Seattle's Child

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connecting with kids November 2020

A little encouragement from across the fence. Photo by Joshua Huston

Parents, you won’t have to play pretend forever

We’ll long for that connection as kids become teens.

For the past couple of years, Pippa has been fixated on dragons. As 9-year-old obsessions go, it’s better than most. She never subjected us to Malibu Barbie beach parties, or multiple viewings of Frozen, so I guess I should be thankful. Still, as the pandemic continues and she remains trapped in a bubble with only her mom and me as playmates, her dragon-mania is beginning to wear on our nerves.

“Playing dragon” consists of Pippa being either a dragon, a baby dragon or a dragon trainer, and the two of us taking whichever roles are left. Occasionally a dragon pet store owner makes a cameo appearance, but mostly it’s like a reality show based on the surprisingly mundane domestic lives of dragons and their owners. The types of dragons vary, along with their magical properties, personalities and “breath weapons,” but the script doesn’t really change. We go to dragon school to learn how to fly and hunt and not kill humans. We eat at dragon restaurants and visit dragon friends. We go to dragon concerts and compete in dragon sporting events.

And all this takes place within the confines of her active imagination and our little home.

Aside from the occasional siege and annihilation of an unsuspecting village, life as a dragon is more or less the same as life as a human – or at least how life was, pre-pandemic.

At times it’s hard to tell which is the wilder fantasy: dive-bombing terrified villagers with flames erupting from our maws, or going out to a restaurant. Despite the elaborate veneer of magic and myth, Pippa’s current fantasies seem to be mostly about normalcy and routine. In that way, she’s not so different from the rest of us.

Caught in this relentless loop of repetitive dragon play, I’ve kept my sanity by reminding myself that it won’t last forever. The time is coming when Pippa will leave her world of mythical beasts behind, and us with it. She won’t be begging us to sack villages with her. She’ll be demanding that we get out of her room and shut the door behind us. The advantage of going through parenting a second time is that I now know what’s coming. That makes it easier, not just to endure the present, but to cherish it. Right now, Pippa invites us into her world because she loves us. She’s a kid trying to connect. If we can’t enjoy that while we have it, the loss is ours.

Connecting with kids

A dear friend of mine recently complained that his 28-year-old son only calls him when there’s “news.”

“He’ll call me to tell me he got a raise,” my friend said, “or a new dog or something, but he never calls just to connect, or to say that he cares.”

I can’t help but wonder if connection and caring were exactly the point of those calls, but that they got lost in translation. When our kids start to pull away from us (or push away with all their might), they learn to deliver their messages in code. “Dad, I got a raise” might mean “Are you proud of me?”

“Mom, we got a new dog” might mean “I’m building a home and a family, just like the one you gave me.” It’s not easy to embrace and detach from your loved ones at the same time. It makes for an awkward, fitful dance as we and our kids try to connect.

Besides, our kids aren’t the only ones who send their love through encrypted channels. Who among us hasn’t tried to give our children helpful advice, only to have it received as meddling or criticism? And how many times have our own parents done the same? It’s a cycle that repeats from generation to generation on a continuous loop – an endless succession of mommy and daddy dragons, spraying a little breath weapon with every blown kiss as we try to connect with our kids.

In the end, we need to forgive each other for the messiness and clumsiness of love. People rarely convey it in the form that we long for, but it’s love nonetheless. We can accept it gratefully, or reject it and go without, but we probably can’t trade it in for a version that’s more to our liking. Loving a human is like owning a dragon. You can’t have the wings without the fangs and the fire.

Jeff Lee wakes up as a dragon with morning-breath weapon in Seattle.

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About the Author

Jeff Lee, MD

Jeff Lee, a family physician, lives, works and writes in Seattle.