An interesting thing happened during our family vacation in New Hampshire. First, it snowed. That’s pretty interesting considering that this winter has seen very little snow in Maine. But more fascinating than the snow was my boys’ response when asked, “What was your favorite part of this trip?”
Their answer was unanimous: They liked our nights spent without power most of all.
Yes, that’s right; even though most of us believe that children today are drowning in technology and unable to appreciate genuine social interaction, my three boys, ages 9, 7 and 3, enjoyed sitting in the dark with their family more than they did going on a train ride, eating at a fancy restaurant or watching a movie. In other words, our children’s favorite memory of the vacation isn’t exceptional because it doesn’t involve technology. It’s exceptional because, more specifically, it involves a complete absence of technology.
Here’s how the whole thing started. We were snowed in at our cabin in the White Mountains, 30 miles from the nearest city. I was in the kitchen with my sister- and mother-in-law. Dustin and his dad were in the living room flipping through television channels. The kids were scattered throughout the cabin, doing their own thing and occasionally having contact with the adults when one of us had to separate a fight or tell them to stop running. There were at least 2 feet of snow outside and more falling.
At about 7 p.m., the power went out. The microwave gave one final “beep,” and the heater rattled and clanked as it came to a halt. Except for the nearly full moon reflecting off the snow outside, there was total darkness. None of us realized how noisy and bright our surroundings had been until that moment.
The kids ran to the living room with the speed of someone escaping a bear. Dustin and our brother-in-law lit a fire. Within just a few moments, we were in arm’s reach of one another. Owen curled into one side of me, Lindell on the other, and Ford leaned up against Dustin. I worried that the boys would never manage without the lights and television, so I desperately suggested that we pass the time playing Would You Rather, a game of impossible decisions (Would you rather eat a warm, week-old ham sandwich or swallow an egg whole?).
Our game involved a disproportionate amount of potty humor — these are kids (plus my husband), after all — but occasionally a thought-provoking choice emerged.
Dustin: Would you rather hit a home run and your team loses, or not hit a home run but your team wins?
Ford: Definitely not hit a home run and the team wins.
Owen: That’s a hard one.
Me: Hit the home run.
(I never was good at team sports.)
Me: Pretend you are collecting something, like baseball cards or “Star Wars” action figures. Would you rather receive everything in the collection at once and be done, or collect each piece one by one, even if it took years?
Owen: Collect it one by one.
Ford: Yeah, what’s the fun of getting it all at once?
Dustin: You guys have too many “Star Wars” action figures.
(He never misses an opportunity to bring that up.)
We went on like this for hours, and in that relatively short period of time, I learned more about my boys than I ever have with the lights and television on. There’s something about the darkness that makes people open up. There’s also something about the darkness that makes things funnier. Imagine the small voice of a 7-year-old coming through the blackness and saying, “OK, I got one. You ready? Would you rather burp and have gas for the rest of your life, or walk backwards for a year?”
Sadly, when the lights came back on, the family scattered again. The boys were wild and loud. Grandpa sat in front of the television. The women went back to the kitchen. And no one said anything memorable for the rest of the night.
But the experience made such an impact on the boys that the next night they wanted to pretend the power was out by turning off all the lights and playing the game again. Those two nights spent talking in the dark are the boys’ favorite moments of the trip.
So we brought the tradition home. Sometimes, when I feel like our family has been spread apart by various commitments, I call for a “Power Outage Night.” We turn off all the lights in the house, sit together in the darkness, and out of this calm place comes the same sweet voices again: “Would you rather have no thumbs or no toes? Or, wait. How about, would you rather wear your pants backward or your shirt upside down?”
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.