Connecting with your children as people

I’m not a gamer. I grow frustrated trying to keep up in any game more complicated than Monopoly. And while I was a teen at the dawn of the video-game era, I played pinball instead.


My life feels full and complete without games. But my son Damion is a serious gamer who finds deep and legitimate meaning and satisfaction in gaming both online and in person with others.

A feature of my relationship with Damion since he was old enough to speak has been him telling me of his gaming exploits at length, and me having no idea what he is talking about.

I was happy to listen, though, because I loved hearing the joy in his voice.

When he was four, he spent hours trying to teach me Yu-Gi-Oh, an adventure card game. It was too complicated for me and I couldn’t get it. I eventually gave up.

My lack of ability to connect with him through gaming sharply limits our ability to connect as whole people. I wonder how much disappointment he feels. I’m still disappointed I couldn’t manage it with my dad. But I can see that there are just limits. The apple may not fall far from the tree, but we are still different people. There will always be parts of each of us the other will never truly know.

I tried a few times to connect with my dad through his interests. Dad wanted for years to teach me to sharpen knives, something he took pride in. I let him try a few times, but he was so unpleasant when I didn’t pick it up perfectly from the start that we never got past the opening lesson. I thought for a while we might connect over hitting balls together at the driving range, something he enjoyed. But even there he felt the need to teach me to be perfect at it, which robbed it of all its fun and pushed me away.

Damion and Pentax KM

Then last fall Damion tried the same thing, asking me if I’d lend him an old camera and show him how to use it. Aw hell yes! I showed him how to spool film into my Pentax KM, taught him how to match the needle to set exposure, and gave him a couple composition tips.

Then I backed off and let him explore on his own. That was hard. Just like my dad, I wanted to hover, and guide, and teach. I resisted with all my might because I didn’t want to suck all the fun out of it for Damion and squander this golden opportunity.

Damion enjoyed the experience and asked to keep a camera. So I gave him two, a Pentax K1000 like his mom used to own and a Pentax ME because I love mine and shoot it most often. When we see each other now we often go for photo walks together.

I feel like I’m atoning for my father’s sins by doing this better with my sons. It’s helping me let go of my bitter disappointment that my dad and I could never manage it.


25 responses to “Connecting with your children as people”

  1. J P Avatar

    When my kids were young there was one single game that I was able to join them at their level: Mario Kart on the various Nintendo platforms. We had some great races and nobody ever took it easy on anyone else. My middle son was a fairly serious gamer for a time and I would listen like you and occasionally watch him play. But when he felt like some Dad time there was still Mario Kart. I think there is still a functional N-64 will a Mario Kart cartridge floating around the family somewhere.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Mario Kart was the one game I could play with my kids, too. We played on our Wii. I liked the game a lot but was never particularly good at it, so my kids would clean my clock every time.

      1. DougD Avatar

        Yup, my wife and I still play Mario Kart on the WiiU almost every day. We got into it because it was the only game we had half a chance at beating my son. Funny, he came home last weekend and creamed us all, despite not having played it for months…

        Like you I find it hard to connect with my son, who is so different than me. He too expressed some interest in photography so I gave him my Canon 60D to take back to camp. It’s an expensive camera, but my policy is that anytime he expresses an interest in ANYTHING in the physical world I support it..

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Connecting with my sons took serendipity, which took large quantities of time. It’s why I took them on vacations every Spring Break, so we could just be guys hanging out together with nothing to distract us.

          1. susanJOY Hosken Avatar
            susanJOY Hosken

            I don’t remember my brother ever having special time with my dad. so sad for both of them. I must ask my brother if he has any special memories

  2. Joshua Fast Avatar
    Joshua Fast

    I gifted my niece and nephews Canon FD kits over the last few years and it’s been a huge common interest for all of us. I usually shoot rangefinders but I ended buying a Canon EF so i could be part of the canon slr club. Getting a film camera in their hand has improved them significantly as artists and it’s fun watching them grow and progress. I love seeing one of them go out with their friends with a AV1 or FTb slung over their shoulder.

