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Can Anything Good Come from a Chat Room?
by Michele Hastings
 

"You want to do what?" I asked my soon to be 12-year-old son incredulously. "I want to spend some of my allowance for credits on Habbo," stated Tymon. "Let me get this straight," I continued, "You want to spend real money on credits to buy pretend furniture for a pretend hotel room?" "Yeah," said Tymon, "and I need your credit card to do it," quickly adding, "but I'll pay you the money back right away. I have it in my wallet."

And so began a regular routine at our house, one that I could not have fathomed before that day. Our boys have always pursued their interests, supported -- but not always enthusiastically -- by us. It began with the collections . . . of rocks, shells, feathers, and even stinky beer bottle caps! (Yuck!) Then came the pets . . . Siamese Fighting Fish, Hermit Crabs, Fire Bellied Newts, Goldfish, 16 mice (that was an adventure!), a Whites Tree Frog, Salamanders, frogs and Garter Snakes, a Lop-Ear Bunny (even more of an adventure!), Budgies, and Gerbils.

Next came other hobbies, such as fishing, coin and stamp collecting, CO2 pistol shooting, WWF wrestling, listening to music and shooting video of their air-bands, sports card collecting, football and other sports, and gaming (Sega Dreamcast, PS2 and computer). Now, piggybacking on the sports and gaming is the boys' new-found Habbo addiction.

Never have the boys secured my total support for any of these obsessions. I have never fully embraced the ways our kids have found to spend their money and invest their time. Yet, because I believe in encouraging them to follow their interests, pursue their passions and grow strong in their identities, I have allowed them to chase after their fancies . . . within reason. I am a firm believer in limits and boundaries, attempting to balance freedom with responsibility. I have a hard time with waste . . . waste of time, waste of talent, and waste of resources. Therein lies my constant dilemma: I truly believe that, as individuals, we are uniquely wired with strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, passions and pitfalls. My goal as a homeschooling parent is to raise our boys in a way that is true to whom God made them to be, recognizing that at times, our fallen nature can, and sometimes does, lead us into trouble.

Part of the reason I wanted our boys to get an allowance is because I believe that it is the best way to help them learn how to handle money. It's a lot harder to spend your own money than it is to spend money that you didn't work for! I believe that through managing their own money they will learn to budget, save, and understand the value of money. The boys get allowance because they are part of our family. They also do chores around the house because they are a part of the family. The allowance isn't really tied to whether or not they do their chores. They have no choice over whether they do chores. They just do . . . just like I put a meal on the table and provide clean clothes because that's part of my role as a mother and homemaker.

They are given opportunities to make extra money, though. Through the generosity of family, friends, neighbors, and groups we belong to, the boys have added to their cash supply by stuffing envelopes for their aunt's business, raking leaves, shoveling snow, making and selling hemp jewelry, leading classes for four and five-year-old homeschoolers at Friday Afternoon Activities, and doing extra chores and errands. They have also come up with creative ideas like holding backyard carnivals and numerous yard sales, washing vehicles and selling ice cream to children on their way home from school. My husband jokes about how neighbors are probably grudgingly talking about the two homeschooled boys who live on the corner who stay home all day devising new and elaborate ways to take money from their kids!

So the boys know how to work and are familiar with making a buck. I admire them for their ability to do so, but I've never felt comfortable with the huge amounts of money or time they end up spending on whatever hobby they happen to be engaged in at the moment. Whether it was pet supplies, fishing paraphernalia, CDs, stamps, coins, pocketknives, Fisher Price pirates, knights and Vikings, WWF figures, football jerseys, sports cards or electronic games, I have always felt that they invest too much into each of these interests. However, due to my beliefs and convictions that everything can be considered educational, I have bit my tongue and recalled my mom's favorite saying, "This too shall pass." (I was very happy to be past the WWF phase, and our home is actually enjoying an extended reprieve from pets!)

But a chat room? What good can ever come out of a chat room? Haven't we all heard tons of terrible warnings about these virtual visiting sites? What parent isn't concerned about all the garbage that is only a click away on the Internet? Who hasn't heard about dangerous people propositioning children and leading them astray or into harm's way? And what about using a credit card on the Internet? Isn't that a foolish idea? People who are familiar with chat rooms also know the slang and short forms commonly used -- codes such as "g2g" (got to go); "afk" (away from keyboard); "brb" (be right back); "u" (you); "n/m" (never mind); "j/k" (just kidding); "lol" (laugh out loud); "asl" (age, sex, location); "furni" (furniture); "kik" (kick). Then, of course, there's the lack of proper capitalization and punctuation. Plus, despite the attempt of website developers to keep bad language to a minimum, there are always those wise guys that can get around it.

