Thomas Lincoln and the video game problem

by Wolf Pascoe on April 15, 2013

“If we could meet now, it is doubtful whether it would not be more painful than pleasant.” — Abraham Lincoln, speaking about his father in 1851

Ever since my son got his computer, he’s been obsessed with a video game called Minecraft, the object of which seems to be the building of Lego-like settlements while fending off marauders.

I’m not happy about my son’s love of video games, although I’m aware that as these things go, it can get a lot worse than Minecraft. Still, my son’s obsession has me worried. As I argue about screen time limits with Nick, I can’t help turning over in my mind what his obsession will mean for him and whether it will always be so.

And I can’t help thinking of Thomas Lincoln.




Abraham Lincoln’s father, Thomas Lincoln, was born in Virginia during the Revolutionary War. The family migrated to Kentucky a few years later, where Thomas’s father, whose name was also Abraham Lincoln, was murdered by Indians while planting the new farm. Eight-year-old Thomas witnessed the attack.

Through what remained of his childhood, Thomas Lincoln was handed from relative to relative. Eventually he learned the carpentry trade, and supplemented his livelihood by farming, although he preferred to hunt. He was a poor businessman, and never learned to write.

Thomas married Nancy Hanks in 1806; they had three children: Sarah, Abraham (the future president), and Thomas Jr., who died in infancy in 1812. In 1816, Thomas moved his young family to a sparsely settled corner of Indiana, where he and his son Abraham cleared a small farm out of the primeval forest. Two years later Nancy Hanks Lincoln, Abraham’s mother, died of milk poisoning.

Thomas left Abraham, ten, and his twelve-year-old sister, Sarah, and went back to Kentucky. Six months later he returned with a new wife, Sarah Bush Lincoln. She was a good woman, who cared for the children as if they were her own.

Thomas discouraged Abraham’s habit of reading, which he considered worthless on the frontier. Eventually, Thomas’s new wife Sarah prevailed on him to allow Abraham to read and study at home.




Thomas apparently didn’t think much of his son, hired him out to local farmers as a day laborer, and was known to beat him on occasion. Abraham left home when he was 22 and never returned. When business brought him back to the area, he stayed with his cousin, Dennis Hanks.

Five years after Lincoln went off on his own, Thomas remarked:

I suppose that Abe is still fooling hisself with eddication. I tried to stop it, but he had got that fool idea in his head, and it can’t be got out. Now I hain’t got no eddication, but I get along far better than ef I had . . . . if Abe don’t fool away all his time on his books, he may make something yet.

Lincoln never invited his father to Springfield, the town where he made his name and lived until elected president in 1860. Thomas Lincoln never met any of his grandchildren. When Thomas was on his deathbed in 1851 and made it known he would like to see his son, Lincoln refused to come. Neither did he attend the funeral or have a tombstone put on Thomas’s grave.




Lincoln’s aversion to Thomas is well known, and I tell the story not to make the obvious point that Lincoln’s rise came about in spite of his father.  Rather, I want to consider briefly what it must have been like to walk in the shoes of Thomas Lincoln.

Here was a man of a primitive world, who watched his father slain, lived hand to mouth from a boy, then lost a child and a wife. Knowing his surviving children needed a mother, he went to fetch one. Incapable of appreciating his son’s genius, which he saw as an impediment and a threat to the only way of life he’d known, he tried to suppress it.

Now I ask myself, what do Thomas Lincoln and I have in common? Five things overall, as far as I can tell:

1.) Thomas Lincoln and I were the same age when we lost our fathers.

2.) We both lived in eras of change, although his was a time of nation-building while currently that nation slides into senescence.

3.) Both of us did the best we could growing up with what we had.

4.) Neither Thomas had, nor do I have, a clue about our sons’ obsessions.

5.) Thomas feared for his son, as do I for mine.




It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future. — Yogi Berra

As Thomas looked down on “eddication,” so I look down on video games. Of course, education is a good thing, and video games are bad. Perhaps. But maybe, like all mind-bending technologies such as writing, alphabets, papyrus scrolls, illuminated manuscripts, moveable type, the telephone, radio, television, computers and the Internet, they just are.

Prospects seem so dim for employment after college these days that many people are asking themselves why bother with college at all. It’s also becoming more and more difficult to separate ourselves from screens, which can now be worn as glasses.

When I was Nick’s age, my mother forbade me to buy comic books. Prevailing wisdom held they would corrupt my tender mind. As I see it now, they loosed my imagination and encouraged a kind of anti-intellectual freedom it’s taken me decades to recover.

So I continue to turn things over in my mind, wondering if my son has capacities I’m not capable of appreciating or even apprehending. Wondering if Nick’s rise, when it comes, will come about in spite of me.

The other day, Nick and I were driving with Nick’s friend Indar and Indar’s dad, Avi.

“You know,” Avi said, “It really amazes me sometimes how these video games can teach my sons some new things. For example, Indar actually has more patience for drawing now.”

“I wish my dad realized things like that,” said Nick.




I shared Thomas Lincoln’s opinion of reading with Nick and showed him the quotation above, the one about Abe not fooling away all his time on books.

“What do you think of that?” I said.

Nick, who knows of my admiration for Abraham Lincoln, idly picked up my iPhone and looked at the screen.

“There’s new versions of your apps,” he said. “Do you want me to update them for you?”




Computer wars




Kings of Make Believe–a different take on boys and video games. Chopper Papa weighs in.




