What my Favorite Chuck E. Cheese Game has Taught me About Parenting (and Life)

At the optometrist’s this week, I was tested on a new machine. I sat with my eye against a round squishy rubber thingy with a hole in the middle. Inside were three lights: red, blue and green. I was instructed to press my face gently forward past the blue light until I saw a green one, but if I got to the red, I needed to pull back. I got excited - a game! But this was trickier than I thought. I found myself having to work hard to control my movements in minuscule back and forth motions to stay steady in the green.

There are two other times when I’ve had to navigate the push and pull like that:

One, is my favorite game in Chuck E. Cheese, where you use the pressure of your fingers to keep a ball in the middle of two green lines as they move up and down the screen.

The other is parenting.  

As always, the stakes of the game are different. Worst case scenario I lose out on tickets at Chuck E. Cheese, but messing up my kids is already an ongoing risk.  Can I afford to mess them up further by not pushing them when I need to, or pushing too hard when it’s time to back off?

The problem with parenting’s push and pull is that there are no colors, no measures with which I can gauge how I am doing. I push as hard as I think is necessary - to get them to do better at school, practice their instrument, go out and socialize - but pull back when I feel that they are depleted, burnt out, need some downtime. The impact is evident: the right push results in a happy kid who feels accomplished, content and self-confident. Whereas the over-push yields a miserable kid who feels depleted, resigned and insecure.

How hard I push and when I pull back becomes an exercise of tuning into their red and blue edges while helping them navigate the ball of their lives up and down the screen (and in doing so, teaching them how to tune in to themselves so they can access their own inner push and pull).

Which leads me to wonder: what is all the pushing and pulling about, anyway? Is it something we need to develop for our adult selves? A tool of self-motivation, -discipline and -control? Or is it a cultural and societal push called: Keep Moving Forward? (Or both: a tool that we need as adults in order to function in our society?)

What is my fundamental belief behind the push and pull? How much do I need to push to get where I am going? How much do I trust life’s journey regardless of my plans? How much can I trust my own instincts to kick in and keep me going?

One thing I know for sure is that keeping my focus on those blue and red lines is exhausting. It requires a level of attention that I cannot sustain indefinitely. I am aware of my own blue and red lines — how much I push myself to stay on track, and when I have pushed myself too hard. Rarely giving myself permission to miss a cue, relax the pressure and drop the ball.

Maybe that’s the lesson of the Chuck E. Cheese game. That it’s just a game. Sure, the prizes are fun — but that’s not why you play. You play so you can feel yourself: the excitement of winning, the disappointment of losing, the range in between. When it’s all over you’ve picked out some soon-to-be-forgotten-treasures. Mostly, what you’ll remember is the fun you had playing the game. So it’s best to enjoy it while you can.