Playing Nintendo Wii with children offers parents the invaluable opportunity to truly connect and relate to their children. I know; this sounds counterintuitive. But children express more in the absence of eye-to-eye contact. This is why psychologists often color with children as they talk to them. (By the way, this is also why husbands show their true feelings on long car rides, when both husband and wife are staring out through the windshield instead of at each other: “You drive too slow”; “Did you not see that stop sign?” “We’d get there faster if you had turned left instead of right”; “Great, now we’re lost.”)
So it upsets me when I hear Dustin playing Wii with Ford, 9, Owen, 7, and Lindell, 3, and in his effort to “win,” or “get to the castle,” Dustin effectively diminishes any chance at insight into our children. From my perch on the living room couch on the first floor, what I hope to hear upstairs is something like:
Dustin: “Owen, after you get that Yoshi, tell me how you are adjusting to second grade.”
Dustin: “Nice job beating Bowser, Lindell. Now let’s talk about the anxiety you have for the big toilet.”
Instead, what I hear coming from upstairs is: “Quit stomping on my head”; “Go back, go back!” “If you do that again, it will make me little”; “That was MY Yoshi.” And the worst: “Move over so I can win.”
Sometimes I will yell up at them. “Be nice to each other or I’m shutting that thing off.” It is usually Dustin who responds: “OK. Sorry. We’ll be more quiet.”
Later, once the kids have gone to bed, I remind Dustin that Wii-playing is a gold-mine opportunity to hear our children’s innermost thoughts and fears. “How can you waste that chance?” I ask. And Dustin says, “Because I had to beat Bowser or we wouldn’t get to the next level.”
I’ve criticized Dustin for not acting like the grown-up or setting a good example when he plays video games with the kids. “You guys are very insensitive to one another when you play,” I say.
“Well, Sarah, how do you think I should respond when Ford’s Luigi keeps jumping on my head?”
One night I decided to show Dustin by example. I challenged him to a game of Tetris and invited our children to watch what was sure to be an intense but emotionally enlightening competition.
In case you were asleep through most of the ’80s and all of the ’90s, I will explain the game of Tetris. Blocks of various shapes and sizes fall from the “sky.” With the Wii remote, and while the block is still falling, you rotate the shape and position it so that when it lands on the ground, it will connect with other blocks to form a complete line. Completed rows disappear and earn points. However, if you can’t clear a row, or rows, they stack up and the blocks fall faster, until finally your tower touches the sky and you lose.
I am the master of Tetris. I played it so much when I was in seventh grade, I cannot look at cinderblock walls the same way again. I was constantly positioning shapes and rotating them in my mind. After a long stretch of Tetris, I would “see” the tiles on the bathroom floor falling into place to form lines. I could, and did, beat anyone who challenged me to a game.
Not on this night. My “competition” with Dustin was supposed to be more about modeling behavior and gaining insight into our children. Winning would be only secondary.
The first problem, however, was that I didn’t have the right remote, the one that could select all the options. After a brief squabble and a change of remotes, Dustin and I were off and running. The bricks started falling. I settled into the armchair ready to demonstrate both my parenting skills and my superior mastery of Tetris.
But before I could ask the boys one of my planned questions, Dustin, who was standing, moved left and across my field of vision. He was blocking the television.
“Seriously? You’re going to block me?” I said. “That’s so unfair. Move it!”
Lindell tried to crawl into my lap. “Watch out, Honey; you might restrict my elbowroom,” I said.
When Dustin beat me on the first round, I cried foul. He gloated, and my blood pressure rose. “You’re such a spoiled winner,” I yelled. And then: “Best two out of three?”
Fifteen or so matches later, the kids had fallen asleep in their clothes on the playroom floor. Dustin and I stepped around them as we jockeyed for the best view of the screen.
There was not much insight gained that night, except for maybe this: Next time we will try coloring instead.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.