Just Add Father is listening. (Add your thoughts by clicking a few lines below below, where it says comments or add one. I always respond here.)


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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Barbara April 15, 2013 at 6:30 pm

I think too often we parents overreact to the fear we have inside for our kids and we base too many of our decisions on our own limited experiences. I think you do a great job rolling those thoughts around in your head and looking at it from several angles before making decisions. By the way, thank you for sharing this history about Thomas Lincoln. I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t know anything about him. I can’t help feeling a little sorry for him. He was a product of his times, had a hard life, and seemed to be trying to do the best he could imagine for his kids.


Wolf Pascoe April 16, 2013 at 7:42 pm

“we base too many of our decisions on our own limited experiences”

This is sort of like anchoring bias, where you rely too much on readily available data, just because it’s available. It goes beyond parenting. It’s a good way to make a bad financial decision as well.


Debbie April 16, 2013 at 9:06 am

Very poignant piece, Wolf. I too struggle with the amount of computer time that is right for my wee boy (he’s seven in July). He LOVES the computer (we don’t have a tv) and I DO recognise all that he is learning when he is on there. But I also notice a decrease in other interests when he is on it too much. It’s a fine balance for me…and for him. I wish I could find the link to share with you, but a friend sent me a piece a while ago about how this generation has computers wired into their DNA. They just “know” them. They know them in a way we will never know them. That was eye-opening to me. It’s part of who they are.

ps – loved learning more about Thomas Lincoln. His story certainly isn’t part of our history books up here in Canada. Thank you for sharing that.


Wolf Pascoe April 16, 2013 at 7:26 pm

I don’t suppose that Thomas is part of the history books here either, but I’m glad to know that his son’s story gets around. If you think of that DNA article, give a hollar; I’d like to read it.


The Exception April 17, 2013 at 2:48 pm

Is it the game or the screen time? My daughter loves that game too – I have set up boundaries for her and talk to her about enjoying the game and recognizing the time that she is giving it. My concern is all that she is missing – like conversations with her mom – as a result of the game!


Wolf Pascoe April 17, 2013 at 3:13 pm

“Is it the game or the screen time?”

It’s both. The games that are really bad, though, are the first person shooters, which Minecraft isn’t. Mainly boys like first person shooters, which are banned in our house. (First person shooters are banned here, not boys. But you might want to consider banning boys from your house :-))


Jim Parkevich April 18, 2013 at 5:47 pm

Ok, Wolf….let me play the devil’ advocate for a while…My son Ryan ..his next birthday, he will be 40..He is a highly skilled R.N. (after his mother) He is a highly trained and skilled “technical scuba diver” He is a “master repair” technician for nearly every line of scuba gear on the market. He is the “Instructor” that teaches other would-be instructors..He is a highly skilled “drummer” I bought him years of lessons. He has been recruited by many top bands..He is a “Train fanatic” NOW he is qualified to sit in the cab of a fire-breathing 650,000 lb. steam locomotive . He can set the fire-box, balance the water jacket, build up a head of steam and roll that puppy down the tracks.
I exposed him to these areas of his life when he was just little..6-7-8 and beyond.
I drug him to Boy Scouts when he did not want to go. Now his closest friends are all former Scouts..My middle brother is a Geologist and we took Ryan and his Scout pals all over Ohio to dig minerals and fossils…………Wolf !!! what turns your crank ?? What external hobby, activity, desire floats your boat ??? What activity fills you with wonder, so that your own son will pick up the vibes to expand his life…A child learns by example and sometimes the road will be bumpy and unsure..My grand-daughter, Emma Grace.. She is 4..I buy her books of Oceanography and Environmental issues. My brother the “geologist” is building her a “world class” mineral and fossil collection..She is going to be the next “Rachel Carson” (author: Silent Spring). When you hear her name in the next couple of decades..remember me..I am rooting 100% for your Nick


Wolf Pascoe April 19, 2013 at 4:17 am

Let me play devil’s advocate:

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

— Robert Hayden


Privilege of Parenting April 18, 2013 at 9:18 pm

Hey Wolf,

This made me go back and read what I was writing when gaming seemed to be a big topic with which our household was wrestling (The Killing Game vs The Bhagavad Gita).

Recently my kid called from college to say he connected with some kids playing some shooter game and he beat them all, even though he was rusty. He himself was no longer impressed with gaming, but did note that it was a way of socially bonding with kids he hadn’t known—virtual violence and demonstrated mastery cementing friendship.

I grew up in the Land of Lincoln, in Lincolnwood Illinois, just off Lincoln Avenue (on which my mother now lives) and my dad drove a Lincoln and my school was Lincoln Hall… but when the doctor told me I had a curvature of the spine I had to wear “special shoes,” and those had a Thomas Heel.

Fondly, your pal in uncertainty


Wolf Pascoe April 19, 2013 at 3:33 pm

Dear Pal,

Regarding enthusiasm for video games, I take comfort from a favorite saying of Lincoln, “This too shall pass.”


Kyle April 19, 2013 at 7:36 am

Wolf, my thoughts here are well known. I’m convinced at boys especially will formulate many of their ideas of masculinity based on video games. They can easily move into this land of make believe where, winning a game, offers him the adulation and acceptance he doesn’t receive in the real world. These ‘grand adventurers in irrelevance’ must be moderated to offer a healthy balance between living in a land of make believe and the real world.


Wolf Pascoe April 19, 2013 at 3:35 pm

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