    So glad your son is enjoying it!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Oh that’s wonderful! What a great set of shared memories you’re creating. And the mechanical FD-mount bodies are so cool. Way to go!

  3. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    Bravo for getting him started on Pentax!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yeah! These bodies are great ways to be introduced to film photography.

  4. Victor Villaseñor Avatar
    Victor Villaseñor

    Aw hell yes!

    I bet you enjoyed that moment, now think how much your son will enjoy if suggest to hook up the Wii and get on some Mario Kart ;)

    Great read Jim, thanks for sharing!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      We’ve still got the Wii around here somewhere — maybe we can have a tournament at Thanksgiving!

  5. Joe shoots resurrected cameras Avatar

    Speaking as a gamer, I’d say it’s just a generational thing. I was right on the cusp of it being a popular phenomenon, where about half of the people my age aren’t into video games, but a lot are. Starting out young built up my hand-eye coordination and reflexes, something older generations never trained to do, so yes it’s hard to keep up with the whippersnappers! The newer games take it for granted that the player grew up learning all this so it’s hard starting out from scratch. I can’t keep up myself anymore, but then there are entire genres of games built around storytelling in immersive worlds, sort of like novels in video game form, and those are the ones I tend to play these days.

    And going back to the older generation, I think it’s the same thing as the baby boomers had with rock ‘n’ roll. Getting your parents to understand what the Rolling Stones meant to you wasn’t easy I’m sure, but that language is just part of our makeup these days (in a general way, not necessarily you specifically). My generation has Tim Schafer and Hideo Kojima (to name two). It seems that nearly all the kids are gamers of some sort these days, so that’s become the new status quo. And that makes me wonder what new thing will come along in the younger generations in which I’ll have no understanding or interest. It’s OK, because as you said yourself there are things which do cross the generational gap that allow you to connect, and it’s also OK for people (and generations) to have some things which are all their own.

    PS: Mario Kart is fantastic.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Damion is a full-on GAMER, but his younger brother Garrett just likes to play games. Does that make sense? Both of them can clean my clock at Mario Kart, but it’s really only Damion that identifies as a gamer, gets immersed in game worlds (sounds like he’s like you in that way), and is thinking about the next time he gets to play every time he’s not playing. Garrett just plays because it’s fun and something to do.

      Most of my friends in the 80s were deeply into the games of the day. Not me, and I don’t know why because I was a massive geek otherwise.

      You make a very good point that each generation gets to have the thing(s) that belong(s) to it and gaming of the type we have today is that for my sons’ generation. Damion tried to teach me to play Skyrim about five years ago and I just couldn’t get the hang of it exactly for the reasons you cite.

  6. Joe shoots resurrected cameras Avatar

    Some things interest people more than others, but I think video games have reached a level of ubiquity that the majority of people are at least casual gamers (like Garrett, I’d guess). Damion sounds like someone who might end up getting a minor in game design. Hard to believe that you can study that in college now, but it’s a legitimate multi-billion dollar industry and people have careers in it. Just like IT and software.

    I love Skyrim, going through it again right now, but especially on console, it’s hard to manage the dual thumbsticks if you didn’t start out with first Goldeneye and then Halo, and that took time even for me to get it down…but that was also half my life ago. I was mainly into computers before that and will say that it’s easier on computer, using the arrow keys on the keyboard and a mouse to aim. I did try to teach my dad once to use the dual thumbsticks but it was too hard for him. The learning curve is too steep and it’s generally an exercise in futility, so if you ever want to give it another go I’d recommend mouse & keyboard, or something pretty old these days like a Super Nintendo (they’re pretty popular again right now, so you’d score points for being hip).

    Speaking of Skyrim though, the first of that series I played was Morrowind, released in 2002, and talking to teenagers these days it’s hilarious and also ironic that I can use classic old-timer lines like “Well back in my day most consoles didn’t have integrated hard drives, we had memory cards” or “I’ve been playing video games since before you were born!” Some things don’t change ;)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You put your finger right on it, so to speak: it’s about making the mental-spatial translation between a game controller and what is happening on the screen. It is a steep hill to climb for me.

