What's So Bad About Pokémon?

My husband and I were at a party with some friends recently and had a rare opportunity for uninterrupted adult conversation. What provocative topics were being discussed? Politics, world peace, the latest books and movies? No, with our kids all tucked away for the night, we were all standing around talking about Pokémon.

Wherever parents of young school-age children gather lately, the conversation eventually turns to Pokémon. Some parents hate the little creatures with a passion equal to their children's love of them. Some parents are merely irritated by their pervasiveness in every aspect of their children's lives. Others are somewhat ambivalent, but it's hard to find a parent today who isn't familiar with Pokémon. After all, with television shows, movies, videos, games, trading cards, and all sorts of toys devoted to the "Pocket Monsters," they've become hard to ignore. Plenty of parents are complaining about their kids' obsession with this fad. I read in a newspaper article that some religious groups see the Pokémon craze as more than just irritating and have taken steps to ban all manner of Pokémon. 

I'll admit, when my oldest son first started blabbering non-stop about all sorts of creatures I could barely pronounce, I reacted with skepticism and irritation, too. More recently, my complaints have been replaced with a sort of reluctant fascination. I've actually begun to view this seemingly inane fad with some grudging respect. I believe we can use the powers of Pokémon for good, not evil, and watch our children's intelligence grow by leaps and bounds.

For starters, it's occurred to me that my son  at just five years old  now speaks a second language fluently. Granted, there aren't a lot of practical uses for Pokémon fluency beyond the reaches of elementary school, but he's still managed to learn enough to leave his parents (and all other adults) in the dust. He was on the phone with his grandparents last weekend. After the usual pleasantries, his side of the conversation sounded something like this:

"Grammie, do you know about Digimons? They are so cool. Pop Pop, I drew a picture of Machop yesterday. Did you know he can evolve into Machoke? And Machoke can evolve into Machamp. But Gengar has really strong powers. And Onix."

And this leap in vocabulary and language skills isn't relegated just to our kindergartner. Our two year-old son imitates everything his big brother does, and the Pokémon craze is no exception. Our little toddler, who only just started talking clearly in the last six months, is running around the house saying, "Raichu! Pikachu! Bulbasaur!" For someone who can't pronounce spaghetti yet, he's doing a darn good job with a second language.

Not only have our boys learned dozens of new words, but many of them are four or five syllables in length. I remarked to my son's kindergarten teacher that all of the kids seemed to talk about nothing but Pokémon lately. She agreed and told me that's all they want to draw when given a drawing assignment. She also admitted that when the kids come to her and say things like, "How do you spell 'gyarados'?", she tells them, "Try to sound it out." See how enriching Pokémon is? Our children are learning to spell phonetically much faster now.

At the beginning of the school year, the teacher had also remarked that our son's small motor skills would develop faster with plenty of practice drawing and coloring, thus helping to improve his budding writing skills. Thanks to Pokémon, we don't have to say a word. He spends all of his spare time drawing his own Pokémon, labeling them, and coloring in a Pokémon coloring book. We even got to enjoy a leisurely dinner during our vacation last summer, while he filled one paper placemat after another with detailed renderings of - you guessed it  Pokémon.

Pokémon's educational value is not limited just to language skills, though. My son talks casually of evolution, habitats, and life forms like a miniature Darwin. And let's not forget memorization. Parents around the world are amazed as their children, who can't remember to wipe their shoes before entering the house, are memorizing over 150 made-up names as well as each one's energy levels, powers, and a multitude of other facts and details. Think of all the new connections being made in their little brains!

Even math skills are strengthened through Poke-mania. To play the card game, you need to be able to count by tens. During a recent game, I was astounded to hear our kindergartner automatically subtracting numbers in his head. "Mom, that's 30 hit points, and Charmander only has 50. Just 20 more and he's knocked out!" 

One look at the instructions for the Pokémon card game will convince you this is no feeble-minded past-time. Our son's grandparents gave him his first Pokémon card game. By mistake, they got an Advanced set. I couldn't even begin to decipher the 31 pages of detailed instructions! We now have the Basic set and have finally mastered its 8 pages of instructions. I was surprised by the complexity of the game. My son normally wouldn't have the patience to learn the rules to such an intricate game, but anything related to Pokémon provides ample motivation for him. I have to admit that I actually enjoy the game  it involves more strategy and thinking than many adult games. Of course, my son still beats me most of the time, but I'm getting better!

Pokémon is good for building social skills as well. Have you ever witnessed the solemn, complex negotiations that occur prior to a trade of Pokémon cards? Our world leaders could learn a thing or two from these kids. One of these child Pokémon fanatics will probably grow up to negotiate a lasting peace agreement in the Middle East.

Pokémon can also do wonders for a child's self-confidence and social standing. Solid Pokémon knowledge is revered among the under-12 crowd. Our son's soccer coach has a seven year-old son. Each day while the younger boys practice soccer, this boy holds court under the picnic pavilion with the older kids. Just the sight of him strolling across the grass with his Pokémon notebook brings his peers running. The moment the coach finishes practice, the younger kids gather around him, too. Most of us will never experience that kind of raw admiration in our lives.

A word of warning is in order here, though. We parents must harness this awesome power in the right way, lest it get out of control. I started to worry my son was becoming a bit obsessed after a trip to Disney World last fall. We had just spent five days in modern children's paradise - swimming, visiting Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom  when I asked my older son what the best part of the vacation had been. He thought about it for a moment, then answered, "The Pokémon coloring book you gave me on the plane!" You mean the one I bought at the local drugstore before we left home?

Aside from the potential for obsession, my first impressions of Pokémon were anything but benign. I knew it had started as a video game and that a Pokémon television show in Japan had sent a hundred or so kids to the hospital with some sort of bizarre convulsions. However, as my son has gotten more and more infatuated with everything Pokémon, I've taken a closer look. Luckily for us, his first introduction to Pokémon was a few trading cards given to him by a classmate and the now-famous coloring book I gave him during our trip to Florida. It was months before he even realized the television show existed, and he only recently learned about the video games. We've fed his interest with books (reading is good, right?), coloring books, trading cards, and a Where's Waldo-like search-and-find book that can hold him spell-bound for the entire length of his little brother's nap.

We've also seen the TV show now, and the worst I can say about it is that its animation is appallingly primitive. My husband and I grimace at each other, but our son doesn't even seem to notice. At first, I also thought that Pokémon might be too violent (something my mom radar is always looking out for), but I've changed my opinion on that, too. Its mild violence isn't of the shoot-and-kill variety but more of a stun-and-get-up-again type. One of the Pokémon, Jigglypuff, actually subdues its enemies by singing lullabies that put them to sleep! Any parent would agree that is an awesome power, indeed. And the cartoons  though crudely animated  do carry some fairly obvious moral lessons. Treat all creatures with respect, be open to learning new things, and play nice are messages all parents can endorse.

I guess what I've learned is that when I stopped rolling my eyes at this latest kid obsession and paid closer attention, I found it wasn't all that bad. I'll take Pokémon over Power Rangers or Mutant Ninja Turtles any day. My son is motivated to draw and write, is stretching and expanding his language and memory skills, and having a ball. Sure, I still need to tune out occasionally after fifteen minutes of non-stop Pokémon commentary, but this mom has learned that old adage is true. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em!

© Suzan L. Jackson, 2000

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