Last week, my oldest daughter had some oral surgery, and my sister sent us a new game to help her pass the time while recovering. The game was “Catchphrase”—an electronic, timed version of “Password,” in which an electronic module provides words, and one player tries to get the other players to guess the word with detailed rules on what sorts of clues are and aren’t allowed. It was perfect for a Friday family game night—fun, fast-paced, not too long, simple and clever enough to engage all of us at our various ages. Later on, with the game over and children tucked into bed, I started thinking about how each child’s attitude toward the game was a perfect reflection of his or her personality and essential qualities.
Leah (12) was initially put out that we weren’t following the rules exactly, because her brother can’t read all that well yet and needed to be teamed up with an adult, and the game’s tick-tocking timer stressed her sister out, so we decided not to heed the game’s time limits. Leah scowled and crabbed, convinced that we were ruining the game with our loose and lazy approach to rule-following. After a while, though, as we established a rhythm and the game proved to be fun even with our modifications, she relaxed, giggling through her swollen gums at ridiculous clues and even more ridiculous guesses.
Meg (9) loved the game so much that she had a perma-grin for the entire hour or so we played. She literally bounced in her seat with excitement, saying over and over, “I love this game!” and “Let’s make sure to play this game on New Year’s Eve!” (when we traditionally eat a fondue meal—cheese followed by chocolate—in front of the fireplace, accompanied by game playing).
Ben (6) was partnered with me, because he could neither read most of the words nor understand what they meant. He didn’t participate much other than helping me pick which word we would choose for our turn, and occasionally using hand gestures to provide clues. Otherwise, he spent the game quietly snuggled against me, occasionally piping up with, “This is fun!” and “I’m glad I’m on your team, Mom!”
Leah is a rule follower, concerned not only with doing things the right way, but also with making sure everyone else does things the right way. Leah understands that rules often exist for good reason and that things usually go more smoothly and everyone is happier when we all follow the rules. But she is still learning that obsessing about “the rules” can interfere with her ability to engage with other people, and that a need for flexibility can sometimes trump a need for rules. She is still learning when to insist on fair play, and when it’s best to accept what is, in all its flawed, unfair, chaotic glory.
For Meg, having fun is absolutely primary. Where Leah and I tend to see an afternoon without social plans as an opportunity to lie on the couch with a good book, Meg sees it as an epic tragedy, a gaping hole in need of filling with friends and activity. When she is having fun, Meg becomes completely absorbed in who and what is right in front of her, untroubled by what happened at school earlier today or what worrisome thing is coming up tomorrow. Meg’s volatile emotions often affect the entire family, and when she’s happy, our home’s atmosphere lightens up considerably. Certainly, we have a responsibility to help Meg learn to manage her feelings without sucking everyone around her into her personal whirlwind. But deliberately making time to do things that bring out Meg’s sweet, happy, relaxed side—like playing a game on a regular old Friday night—isn’t a bad strategy either.
For Ben, playing the game took a back seat to the fact that he was teamed up with me. I am Ben’s favorite person, and have been for his entire almost-seven years of life. At times, this can feel suffocating. It can make life difficult for other people: Last week, my mom took care of Meg and Ben while Leah had her oral surgery, and Ben—particularly tired as he was recovering from several days of high fever the week before—spent most of the afternoon asking for me and being generally unhappy. As someone who has not always gracefully accepted the constant neediness of young children for their mother, I am grateful for times when my children’s deep need for me and my ability to meet it come together in the same moment—as they did for me and Ben on Friday night.
Every mother of young children has been told more than once by older mothers to “cherish this time, because it will be over before you know it.” I’m admitting right now that I am not particularly good at cherishing time with my children. In part, this is because the things that I crave most deeply for my own sense of equilibrium, mental and physical health, and happiness—solitude, quiet, rest—are those things that are in particularly short supply when one has children, and especially when one ends up with three particularly interactive, chatty children, as I have. As much as I cherish the idea of bedtime, of piling onto the bed to talk about the day and read a beloved story together, I rarely cherish the reality of bedtime, of giving tired children extra doses of patience and tenderness at the very time of day that I most want to be left alone and am least capable of exercising patience and tenderness.
The truth is that I am far less likely to cherish a family game night than I am to cherish a rainy day when all the kids are at school, the major chores (groceries, laundry, bills) have been done, and I can therefore choose to do as I wish in my empty house, which usually involves some combination of writing and reading.
But while I may not always cherish time with my children as I should, I am utterly committed to doing the next best thing: Paying attention. Taking note of how the people I live with and love interact with the world. Marking key points in our daily life together (goodbyes, homecoming, meals, bedtimes) with simple rituals that say I see you, I love you, we are in this together, like singing “Jesus Loves Me” to Meg as I tuck her in, asking everyone to share something good or bad about their day at the dinner table, pausing amid the morning chaos of homework being stuffed into backpacks and pets yowling for breakfast to say, “Have a good day, I love you” to Daniel as he leaves for work, saying “yes” to Leah’s request that we do a page of MadLibs together before bed, and letting Ben be on my “team” when we play games, even when the game’s rules don’t really allow for team play.
Did I cherish our family game night on Friday? Not really. I would have rather gone up to bed to read in silence and solitude (I pretty much would always rather go up to bed to read in silence and solitude). But did I pay attention? I did. And ultimately, I think what we all want most is not so much to be cherished as to be seen for who we are, and loved both because and in spite of what our beloved ones see when they really pay attention.