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Parents mad at Apple's in-app game charges? They have only themselves to blame.

By John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 8, 2011; 10:42 PM

Sometimes I despair for these United States of America. Apparently, we live in a country where - according to a story on the front page of Tuesday's Washington Post - parents are upset because their children are racking up huge fees at the Apple app store from purchasing Smurfberries and other virtual tchotchkes.

Rather than seeing this as a teachable moment - actions have consequences; it's never too early to accumulate credit card debt - the parents are crying foul, blaming Apple and the video game companies, not their own Smurfberry-hungry offspring.

Wake up, Mr. and Mrs. America. You really think the problem is that it's too easy for your toddler to download apps and purchase digital goblin gold and not that you're the kind of parent who hasn't vetted the game before sharing your iPad or iPhone with Junior?

What's he doing with the iPad, anyway? It's shiny and colorful and Steve Jobs says it's great for children and so you just handed it over? Rather than criticizing Apple, you should be thanking it. You've found out something about your kid - at best he's gullible; at worst, conniving - and about yourself: You have lost the skeptical edge that has kept humans alive for millennia.

Let us for a moment imagine that there really is something called a Smurfberry, a luscious, brightly colored fruit growing in boreal forests. One day, you are hiking through just such a forest and, feeling peckish, you pluck a Smurfberry from a bush and pop it in your mouth. Bad news: It's poisonous.

You've learned a valuable lesson - or would have if you hadn't been dead before you hit the ground: Don't go sticking strange fruit in your mouth. Gain a little knowledge about your environment before you go all Survivorman.

I don't expect us to know our killer mushrooms from our healthy ones anymore - we've traded our forests for the World Wide Web - but I do think we should be a bit more reluctant to embrace whatever virtual treat is placed in front of us. Especially when it comes to our kids.

From The Post story, it looks as if the parents got one-time refunds for the charges. I wonder how they explained their anger to their children. Did they blame the game companies and Apple? Or did they admit that Mommy and Daddy hadn't read the fine print?

One expression we hear a lot these days is "media literacy." Given the dizzying array of online offerings, we all have to be smarter consumers. Is every company going to try to trick you into spending more money? No, and not every berry in the forest is going to kill you. But it's probably healthier to start from a position that assumes the worst, not the best. And so here's how those parents should have delivered their own media literacy lesson: Companies exist to make money. Some are kind of sneaky about how they do that. We should have been more careful about letting you play these games, and we will be in the future. In the meantime, here's a book.

Wee, wee all the way home

And I'm sorry, but if a preschool says it admits only children who are potty-trained and yours isn't, then she can't go there until she is. It seems pretty cut and dried to me. Where in the Constitution does it say your 3-year-old is entitled to have her diaper changed by a teacher?

The Arlington County mother who wants to change her school system's toilet-training policy strikes me as another example of the softening of the American parent. Life is full of rewards that depend on achievements. Do you think Maria Montessori would have let a leaky 3-year-old in her class?

Let there be light

Gosh I'm cranky today. While I'm at it, I'm none too happy about the latest brouhaha at the Mall, over whether a solar technology exhibition should be allowed there. Putting up temporary structures harms the grass, critics say. So does all that tromping around.

To which I say: So what?

They call the Mall America's front yard, but maybe we should think of it as America's living room instead. No, not our living room, our family room. It shouldn't be the formal sitting room, with the plastic on the couches and the sepulchral air, but the comfortable room with the dog bed, the big-screen TV and the Barcalounger.

Walk all over the Mall. Scuff it up. Use it.

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