I took my 11-year-old son to the brewery the other night. I know what you’re thinking: Mother of the Year. But I was on carpool duty for his sister’s dance class, and I didn’t want to drive the whole way home just to turn around and return to the studio for pickup. There’s a brewery/pizza place in between, so Richie and I planned to eat dinner there to kill time. Richie was very excited to go.
Why would an 11-year-old child who neither drinks beer nor eats gluten be excited to visit a brewery/pizza place? It’s all about the arcade.
Okay, “arcade” is a stretch…there are actually just a few video machines along the back wall. But my children have fully embraced the low entertainment standards I’ve been modeling for years, so this “arcade” is good enough for Richie. He loves pinball…even brewery pinball, which isn’t a real machine, just a console that allows the user to choose between several games. It’s digital pinball; there’s a picture of a pinball machine layout, and you push buttons to activate the flippers and keep the ball in play. No flashing lights or clanging bells when the ball hits the bumpers, but again…our standards are not especially high.
My boy has loved video games since he was old enough to hold a joystick. (Not that his generation ever had joysticks.) As a kid with physical problems who really couldn’t play sports in real life, he adored playing baseball or bowling on the Wii, and he was terribly, terribly good at it. And the really cool thing was that once he got really good at playing baseball on the Wii, he improved dramatically at playing baseball in real life. My husband and I theorized that the video game enabled him to practice batting with way fewer variables and a lightweight controller instead of a heavy bat. (Just our theory; we have no actual data to back this up. You want science, go read Bill Nye’s blog. I’m busy raising kids & taking naps over here.)
Richie became really, really good at every video game he played. He mastered Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort, became an ace marksman in a target shooting game his Auntie Tanya sent him, and then moved on to master the Xbox. My husband, Rich, and I wondered if there was something about Richie’s Autistic brain that predisposed him to video game greatness. Did the same hyperawareness of his surroundings that distracted him so terribly at school enable him to perceive minute clues as to what was coming up in a game? Was it his steel trap memory? (This kid can tell me what I ordered for breakfast on vacation 3 years ago; it’s not an endearing ability.) Was he simply memorizing the games?
I can’t answer any of those questions with certainty, but I can tell you that Richie was naturally gifted with a lot of…screen time. That is, he has parents who know they should limit how much time he spends playing video games, but who are lousy at enforcing the idea. It started innocently enough: imagine you have a child who could not sit up independently until he was almost two, who didn’t take his first steps until almost three. A child for whom everything was more difficult than it should have been. Whether it was walking or learning to write, Richie always had to work harder and try harder, usually with less success. But watching him play video games was an absolute joy. Even before he got really good at them, he just enjoyed himself so much that it was a pleasure to watch him. And then to see him master something…that was a treat for us, even if the mastered subject was Donkey Kong.
The nail in the coffin was the release of Wii Fit, a video game that involved physical movement and encouraged Richie to move his whole body, get his heart rate up, and practice yoga and balance. It truly helped him improve his body awareness. For hours and hours at a time.
The year Richie was in Kindergarten, I invited one of his classmates over for a playdate. We sent the boys outside while the other mom and I had coffee at my kitchen table. Before long, they came in and asked if they could go downstairs and play Xbox. I said, “of course” simultaneously with the other mom, but then she continued and reminded her son that this would count as his 30 minutes of screen time for the day. 30 minutes? It was all I could do not to stand up on my chair, throw some gang signs, and ask Richie, “Am I the coolest mom in the world or WHAT?!?!?”
My son eats 30 minutes of screen time for breakfast.
The boys disappeared into the basement, and the other mom and I had half an hour of blissful, uninterrupted, adult conversation. Right at the 31-minute mark, her son came tearing up the steps, ran breathlessly up to the kitchen table, and said enthusiastically, “Mom! Richie is SO GOOD at Lego Star Wars!”
Practice makes perfect, my friend. Lots and Lots of practice.
Five years later, Richie is still SO GOOD at Lego Star Wars, and Minecraft, and even Asteroids, which his dad introduced him to recently. But I tend to forget just how good.
So the other night at the brewery, when it was almost time to head back to the dance studio and pick up the girls, I walked up behind him at the “pinball machine” and gave him the five minute warning.
I sat back down to let him finish playing, started looking at email on my phone, and before I knew it, the five minutes were up. Richie was still bent over the machine. I walked back over and said, “Richie, we have to go.”
“I know, Mom,” he replied, “but I have to use up all my credits.”
I looked at the time; we didn’t really have to leave quite yet (I’m way early for everything). So I told him it was ok to keep playing. I sat back down to wait and went back to reading email. Another 5-10 minutes went by, and I went back over to tell him to wrap it up.
“I know, Mom,” he replied patiently, “but I have to use up all my credits.”
I checked the time again and sat back down. Five minutes later, I walked back to Richie and said, “Hey, Dude, we really have to go.”
“Ok, Mom,” he replied, “I just have to finish putting in my initials.”
“Your what?” I thought I had misheard him, so I walked closer to see what he was doing. I looked over his shoulder to see him entering his initials as THE TOP SCORER OF ALL TIME!
He also has the #3 slot locked up. And that might be him at #2 as well. Probably not all from this one night.