For the last year or so my 22-year-old son Kyle has been living and working in Baltimore—about a 2½-hour drive from where I live in New Jersey. Since he’s been living there, Kyle and I haven’t seen each other all that much. Life gets in the way. It shouldn’t, but invariably it does.
Luckily, with the rise of social media, smart phones, and the like, keeping in touch with those we love is a good deal easier and more convenient than it used to be. One can argue about how personal sending a quick text or message through Facebook is, but what I want to talk about is the content of today’s messages.
How Fathers and Sons Talk Now
When Kyle and I do get to exchange e-messages these days our discussions are almost always about video games. After a recent conversation about this topic, I looked through our chat history and text messages just to verify that, yes, pretty much all we’ve spoken about over the last year was video games. I’m perfectly fine with this level of communication. I mean, at least we are communicating on a friendly and convivial level about something. I know many fathers and sons who can’t and/or won’t even do that, unfortunately.
“Yeah, I had noticed all we talked about recently were video games, and thought about mentioning something along those lines but I decided not to,” Kyle said when I asked him if he noticed this trend. “I’m busy, but I know you work in the game industry and keep up with what’s going on, so when I’m looking for a new game I ask you what’s up,” he continued. “I could, and often do, Google it, but you know my interests better and that’s saying something. As an example, I kinda forgot the new Pokémon remakes (Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire) came out…despite how badly I wanted to play them, but you ended up getting it for me for Christmas anyway. It was the best gift because I completely overlooked it was even coming out.”
How Fathers and Sons Talked Then
Kyle’s revelation jogged something loose in my memory banks in regard to my own father. I’ve previously written for this site about how my relationship with my father changed. At first, we bonded over code and video games, but that shifted as he became an executive and I moved into my high school years. Then all we really spoke about was the ups and downs of our local sports teams.
Depending on the season, when we crossed paths in the morning before school and/or work he would let me know if our team won or lost. A jovial “Phillies won!” was something I always liked hearing on a late May morning as the school year was winding down. The fact that I already knew that the Phillies won didn’t really matter. He was still making an effort to communicate with me on some level that I recognized and appreciated. This conversational pattern continued up until the time he passed in 1998 when I was 28.
He rarely engaged me beyond the sports talk while the game was on or even at the dinner table; it just wasn’t his way (or the way of many of the fathers I grew up around) to engage me in serious conversation. For better or for worse, he left the heavy emotional lifting to my mother. I could be wrong about this, but from the majority of my own experiences and observations, it seems to me that mothers operate on a different level, knowing how to engage their children emotionally. Moms have an innate knack for just cutting though the BS and getting down to the nitty gritty, and they don’t need a vehicle or pretense to do so.
What’s the New Normal for Fathers and Sons?
My relationship with my own son has never revolved around sports. Kyle certainly enjoyed sports—he played soccer into his high school years and was an avid skateboarder to boot. But he never showed any interest in sitting on the couch with his old man to watch traditional sports recreationally. We never really had that connection as many fathers and sons of my generation did. But we did have many virtual adventures together in worlds of Hyrule, Halo and Baldur’s Gate. We visited all of those worlds sitting right next to each other on the couch, discussing not just what was on the screen in front of us, but also life, the universe, and everything.
That led me to wonder if this was true in other households of this generation. Have video games replaced sports as the main conversation pieces between parents and children? Have a couple of quick jaunts around the Mario Kart track replaced having a simple catch in the front yard? I would venture to guess that it has.
And I would say this is happening because video games are no longer viewed as just a passing fad as they were when I was a kid in the 80s; they are now a major staple of popular culture that isn’t going away anytime soon. I think just about everyone understands that the generations after mine (who are now becoming parents en masse) are handing their toddlers video game controllers or high-end tablets rather than baseball gloves and footballs when playtime rolls around.
I’m totally cool with this “paradigm shift,” if you will. I really am. But, as both a serious gamer and a serious sports nut who played baseball into my college years and soccer into my mid-30s, I don’t think video games can completely supplant the visceral, adrenaline-fueled rush of snaring a 50-yard bomb by the tips of your fingers and then tumbling into the end-zone, or that one-of-a-kind sensation in your hands when you connect with a baseball just right…and you know it’s going to go a long, long way.
At least those types of experiences and feelings won’t be replaced until high-end, VR technology reaches Star Trek “holodeck” levels. Sadly, that’s many years off, I would think.
At the end of the day, though, as long as you are engaging your kids on some level and showing an interest in the things they love, that’s never a bad thing. Whether it’s asking about the newest Skylanders what they think James Harden’s chances are of winning the NBA MVP, having these conversations forges a lasting connection that’s sure to endure in their memories.