I came home one day to my three-year-old daughter clamoring onto a chair at the dining room table. She wore a pink tutu, pink leotard, pink ballet toe shoes, and a sparkling tiara. That part was normal. But the laptop was on the table in front of her, and the screen was bright and looking all business formal. Over her tiny shoulder I saw Excel open. Several cells were already typed in, all of them incoherent strands of letters and numbers:
And so on. I was curious as to how this setup came about. Her mother and I had decided awhile ago to tightly monitor and mostly minimize her levels of electronic input. She may listen to as much music as she likes--which turned out to be more Mumford & Sons than I could ever imagine--but we would only allow her just so much time watching TV. And by TV, I mean YouTube. And by YouTube, I mean videos that further develop her character. Or something. I don’t know. I’m pretty much making up this parenting thing as I go along.
That YouTube-driven development of her character turned into a lot of viewings of Swan Lake, the ballet. Her choice, not mine. She’s watched the Kirov Theatre version filmed in Leningrad. The American Ballet’s performance from 2005. She’s watched the Great Chinese State Circus earn the expression “like a Chinese contortionist.” And her current favorite is the visually minimalist l’Opera de Zurich version filmed in Switzerland. In her three years, she’s contributed a full one or two percent of those videos’ total views.
Back to Excel, I asked her, “What are you doing?”
“I’m doing my work,” she said, matter of factly.
“Really. Can I...”
“--No, don’t delete it, Daddy. I have a lot of work to do.”
“You know you can do a lot of other kinds of work, too, right?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “I can make houses, or trees, or roads, or sidewalks, or light bulbs to go in my room, or drive cement trucks.”
“That’s, uh, that’s correct. You can probably do a lot of those things.”
“When I’m four.”
“When you’re four,” I confirmed.
My daughter’s aspiration to work in road construction is matched only by her balletic insistence to plie
for visiting company, and to put her feet into “first position” when it’s late and she should be changing into her pajam-jams.
Ballet aside, I wanted to capitalize on her newfound interest in spreadsheets and road construction. Idea: introduce her to the aptly-named city-building simulator, SimCity.
“Don’t delete my work,” she said again.
“I’ll save your work,” I said. “Do you want to play a game with Daddy?”
I had her attention. We never play video games together, and I don’t let her watch the video games I play anymore. One time, I let her watch me play The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and after a few semi-interested moments, she began imitating--in slow motion--the crypt-dwelling Draugr death animations. She’d snap her neck back, let a slow wheeze escape her throat, then she’d sink down and fall onto her side. It was both hilarious and horrifying. But, thinking better of it, I'd had to shut off the Xbox and engaged in a non-violent game of Memory with her.
“This is a game called SimCity,” I said. “First, you have to pick where to build your city.” We flipped through the different regions, me reading each region’s name to her. “Which one do you like?” I asked.
“Sunrunner! Because it’s fun!” she said.
“Good choice. Now you get to rename the region.”
“Dragons Yeah!” she said. “Because there is a dragon in the water.” She pointed to one of the region’s islands that, if you squint, looks like a dragon in the water.
The game loaded up the peninsular region and her eyes immediately gravitated to the surrounding water. She was disappointed we couldn’t first build a Bridge to Nowhere right off the peninsula. But she shook off her disappointment and, without prompting, somehow guessed at the lifeblood of SimCity: “I want cars,” she said.
She had no idea that SimCity is, first and foremost, a game about transportation. Getting your sims from their homes, to their jobs, to shopping centers, and then back to their homes, in their sim-driven vehicle of choice, is indeed core to how SimCity operates. But she had decided “I want cars” probably because it tied into her desire--when she turns four, as she had also stated--to work in road construction. I gave her the mouse and told her to draw a road, starting from the highway. She clumsily gripped the mouse, much too big for her hand, and drew a squiggling monstrosity of a road leading from the highway, somewhere toward the center of the map. It became apparent, from that one road, that rather than becoming a civil engineer, she may be reduced to flipping a sign back and forth between “STOP” and “SLOW.” But I wasn’t ready to give up on her yet.
“Where should we put houses?” I asked.
She pointed to a lonely patch of green grass, and I prompted her to draw another road out to that area and zone it with the green highlights indicative of a ready-to-develop residential area. We followed that zoning plan with jobs for the sims. She drew another misshapen tentacle of a road that she tacked industrial zones onto, much too close to the residents. It immediately cut down the land value of the new housing development, but my daughter was happy that “cloud makers” (factories) were developing quickly.
“Like where Daddy works?” she asked.
“Yes. Those look like where I work,” I said.
There hasn’t been a Bring Your Kid to Work day at the plywood mill where I currently work, but she’s nonetheless excited to--looking from home across the railroad tracks--point to the columns of steam rising from the stacks and say, “Daddy works there!”
After we placed a thin strip of commercial buildings on another stretch of lonely road, I began running down other options of what she could build. “Do you want to build a police station for policemen?”
“No,” she said.
“Do you want to build a fire station for firemen?”
“Yes!” she said.
I plopped down a fire station where she pointed on the screen. Then she smiled and my three-year-old said, “Firemen are tall and cute!”
So I immediately demolished the fire station and made up something about the firemen having crippling fiscal issues tied up in the government building.
“Do you want a government building?”
I dropped a town hall. Then she demanded everyone have some water. “How’d you know they need water?” I asked.
“Because I’m thirsty,” she said.
I got her a glass of water with a purple crazy straw twisting out of the top. She drank her water with reckless abandon, then she placed a water tower for her city. The land flowed with water. She wanted to sit back, then, and simply watch the cars buzz around town. We zoomed in on a few of the trailer park homes sitting too near the “cloud makers,” and she latched onto one particular scene.
“I want the person wearing the purple shirt to get in the purple car and go to work,” she said. I didn’t know how to make that happen, exactly, but eventually a sim--perhaps not the purple-shirted one my daughter wanted--bumbled around its yard long enough until it stepped into that purple car she’d been eyeing. The purple car drove out onto Wacky Tentacle Blvd., then made its way to the strip mall down the lane.
The purple car pulled into the first commercial parking lot it came to, unloaded its passenger, and then sat there, uneventful after that moment. But my daughter was satisfied. Her town was complete. There were roofs over her sims’ heads, places for them to shop, cloud makers for them to work at, plenty of water to drink, and an impressive set of columns fronting a town hall. She'd forgotten that Dad had demolished the fire station, which was good, because I wasn't ready to have a discussion with her about "tall and cute" firemen yet. It takes years to work up the gumption for those kinds of conversations, and I'm going to use every year I've got.
“I’m done,” she said, and then she clamored back down from the dining chair.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” I said. But I was secretly happy as she trundled off to her room and returned with a stack of Memory cards.
“I don’t want to work anymore,” she said. “I want to play.”