This column originally appeared in the August 19, 2015 edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal.
By: Scott Jennings
As this newspaper hit your doorstep this morning, a close friend of mine and his wife were delivering their first child.
In about a month, my wife will bring home a third boy, giving us ages six, two, and one month to dress for Halloween. My dream of toting tiny versions of Ned Nederlander, Dusty Bottoms, and Lucky Day around the neighborhood begging for candy may finally be realized. Note to my wife: if you are reading this, please dig the emergency sombreros out of the hall closet.
My friend has asked me about diapers, sleeping, and feeding – the basic mechanics of raising a human baby. Or a pet kangaroo. Is there a difference? Neither recognizes our cultural norms when it comes to waste evacuation or refraining from kicking one’s handlers in the groin.
But we haven’t talked as much about what fatherhood really means these days. I have learned in the last six years that being a parent is a great competition, and that every father is woefully outmanned but not necessarily outgunned.
We are raising children in an “on demand” world. There’s no waiting for anything. Every image on every screen is engineered by well-trained experts who understand the human brain better than you ever will.
These experts are paid huge sums to beat you in this competition. But to win, all you need to pay is attention.
I love videogames. The ones I grew up with had something in common – you could die and have to start over. Or worse, wait for Player Two to die. They were enormously frustrating and trained me to be patient.
Believing it might be fun for my six year old to play Dad’s videogames, I arranged for us to play Sonic the Hedgehog, in which the surprisingly fragile mammal races around interesting places. You can die very easily in this game, as it was invented by a cult of masochists somewhere in Japan.
In the videogames my son normally plays—mostly Lego-based—you die all the time, your tiny Lego parts crumbling under the weight of an enemy’s blow. But then a miracle happens: you respawn—endlessly—right where you bought the farm. There’s no starting over, no waiting for your friend to finish, no excruciating return to the beginning of a maddening level.
You just come back to life, picking up as though Sandman didn’t just pound you into oblivion with his grainy fist.
We played Sonic together once. My son died about 10 seconds in, and then suffered the indignity of waiting for Dad to finish up. He has not asked to play again, reverting to the consequence-free Lego world where Spiderman absorbs ceaseless punishment.
My son’s games are beautifully rendered, made to minimize frustration and encourage endless replay. There are literally hundreds of people—programmers, artists, psychologists—sitting in a room somewhere scheming on how best to win the competition for my son’s time and attention with games like this.
It would be easy for a new father to throw up his hands, surrendering to the clever engineers who have all the resources anyone would need to win this battle.
But of course, we have something they don’t have – the sacred bond between fathers and their children, forged through years of changing dirty diapers and dutifully turning knees into wildly unstable ponies.
If you listen closely to your children—taking your eyes off your own laptop and phone, designed by the same smart people fighting you for your children—you will hear everything you need to know to win this battle.
When my son isn’t defeating Lego evildoers, he loves more than anything to hike through the woods. The programmers might know best how to trigger the synapses in his brain, but they cannot answer the questions that dominate his mind as he traverses the forest with Dad.
Did you have a dog when you were a kid? What is bacteria? Why aren’t your mom and dad married? What was it like at your school? How can we trap a lizard? Will a crawdad bite my toe? What’s your favorite kind of hawk?
This non sequitur Gatling gun fires uninterrupted as we hike towards a creek. He pauses only to concentrate on fording the stream, a proud moment for a six year old explorer. The questions start again as we climb a downed tree on the other side, taking in the beautiful scenery.
How old is this creek? Did Jesus ever come here? What kind of bug is this? Can this bug defeat a cicada? Why does Barack Obama raise our taxes?
To my friend, you will answer an incalculable number of questions in the years to come. There will be days when you feel too tired or distracted to hike or to answer. Don’t give in. This is what the engineers are banking on, because, despite their resources, they ultimately cannot compete as long as you keep your head in the game.
When this child comes, your time will no longer be your own. Do not regret this. Embrace the competition for your child’s attention. Winning is everything.