      I used to play Doom on PC back when that game was new and I was fine. Perhaps if I were to try gaming on my PC I might find the knack again.

      FWIW my oldest son is old enough that the N64 came out while he was a teen, and we spent many joyous hours of him cleaning my clock in Goldeneye. In days before home wifi I ran cabling between his room and my home office (drilling through the floor and running it thru the crawl space) so we could play networked games on our PCs. That was more fun for me because I stood a fighting chance then. I still usually lost, but by not nearly as much.

  7. susanJOY Hosken Avatar
    susanJOY Hosken

    jim, what a wonderful post. My dad has been dead now for 28 years and I still look at our relationship and wish I’d been better at it. I’m glad for what we had. I have no children but still pass on a lot of my dad’s lessons to others. wishing you continued special times with your son, Jim xoxo susanJOY

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      The relationships with our parents can be so hard, surprisingly so.

  8. TBM3FAN Avatar

    My 9 year old son does like to play his computer games which bore me to hell. Maybe turning 65 might have something to do with it given my formative years of bicycles, trains, slot cars, and real cars. However, even in my 20’s at grad school classmates loved pinball machines and they too bored me. On the flip side though he is great at socializing with anyone from age 1 to age 92.

    What I did love to play where games like Stratego and Hearts. Thinking games. So I purchased Stratego off eBay and taught my son about it. Of course, he said he knows how to play it like he always does and promptly got trounced. Now he realizes he needs to be far more “strategic” in his setup and movements against Dad.

    As for photography I don’t believe he is ready for film but taking pictures and movies does interest him. So I got him a Canon digital point and shoot off Goodwill. Right now he should learn how to set up and frame a shot since he is in the take a picture of anything mode at the moment.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I bought a used Risk set back in the early 80s and we played that a lot. We were also a big Monopoly family. But when we got our first home computer, a Commodore 64, both my dad and my brother spent hours playing games on it. I learned to program it instead.

  9. Heide Avatar

    How wonderful that you remembered those knife-sharpening lessons and managed not to take the same approach with Damion and his photography, Jim. I hope his new interest will “take” and that soon you’ll be talking vintage cameras and favorite films.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Damion is a veteran dabbler, and even he admits to it. It’s hard telling which of the things he’s dabbled in will become lifelong joys! It’d be nice if it were photography.

  10. windswept007 Avatar

    I am at home at the moment, living with my dad. We have always connected as I am very much a tomboy. Though I have always been frustrated by his love of the sedentary life. He is not a talker, but the longer I spend with him the more he talks. He tends to follow me rather I him. Recently he said he might make a pinhole camera.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’ve known men like your dad, who just need lots of time with a person before the words start to come. It sounds like your dad really enjoys you.

  11. Andy Karlson Avatar
    Andy Karlson

    Hi Jim,

    Thanks for this reflective post – you are right, there can be surprising challenges to finding joy in father/son relationships. A few years ago my family moved back to my hometown, and I’ve been able to see my Dad several times a week. We have a standing lunch date on Thursdays at the hospital where I work, and even when we don’t talk deeply there is still a pleasure in sharing a table with each other. His relationship with his own father was very fraught, and I sometimes marvel at how much healing has taken place in those four generations (from my grandfather to my own sons). I guess that’s the biggest theme for me in your post: there are deep wounds that go along with how we’re taught to be masculine, and we only see the results of our work towards healing them over generations.

    Again, thank you!


    PS–My kids are small so “gaming” isn’t really on the table yet; but we’ve been having a lot of fun as a family in playing board games. We are truly in a board game renaissance right now, and it might be a way to bridge the ‘gaming gap’ that you identified. (modern-day classics like Catan, Carcassone, and Ticket to Ride are a sure bet; or even better might be cooperative games like Pandemic or Forbidden Island)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You’re spot on: it does take generations for a family to heal from deep wounds. Those wounds permeate the family through the generations and it takes intentional action to counteract it. This is why things like abuse can pass from generation to generation.

      We’ve played Pandemic here! It was fun.

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