Running on Empty: We connect with our kids more than we think…

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My kids are growing up in the birth to dentures screen-time age. The age of the device. The age of split attention spans and congested communication. Seriously. My patented move when it’s time to make sure my son is paying attention is to literally place my hand between his eyes and his device. Blinking, he looks up at me, shocked to find me standing there.

“Huh,” he says. “What?”

In fact, here’s a little glimpse into a standard conversation at bedtime.

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Me: Go potty, pull your pants up, flush, and wash your hands.

Son: …

Me: Hey. Did you hear me?

Son: Yeah.

Me: What did I say?

Son: …

Me: Hey! (waiving of hands) What did I say?

Son: I don’t know.

Me: Okay. Listen to me. Go potty, pull your pants up, flush, and wash your hands.

Son: …

Me: HEY! (waiving of hands) WHAT DID I SAY?!

Son: I don’t know.

You get the idea. This goes on for a while (I counted eight times once, just to prove a point) until finally, when I get two inches from his face, remind him to look at my eyes, literally tell him I’m going to tell him something and then ask what I said immediately after…THEN he finally repeats something similar to, “Pull up my pants and wash my hands?”

Close enough.

And in that scenario, there’s not even a device involved.

Maybe you think I’m exaggerating, but I swear on my Stan Musial autographed baseball that I’m representing that maddening exchange exactly as it happens. It’s just hard to communicate with kids sometimes.

I know he can do it. I asked his school one time, “Is he like this when he’s here?” Nope. Perfect angel. I asked again, this time assuring his teachers that I’m not looking for reassurance and I won’t be offended by criticism. I just need data.

Nope. Sure, he has his moments like all the other children, but they swore he does just as he’s asked and is typically a joy to be around. I believe them – partially because I’ve witnessed some of it during my visits to the school, but also because I know he can connect with me when he wants to – but it’s just hard to reconcile that kid with the one I’m struggling to pass information to at bedtime, or when he’s indulging in screen time on the couch.

Surely I wasn’t this difficult to communicate with when I was young. Screens were few and far between in the 80s, and we were forced to engage in the world if we wanted to combat hours of boredom. In fact, sometimes our childhoods seem so dramatically different that I wonder if it’s possible for us to really connect about anything, if I can truly identify with any of his childhood experiences.

And then I have a moment like I did tonight.

Running in from the spare room, my son posed in front of me with an excited look on his face and his arms frozen in a half-running motion.

“Daddy!” he said. “The robots on TV dance like this!” As he demonstrated their jerky, rigid movements, the act gradually devolved from dancing, mechanical automatons to battling, laser-blasting, foot-stomping warrior robots determined to save the universe.

I get that.

I remember playing just like that when I was his age, courageously facing hordes of Decepticons and mechanical minions sent by Cobra Commander or Skeletor. Come to think of it, there are many days when my wife dodges deftly between foam swords being swung about by Darth Vader (my son) and a “big Star Wars walker” (he’s in a three-year-long robot phase, so the walkers on Empire Strikes Back intrigue him much more than some whiny moisture farmer with sandy blonde hair).

The point is, we do connect. I do identify with him and his childhood imagination. His experiences aren’t that far from my own. Despite the iPads and Kindles and smart phones kids seem to know how to operate straight out of the womb, my son still stumbles upon time to jump into an adventure and save the galaxy.

Or, as he informed me the other day, hop on a horse and go galloping after bandits dressed as a sharp-shooting cowboy.

I didn’t think kids would still be interested in Wild West cowboys until my son proved otherwise (he now wants a horse…which will not be happening).

Yes, he’ll grow up in a different day and age than I did, and communicating and connecting can be difficult at times – even frustrating – but the foundation of a young boy with mountains of imagination at his disposal is still built with 90% of the same swashbuckling stone as his old man. And my old man before him.

And so on, and so on, and so on.

They may change faces over time – Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger become Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones who become Spider-man and Optimus Prime – but the adventuring hero inside each of them remains the same.

And through that boyhood adventurer, we connect.

All I have to do now is figure out how to get Darth Vader to put his pants on before he runs streaking out of the bathroom.

But, I guess being a Sith lord can be a bit distracting.

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