Knowing all of this, why would I ever allow our innocent, impressionable, pubescent boys to get involved at The Habbo Hotel? I guess, at first, I kept a very close eye on things to see how it all worked and what went on. The Habbo Hotel, www.habbo.com, is an Internet chat room where kids 14 and older (our boys are only 12 and almost 11) create characters, chat, set up and furnish rooms and businesses, play games, run races, participate in beauty and talent competitions, get married and adopt children. Admittedly, there has been a lot of negative stuff on line at this site, but there have been benefits as well.

Despite the fact that much of the writing that is done is in such adulterated, abbreviated form, Tymon, my formally-resistant reader and even more resistant writer is reading and writing on a daily basis! Not only is he reading and responding to the other characters on the site itself, but Tymon and his younger brother, Asher, are both keeping a Habbo Journal where they record their adventures and mishaps at The Habbo Hotel. Added to that is their poetry writing, something Asher had vowed never to do! Both boys have written poems to submit to "The Poets' Corner." If their poems are selected, they are posted on the Habbo site. They also read "Magic Mondays," "The Habbo Hoodwatch," and "The Hotel Happenings" to keep up to date with contests, safety news, scamming tips, updates and warnings.

Being involved with this Internet chat room has given both boys a reason to write. Although Asher was already a strong and confident reader and a good speller when he was introduced to this site, Tymon has gained incredible ground both in reading and writing, getting practice and much needed confidence. They both have also dramatically increased their typing speed, despite the fact that neither type properly.

We have also been able to engage in many discussions based on the things the boys have come up against or into contact with on this site. There are scammers running around the "hotel" trying to sucker people into giving them their password so they can steal their furniture and remove their rights to their own rooms! There are also hackers who distort the "furni" making it more valuable to trade but also running the risk of losing it because sometimes it just disappears! So the boys are learning that not everyone is as honest as they are and that trust has to be earned, not handed out freely. In fact, scams have occurred even when the parties knew and trusted each other! Losing virtual furniture (despite the fact that it does cost them something) is a considerably safer way to learn this lesson than other ways I can think of!

They've also discovered how some people try to get attention . . . even if it's in a negative way. Sometimes kids come on swearing and being rude and crude just to have others respond to them. Our boys respond all right! They "kik" them out of the room!

The boys have also made it their mission at times to run around the hotel warning others about scams and scammers. Asher almost got involved in a "mafia" group until we told him what "mafia" means and that he wasn't allowed to join. He then became a "peacekeeper" trying to bring peace between some of the mafia groups on the site! Although Asher has "gotten married" a couple of times and even "adopted children," Tymon has told people that he's not "into dating." The reason Asher got rid of his first wife was because she refused to give up her second "job" at the hotel as a "stripper"! (I told you they've run into some wacky situations!) We have told them that just because it isn't real life, you don't hang up your integrity, values and beliefs at the door like you're checking your coat! We've discussed the fact that when their dad and I watch a movie, read a book, or listen to a CD, we don't neglect our beliefs and our faith, although we certainly make allowances for the fact that not everyone believes the same things that we do. Accepting reality does not mean that you necessarily agree with it, and the boys are learning that first hand online at Habbo! The boys have also learned a bit about time zones as the site is a UK site and there are people on it from all over the world! Sometimes they ask, "What time is it in England right now?" and we figure it out. Tymon also discovered what a "samovar" was. I'd never heard of one before! (It's a Russian urn used to boil water for tea, if you've never heard of it before either!)

They are also learning a lot about "trading" and "running a business." Tymon loves the computer game "Rollercoaster Tycoon" as well because of the business aspect! Although Asher enjoys the relationship aspect of the game more than the business end of it, he has learned the value of writing descriptively. Writing "Handing fine young Habbo ice cold Coke with a hint of lemon and mint on the side" sounds so much more inviting than "Gives coke," like some people write! Asher also has a lot of fun entering beauty competitions and "American Idol" competitions where he has to change his character's appearance to "look better" and type in all the words to songs to "sing" for the judges!

The icing on the cake in considering Habbo's educational value is the opportunity the boys and a couple of their friends received to show some high school students the site and how to get around there! (A friend of ours is a math and computer high school teacher who thought it'd be a fun class to offer his students.)

Thus, despite the negatives, the boys' most recent obsession, as usual, has proven its potential for it's educational value . . . within limits and with definite boundaries and restrictions. So, before chucking out your own child's request to visit a chat room, I hope you will be open enough to at least "consider" the idea, checking into it yourself, before discarding it completely. M.C.