On the Lookout for Blessing

There are certain spheres in which I am very reluctant to give advice. Saintly, I know. Most of them are related to pouring more, specific responsibility on women and mothers: not interested. Post a click-baity article on the evils of yoga pants or screen time, or tell me all the wrong things about all the food non-wealthy or non-white kids eat, and I’m pushing mute. There’re just too many cooks in the kitchen, all with the same [lack of] experience levels, not all with the same contexts and privileges, and the moms I know don’t need another apocalyptic guideline.

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Me as me when my kids try to wake me/people tell grown women what to wear.

At high risk of overlapping with that incredibly common genre, I’m writing today about something I’ve never said a thing about: a video game. I don’t hardly know anything about this subject (impressive start, I know) except that I am the absolute worst in actually playing them. My coordination on the button thingies rivals my dance moves for Most Compelling Reason I may be a different species than most people. But nevertheless, this is my blog.

A friend asked me to help research and bring awareness to a game that’s pretty popular right now because she is a teacher and a leader and communal to her core; I’ll try because I love her so. The game is called Fortnite, specifically the Battle Royale mode (rated 13+), which is free. 40 million people play some version of it. Championed by conscientious adults for its lack of blood, the cartoony-violence, and humor, there is the social intensity of online strangers, one life, and urgent perils at every turn. It is inspired by The Hunger Games type plot, and teams (of real players) are encouraged in the race to kill in order to be the last survivor. While the game does not require in-app purchases to progress (a merit-badge in marketed-to-kids free games), there are cosmetic improvements frequently pushed, to update one’s appearance in the alternate, deteriorating world.

Some things I read made this game sound pretty harmless–the building and strategy aspects, being a teammate, and the unrealistic violence. Some things I read made this game sound very dangerous because of its addictive, real-time quality mixed with the survivor intensity. It’s hard for kids to unplug or stop playing, and in essence, commit suicide and hurt their team. Reading or listening to other people’s in-game advice or reactions can make for a very charged, profane, uncontrollable and polarizing environment—kind of like real life middle school. This was a helpful article I found about Fortnite-related kid rage and some practical advice.

In one friend’s experience, her child started showing more severe mood swings, a fear of being alone, anxiety, and few words to explain said feelings. Some of the behaviors that she later found in the game and related YouTube videos were things he, in his upset, threatened to do to himself. Obviously, no video game is experienced in a test tube environment, and no child is only affected by one video game. But this one seemed to have an especially piercing effect that was noticeable and destructive to this underaged, sensitive player right away. I too have a kid who is markedly sensitive in some regards and has to work extra hard in social arenas; in both cases, we moms would like them to learn how to manage their sensitivity without forfeiting or devaluing it. Adding another layer of social weight to their shoulders in this form of game is the equivalent of asking me to go on So You Think You Can Dance; it’s just not the right time.

I came across this quote from one of my favorite writers: “It is a quotidian master that dailiness can lead to such despair and yet also be at the core of our salvation…We want life to have meaning, we want fulfillment, healing and even ecstasy, but the human paradox is that we find these things by starting where we are…We must look for blessings to come from unlikely, everyday places” (Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries, 11).

I like this framework for being parents, mentors and teachers: Lookers for Blessings. It is such a poignant quote for we who wear the biggest hats of the Daily, in our own search for fulfillment, but in tonight’s case, what a help in creating a palatable, big-enough rubric for our influence on children, for the rules we’re willing to set and the environment we strive to create. Is it a blessing? Will it help them find more for themselves?

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Not in the flimsy prize toy kind of way, or the competitive, affluence snobby way or the Netflix binge type of gift we’ve all given ourselves…but the blessing that turns out to bloom salvific, meaningful, healing. What in their daily could be the core of their salvation? For my young friend, the recreation and entertainment of this particular video game offers distraction, but none of the above bouquet. In the ways we try to unpack the feelings, give vocabulary to the nuances, and give guidance to the social maneuvers our young ones are sorting out each day at school…in all those ways, with added stakes and voices, he engaged in another world no one could even begin to ask about or retrace because it doesn’t exist. And yet it did. And does for about 40 million other people.

I’m not attempting to make anyone’s mind up about this year’s game or video games in general. But I find myself, in all of this wading, wanting to recommission moms and dads and aunties and teachers and mentors to be in charge; I want to affirm their role of setting boundaries and seeking blessings. Adults are affirmed to set up blessing-dispensing systems and say, “People have different rules and these are our rules” which can be code for “This is how I am establishing daily salvation and meaning in your world.” The children cannot become well adults without their adults first insisting that they are the kids.

