The Taconic Counseling Group

Maria Alba-Fisch, Ph.D.

Pokemon: The New Pied Piper?

Pokemon: The New Pied Piper

Parents have recently asked me about their children's apparent obsession with the Pokemon game, cards, card trading and TV program. On the one hand, parents have been delighted that their children get up early without hassle to watch the Pokemon show, that they have a plan for what to do at recess, that there is something that captures their children's interest during car rides better than fighting with their brothers or sisters. Children do also learn eye-hand coordination, rapid response and strategic thinking with complex data management. This is an activity consistent with our information and strategy oriented culture. However, on the other hand, some young children have been so preoccupied with trading cards that they are not paying attention in class; recess can become an occasion for trade wars, and sleep can be disrupted by planning the next day's trades. I have been told of children plotting and making alliances to be sure other children don't get the better of them in a trade. This "Pokemon" fever has been sufficiently distressing so that some elementary schools have disallowed trading altogether.


Super-heroes and card trading have been around for years. Both have been ways children can play and figure out how to deal with aggression, competition, deal making, strategic planning, good and evil, etc. Is there anything different about this "craze"? Should parents be concerned? Won't it pass soon anyway? When something catches on with such energy, excitement and intensity, it raises the possibility that modern, commercial culture has identified and is capitalizing on a genuine need our children have. As with all cultural products/phenomena, it is important that parents evaluate whether this product is a wise way to address their children's needs. Parents are right to assess what underlying social values this product brings to their children and what lessons it teaches along with its entertainment value. In writing this article, I hope to contribute to that assessment.


In addition to entertainment and fun, fantasy play is a natural way for young children to express, experiment, and possibly resolve feelings and conflicts that occur in the course of growing up. A great deal of valuable social and personal learning goes on within the context of play. So, what makes Pokemon so appealing and what lessons is it teaching children about life?


The Pokemon figures and names are adorable creatures that all seem to be baby-like. We are all fundamentally wired to find " cute" creatures appealing. Just as human and animal babies attract our wish to cuddle, help and protect, these creatures seem adorable and invite our protection. Yet they are also part of a competition for power and energy. Not only do they possess damaging power, they can also transform from adorable to awesome, intimidating creatures with greater power, gaining a harsh competitive edge. Thus, they combine an image of vulnerability and a need for nurturance with a need to be powerful and to succeed by defeating others. It is not surprising that this combination appeals to young children who need both to be nurtured and to find ways to become increasingly masterful and competent as they grow up. Finding ways to balance the need for nurturance and power, the need for attachment to others and mastery, the need for affiliation and success is a life long task.


The Pokemon toys/games/programs could offer children ways to experiment with balancing their need for success and affiliation. However, the focus on competition using such adorable creatures does concern me. It seems to push competitiveness into the younger years where the balance needs to tilt more in the direction of nurturance and protection. When young children trade cards, we need to know how intensely they are hoping to win high status among their peers, as well as a new card. Status is a factor in life, but encouraging young children to focus on enhancing their status can distract them from learning how to get along with a variety of children, an important lesson in the early years.

Further, I am concerned that the focus on competition with such adorable creatures seems to imply, even for older children, that competition can fulfill the need to be nurtured and that we can substitute competitive winning for the development of true competency. Becoming masterful, an important goal during middle and late childhood, is significantly more than winning. Mastery involves skill and an ability to focus on progressive gains, to learn from errors, to take pleasure in learning and to gain internal satisfaction from a job well done. None of these requires comparison or competition with others. Personal curiosity is probably an important ingredient in the development, as well, of independent mastery.


Unlike other super-heroes who fight for good against evil, the Pokemon creatures are used in the TV program to procure success for their owner. The owners do not do their own dirty work. Thus, these adorable creatures are used by their owners; they are not independent heroes who launch their own fight for good and do so for the good of others. Do we want our children to off-load their personal responsibility to stand up for good ideals? Do we want to teach the exploitation of young, vulnerable creatures? What does this teach children about what it means to be a parent?


Finally, by pressing video games on younger and younger children, I am concerned that we may be inviting children at younger and younger ages to require a high level of feedback and stimulation in order not to be bored. This is not a good idea if they need to develop patience, independent curiosity, endurance and an appreciation of their own creative style.


Our culture does prize competition, success, independence and entrepreneurial adventuresomeness. I am not suggesting that these values are bad. They, too, are important aspects of reality and growing up in our culture. However, to become solidly grounded and balanced adults; children need to feel connected to others, to develop true competence, and to learn how to play cooperatively. We should not ask children to substitute competitive success for feeling nurtured or for developing a solid sense of competency. If we do, we run the risk of bringing up children who want to be around people if they are interesting and stimulating but fail to understand enduring bonds, who succeed but do not savor their own experience and talents as people. Given the pace at which so many families are living, it takes extra effort to notice what entertaining toys can be teaching. Because we are tired, busy, pressured, we can be bought off by a toy that is entrancing but is teaching something we may not want.


So, What Is A Parent To Do?


I am hardly advocating that parents forbid Pokemon. I am suggesting that parents balance this toy with their wisdom. Check out whether the Pokemon interest has become a fever for your child. If so, take an active role in deciding what to do. Don't let the Pokemon distract you and your children from the essential need they have for your unique nurturance and for a range of activities and lessons. You can do more than wait for it to pass. Here's a start:


1.      Is there some reason your child is feeling hungry for your care at home? Has life gotten so busy that morning or bedtime rituals have been shortened or forgotten? Is there some way your child needs to be given cozy time? Are meals always on the run? Take stock of these things and other "special" times, and find ways to recapture them. If you can't find enough time, a common problem these days, then, find some time. Make a "date" with your child.


2.      Is there some reason your child is unsure of his/her standing with peers? Is there some way he/she feels at a disadvantage? Has a friend moved? Is a kid bullying your child? Have there been no play dates because time doesn't allow? Is there a show off that seems to be loved by everyone? What would help your child feel better with other children? Check with your child's teacher. Then, check with your spouse. Finally, be sure to check with your child.


3.      If there seems to be no particular problem, check out whether your child spends any real time doing a slower paced kind of play. Guard those experiences for him/her, and don't let them be shunted aside by a passionate involvement with Pokemon or other video games and toys. Again, make a "date" with your child to do one of these slower paced activities. Most book stores have books on how to do things with kids so that playtime can be creative, varied and fun for you, too.


These basic principles are relevant to the many fads your child will try. Keeping your own balance will help them keep theirs as they experiment and grow.