know, I know, if all your friends jumped off a bridge, etcetera etcetera, but since he's a year or two younger than his classmates we try to be particularly sensitive about allowing him the social tools to be one of the gang more easily. Because if we didn't let him play Minecraft? He'd be, like, THE ONLY ONE. And I just hate to think about him being the pop culture equivalent of the kid whose parents don't let him eat sugar, and brings, like, unsweetened carob cakes in for his birthday, you know?
So anyway, we let him play Minecraft (which he's only allowed to play on the weekends--we still have rules and standards up in here after all), he plays it, he loves it, everyone is happy. And every time I pick him up from school all he wants to talk about is MINECRAFT and everyone's special strategies in MINECRAFT did you hear about the newest thing in MINECRAFT? And William? Told me that there's a mod? That you can put Star Wars skins on your MINECRAFT server? And also one time? Thomas was building a house and two creepers snuck up on him but then he used his leather armor and threw a sheep at them and then he fell into a trap in the nether? And it was SO FUNNY!
(I'd like to think the game makes more sense than this but suspect that it doesn't.)
Except one day I walked by when he was playing Minecraft and I noticed that there was this scrolling chat box open at the bottom of the screen, with these other randos talking to each other while they were all playing. (I'm no video game enthusiast, but I think there are similar things in most video games that you play cooperatively with people online, games like "Call of Duty" and of that ilk). Those of you familiar with such games probably won't be surprised to hear this, but the back and forth taking place in this chat box? Awful. Terrible. Slurs! Swearing! INCORRECT SPELLING.
"Cal," I spluttered, "what is all this going on at the bottom of the screen?"
"Huh?" He looked down. "Oh, I didn't see that. I'm not really sure. I think that's other people that are playing on this server. It's my friend Archibald's* server, he invited me to join when we were sitting together at lunch last week."
"OK, but who are these other people? Do you know them? And why are they saying all these terrible things?" For lack of any other better solution, I just covered the chat box with my hand.
"Oh, I don't know. I guess they're Archibald's friends. Or other people that joined his server anyway. I haven't really been looking at it. What are they saying?"
"NOTHING. They're saying NOTHING. But can you turn this screen off? Hide it in some way? Or better yet, why do you have to play on someone's server at all? Can't you just play by yourself? Play by yourself and do something peaceful, like build a diamond...zombie...hut...or something?"
So anyway, Cal turned the chat function off, and then we had a talk about not playing with people online unless he really really knows them personally and he's preferably in the same room as them. I also said he was never allowed to have the chat function on again, ever, because: INAPPROPRIATE.
He's still young and relatively naive, so I know this is just the beginning. And while I'm obviously not going to be a super-paranoic about the use of the internet and social media (see: this page you're reading right now, and the existence thereof) I am a little apprehensive, despite the fact that we have a pretty tight lid on his screen time and computer habits and who he spends his time with outside of school. Because what's it going to be next year? Or the next? Or even forget the computer--what are he and his friends talking about in person at recess? In carpool line? At their sleepover parties?
(Yes, you're right--they're probably talking about Minecraft. Because Hayden? Said one time? He got a pile of gold? But then a zombie came and fell into this lava moat that he made around his house? And then someone hacked into his server and stole his diamond armor! It was epic!)
Cal is eight years old now, which is the age that most kids start to form stronger and stronger ties with people outside of their families. So I have to let him do that, but it's hard not to worry, because even though we know his friends and know their parents, that act of sending your child out there into the world can feel like feeding a lamb to the wolves. Because we can't always be there, and we can't always filter, and can't always catch the chat box before they see it and cover it with our hand. We just can't. That's what raising a child is: getting them ready so that they will be OK without you.
In my mind Cal is kind of a low-maintenence child, in that's he's old enough now to fend for himself and his personality is generally allergic to trouble-making. (He's actually kind of a people-pleaser to an almost unfortunate degree, in that even the hint that he's transgressed in some way makes him start to get teary and apologize--at school, anyway.) But nonetheless, I'm glad that I'm going to have a little more time to spend with him now, not just in spite of the fact that he's older and becoming more independent, but because of it.
* Not his real name, OBVIOUSLY. I actually have not ever met this kid before but I have encouraged Cal not to play on his server anymore because aside from the obvious reasons I detailed above, apparently he regularly stays up until midnight playing Minecraft on school nights and what parent lets their nine year-old kid do that?