In the beginning, being seen as omnipotent in the eyes of my children was as easy as replacing the batteries in a toy dog that had stopped barking. As the kids grew, our home offered countless opportunities for me to demonstrate my high-tech prowess: fixing the computers, downloading videos from the camcorder, activating cell phones, making the TV and cable box understand each other. As far as my children could see, the only difference between me and the guys in the Space Shuttle is that I don't like long commutes.
Then I met Crash.
Crash is one of the avatars that my 13-year-old son assumes when he plays his new skateboarding game on the Wii. When I played this game with Alec during the holidays, he repeatedly thrashed me so badly that he had to wait for me at the finish line. Like, long enough to go get a snack. When I switched to the Wii boxing game, I got knocked out by my 7-year-old daughter.
I have aged into the scary side of children and technology.
How I got there is explained by a recent report that says kids spend an average of seven-and-a-half hours a day on electronic devices like TVs, cell phones and computers. In the news coverage, parents and commentators fretted that this electronics obsession will render our kids fat, stupid and socially inept. I see another frightening development: My children are at risk of becoming technologically super-skilled, leaving me in the dust.
Every generation faces the embarrassment of being leap-frogged by its offspring, but my wife and I are determined not to become so befuddled by new technology that we have to ask our kids to make things work. Anyone who's shown his mother how to figure out the TV remote knows what I'm talking about. One day, you're showing your child how to create a password on buildabear.com; next thing you know, she's downloading new maps to your GPS while you look on with the expression of a gorilla discovering fire.
I think I'm safe. I text, I Tweet, I Face. I've built a couple of modest Web sites.
So I expected no trouble when we bought a PlayStation2 a few years ago. After all, I was a charter member of the video game generation, starting with that TV tennis game in which two vertical dashes volleyed a dot back-and-forth while going "blip blip" like an EKG. As the games advanced to Space Invaders, Pac Man and Asteroids, I more than held my own.
When I plopped into a bean bag chair next to Alec to race cars on PlayStation, I wondered how long it would take for Dad to claim his dominant role. I did not panic when I began by smashing into walls, tearing across fields and sailing off bridges. It always takes a while to get used to a new car.
But no matter how many races we ran, I could not stop careening across the screen like Ricochet Rabbit. I growled. I shook the remote control. I griped that it wasn't working.
I knew I sounded juvenile. But how could this be happening? As a kid, I was the routine winner on those table top race tracks. And I actually drive. I felt compelled to tell my son that if we were driving actual cars, I'd win.
The Wii gave me hope. The Wii is pitched as a link between virtual reality and real reality: You play tennis by making believe you're swinging a racket, you bowl by making believe you're throwing a bowling ball, etc.
That pitch turns out to be a conspiracy of deception between kids and the game-makers. The technology only moderately mimics real life. Having put in lots of time on tennis courts and in bowling alleys proves to be a handicap, because I try to play the Wii as if I'm doing the real thing.
Take boxing. Because I watched and practiced a fair amount as a kid, I confidently launched my first Wii bout with crisp jabs and thundering hooks. I got knocked to the mat by my daughter, Jaycie, who was several months into first grade. It turns out that to become the champ in Wii boxing, you flail your hands up and down as fast as you can, like you're banging bongos.
Therein lies a disadvantage that I cannot overcome: Because of all the time they spend on these devices, our children's brains are in sync with them. Their hands have the right touch for moving the remotes, their fingers blaze among the buttons to pull off tricks - like dropping oil slicks in front of my car - while I'm proud to simply drive straight to the finish line without tumbling into the ocean.
I'm getting better. On the racing games, I can now fulfill my fatherly duty of teaching my daughter how to lose gracefully. I have vowed to play enough to achieve dignified competence in front of the children.
This has helped the children learn the limits of parental development. When I recently suggested that Alec and I play one of his new Wii games, I was surprised to see him load a simple racing game rather than what I had handed him: John Madden football. "Why not play this?" I asked.
He reminded me of the time I tried to play an earlier version on PlayStation. He smiled and said, "This one's more complicated."