"Mommy, do you remember that time you played Skylanders with me?"
My nine-year-old son asks me this question from time to time. I do remember. It was the first and only time I played Skylanders because I'd rather get a root canal. Video games aren't my thing. I'm a good person and a great mom, and I'll take both of my boys down in an art challenge, Scrabble game, or Lego build any day of the week, but I'm just not interested in Minecraft, Roblox, Agar.io, Scrap Mechanic, or whatever game they begged me to download last night.
Still, I want to engage my post-millennial "gamer" kids. I want to bond with them, confide in them, and inspire their creativity. I want them to trust me and value my opinion. I want to understand their 21st century adolescent angst, and I want to speak their language. Except when they speak in hashtags. Then I want to hide.
So how do I connect with my boys offline if I don't want to connect with them online?
Asking them to turn away from their screens is only part of the solution. If I'm fortunate enough to have their undivided attention, I have to be resourceful. Igniting conversations that peel back layers is hard, especially when "How was your day?" is answered with "fine" and "Who did you play with at recess?" reveals names but doesn't get to the heart of the matter or even remotely close to their hearts.
Communicating with boys requires patience, ingenuity, variety, and repetition.
That's why we have a Happiness Jar. There's a large glass hurricane vase on our dining room table and a stack of small squares of paper and a pen next to it. If something makes you happy, you write it down and toss it in the vase. I'll never forget the afternoon when my nine-year-old stomped over to the table, wrote something feverishly on a piece of paper, threw it in the vase, and ran to his room. I looked at what he wrote. Nothing. Nothing made him happy, and that small but explosive expression of emotion helped us begin an honest and therapeutic conversation about our recent long-distance move away from friends and family.
That's why we walk to and from school. Sometimes we talk about the weather and squirrels, but other times we talk about presidential politics, what we would name a puppy, where we want to travel, and what happens when we die. The sky is the limit on these brief but fruitful morning and afternoon walks.
That's why we have a question jar. There's a mason jar on our kitchen table filled with questions meant to spark thought-provoking conversations at dinnertime (or any time). On the night we talked about what would be different in the world 10 years from now and what would be the same, I learned that my older son hopes computers will download information into brains so kids don't have to go to school and my six-year-old wants to become a scientist so he can find a cure for type 1 diabetes, which his cousin was diagnosed with over a year ago. Thankfully, we agreed that moms and dads will still hug and kiss their kids and tuck them in bed at night.
That's why we have "For Our Eyes Only" journals. I bought notebooks for my boys that are like diaries, except they share them with me. We take turns creating captions for pictures, describing dreams, and asking and answering questions. In the few days since we started the journals, my six-year-old has already told me the color he wants to paint his bedroom and the names of his best friends, and he's asked me, "What and 'whare' have you been wanting to do your life?" Whoa.
I didn't expect these unplugged communication tools to work on my plugged-in kids, and sometimes they don't, but boy oh boy (pun intended) sometimes they do. It is possible to dig deep into boys' hearts and minds, and, thankfully, you don't have to know what a Minecraft mod is to do it.