The daily is so slippery and relentless. Like a bedtime routine with a toddler, one step can suddenly become 12 and after saying the right thing, feeding the right thing, setting up the right thing, and reading the right thing, the kid still has a 13th idea. And then they get big enough to climb out of the crib. Moving targets abound and there is grace upon grace for us caretakers. Otherwise we would just all quit and shrivel in a snivel and no one would have kids and in the first place, God would probably have not set it up like this.

It doesn’t all have to be catechism; it can’t. It can be bubbles and paint and brownies and solitaire and guitar. One person suggested a family Fortnite night. It’s your world to make, and it’s doused in grace. A hundred little things fill the space of the daily. All we can do is start just where we are. Pluck something that hasn’t fit the bill, and pick a replacement for the young soul. They are beginning their meaning-making, in need of salvation, and we are an adult, tasked as a look out for their blessing. It’s our watch.

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I Invite Myself to My Own Dinner

Preemptive parenting is my strategy. I have a running schedule and clock in my mind at almost all times because either it’s how God made me, or I’m a catastrophizer. I dislike being late, being complained to, and being under pressure so much, I will put the 6-year-old down for a nap, I will start Operation Shoes and Socks 15 minutes before we actually need to leave, and I will pack back-up Goldfish, gum, diapers and wipes in the car because so often in Los Angeles, we are without access to food, other people and stores.

Preemptive work in relationships requires a lot more vigilance and gumption. While a Christian woman might be affirmed for being prepared with a kids travel game or for bringing snacks, she is not usually applauded for boundaries, saying no, or sharing her expectations for an event in advance. Those are typically assigned negative hues of guardedness, selfishness, being a control-freak, anal retentive or other suspect characterizations (I have heard…).  We are trained to defer, accommodate, submit, overlook, and serve. While at times these actions can be great strengths and hold within themselves a powerful freedom and love when chosen, they can also enable the entitlement of other people to the diminishment of our own personhood. We are not destined to become smaller; it is not our job to disappear. 

Going into the weekend, my spouse and I often have expectations for the precious 48 hours. They are generally competing.  Going into the holidays, we may all be facing the same dilemma, only with the added help of multiple-day road trips, long-distance family suddenly sleeping in the next room, candied children, and, if we’re lucky, bacterial infections. Nothing says joy and peace like spilled juice in the car, sliding around snowy passes next to semis, mysterious and constant appearances of glitter and snot, and off-colored jokes from the uncles, ammiright?

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I’m just here to say, if you can pack a diaper bag in your sleep, or have thus far managed to feed, clothe, and bandaid actual living people, including your self, you are allowed to say “no,” or “I want,” or “we will.” Merry Christmas. The safety and intimacy of our relationships relies upon our exercising agency and boundaries. Particularly for those of us who struggle with anxiety, depression or addiction.

It’s not about controlling others or being rigidly closed off. It’s about self-awareness and working from the best part of your self and not the worst, or fastest, or most sensitive. Preemptively making a plan to cut off chaos at the pass.

This may look like extending a request along with an invitation: would you be willing to not discuss ______, or isolate anyone in conversation regarding that topic? (And if this does happen, my family and I will be taking a walk.) It may mean saying ahead of time that you will be leaving by 9, when things really get boozy. It may look like staying at a hotel instead of your childhood bedroom, with the nephews and the giftwrap. It may mean scheduling alone time, and letting your host know you won’t be around Friday afternoon. It may mean using paper plates no matter what your mom thinks.

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What are your expectations for the rest of this year, which, for the most part, has been really challenging? What concerns do you have going into group gatherings and which of them are valid, addressable, and likely shared (ie: managing uncle bob’s anger, not addressable; making a plan for when it is triggered, absolutely)? What would it mean to experience the holidays with freedom and presence rather than anxiety and reactions? (“While we love traditions, we won’t be squeezing in the movie this year between presents and dinner; we’ll see you when you get back!”) What preparation and communication would help these times be building rather than destructive? Who are the safe people who can help you stick with the plan?

I encourage you in your preemptive policies. I cheer you on as you exercise agency, take your heart and brain seriously, and invite others to do the same. It will be a gift to the people ready for better relationships; it will be a model for our sons and daughters.

When I think about it, my relationships and the way I enter 2018 are at least as important as how many snacks I’ve packed. It’s time to get planning.

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