"Minecraft" is a sandbox game, in which a player is free to roam a virtual world instead progressing from level to level.
CNN  — 

There is, inevitably, a gap between the parents we are and the parents we think we are. Not unlike algorithms, we rely on the past to inform our parenting decisions in the present. But this world keeps on turning, and the parenting present is never quite like the past.

In his new book, “The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World,” Jordan Shapiro considers how this gap is playing out in our children’s screen time. Many parents see themselves as dutiful, and at least occasionally wise, guides for their children. We help them make good decisions at school, with friends and on the sports field. But when it comes to digital lives, many kids tend to be steering the ship on their own.

I am, without question, guilty. I’m an involved and considerate parent … except when my 6-year-old son plays video games. As long as the games seem to be age-appropriate, I let him play whatever he pleases while I happily do something else for a couple of hours every weekend. Quality time, and its attendant bonding and life lessons, happen later.

But after speaking with Shapiro and reading his book, I saw how this is a mistake. The more everyone’s lives takes place on digital commons, he explains, the more we need to spend quality time with our kids online, showing them around the place and how things work.

“We know abstinence sex education doesn’t work and creates unhealthy sexual relationships. So why are we taking a similar approach with screen time?” Shapiro said. Instead of shying away from the digital bogeyman, he wants parents to embrace it.

“Why don’t we build rituals with new technologies that teach [our children] moral and ethical lessons?”

Screen time can be quality time

I went all-in. Every night for a week, during our quality time slot, we played “Minecraft” together – his preferred digital entertainment. I entered this arrangement wholly, and willfully, ignorant about this immensely popular game.

My first discovery was that my son, despite having already played for a couple of months, knew little more than I did. “What have you been doing when you played?” I asked as gently as possible after he was unable to answer a series of basic questions about the game. “Just moving around and killing creepers,” he answered.

“Minecraft” is a sandbox game, the type in which a player is free to roam a virtual world instead progressing from level to level. Sure, there is a lot of moving around and killing bad guys, but that’s far from the whole point. The bigger goal is survival, and creation and destruction are both key to that survival.

On our first night, he adroitly knocked off a few creepers and then got stuck in a mine. We tried knocking through the wall, and knocking, and knocking, until the idea of being trapped in this mine forever overwhelmed us and, together, we decided to call it.

“Next time, let’s do creative mode,” my son said. In this mode, there are more opportunities to figure things out and, as I understand it, no chance one might, say, get chased by a creeper into a dark pit and wither for eternity. This led me to my second discovery, which is that my son was more interested in learning how things work than achieving any particular goal.

Over the next few nights, we slowly explored. We figured out which buttons do what and how to make use of the various materials we picked up in this virtual wilderness. When he killed something, be it a bad guy or an animal, I’d ask him why. His answers revealed that this wasn’t about aggression but understanding cause and effect. “See, you get stuff,” he said after killing a cow and receiving a small pixelated steak.

Toward the end of the week, I asked him whether he wanted to go out of creative mode and back to the more challenging survival mode. “No, I have a lot to learn,” he replied.

We spent the rest of the time working together, collaborating on ideas for strategy and problem-solving. There were moments when I caught myself gazing at my phone, desperate to be immersed in a digital world of my own choosing. But there were also moments of mutual delight, both in times of triumph as well as times of goofball failure. Unlike the physical world, “Minecraft” is equally foreign to both of us. We were both the guide and the guided.

What happens when we play

As Shapiro makes clear, there’s a lot important parenting stuff going on here.

Video games, which often involve battle and sacrifice in the name of survival, gave me a chance to ask my son moral questions like “why are you killing that cow?” Even if he couldn’t always answer these questions, his attempts to answer them marked the first step in his understanding of why such questions merit answering.

Also, while we tend to associate video games with less-desirable traits like addiction and impulse, succeeding at them requires a number of important life skills, too. One must exhibit self-regulation, focus and a willingness to learn, and then play by, the rules. In a perfect world, these are concepts all of us grasp before adulthood.

“The more they play, the better they get at mediating the tension between their own playful desires and the boundaries that create a space for fun,” Shapiro writes in “The New Childhood.”

Lastly, video games teach us how to collaborate. I am the first in what will probably be a long line of other people with whom my son will play video games. (“Minecraft,” for example, allows users to virtually play alongside other people in real time.) In his book, Shapiro points to research showing how online multiplayer games can lead to lasting friendships and a sense of community and teach players about the value of collaboration.

Of course, I could be teaching my son all of the above in what Luddites call “the real world,” but Shapiro says it’s not the same. Coaching our children through the norms of the digital world helps them be effective communicators and savvy consumers of information – online. Whether it is video games, YouTube, social media or whatever comes next, children need us to prepare them for what will probably be a highly digitized future.

Even at the young age of 6, my son was already making decisions about his digital life on his own, through his choice of video games. He could have found his way to far less thought-provoking – and far more indecent – games than “Minecraft.”

“It is an economic and civic necessity to help kids online,” Shapiro said, expressing his hope that the next generation will be taught digital skills like how to spot the difference between real news and fake news. “We teach them manners for playground life, and we should be teaching them manners for online life, too.”

Join the conversation on CNN Parenting's Facebook page

  • See the latest news and share your comments with CNN Parenting on Facebook.

    Do I see a long future of mother-son video game nights ahead? Not really. I could quickly list at least two dozen activities we do together than I enjoy more. But no more sending him out into the digital abyss on his own anymore, either.

    I’ll keep playing for the practical benefits and the emotional ones, too. Taking part in another’s pleasure, no matter how anodyne or indecipherable that pleasure may feel to us, is revelatory. We learn what makes them tick, and we learn what makes them smile. They, in return, feel understood. This is worth at least a weekly video game session – twice a week, tops.

    Elissa Strauss writes about the politics and culture of parenthood.