The screams echo out of my son's room: Look out! Get that guy! No, no, on the LEFT, shoot him, oh my god you missed, you loser, how did you not GET him? You're useless — wait, now! SHOOT NOW!
His bellowing warms my heart. The shouts and insults mean that, in the manner of 16-year-old boys, he's saying to the friends he's playing with, "I miss you guys, I wish we were together." He's playing with two of his best friends who are usually here in Abu Dhabi, where we live, but because of the pandemic, one has gone to stay with family in England and the other is in the United States. They had to find a game available on multiple platforms and playable across three time zones with a nine-hour time span. Much to my chagrin, what they found is a free version of Call of Duty.
I've never liked video games much and I really hate single-person shooter games like this one. In the Before Time, I wouldn't have allowed that game in our house, much less allowed him to play it for hours on end. But now? I love that the boys figured out how to spend time together, even if I wish they were doing something like online cross-stitching or meditation. It's pandemic parenting — and in Abu Dhabi these days, where it's regularly 125 degrees Fahrenheit with 60 percent humidity — "go outside to play" is not an option.
Being a parent means you're always pivoting, no matter how old your kid is — you're pivoting through changes in eating habits, sleeping habits, school problems, hormone explosions. Except now these parenting pivots are happening inside this massive global pivot, this vast upheaval that is, ironically, taking place inside stillness: our lives have taken a seismic hit, even though nobody is moving very much or very far.
Like so many kids his age, my son finished school last year online, when we all thought that surely by September we'd be "post-pandemic." Instead we are reeling with loss and disappointment, from the small things (the cancelation of the school dance last year) to big things (no trip to the States this summer to see aging grandparents).
The summer passed in an online blur — a distance-learning course, Snapchatting with friends, Zoom calls with relatives — and my son's almost nightly Call of Duty binges.
When I ask how he's doing, he says, with typical diffidence, "I'm fine, Mom, just kind of bored." But I don't believe him. I worry that despite the hyberbolic shrieking of Call of Duty, all this screen time will effectively hard-wire his adolescent diffidence into an ongoing lack of affect. What if he and all those of his generation end up like the people in the movie Wall-E, unable to communicate with one another without the interface of a screen?
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