The day after he played Super Mario Odyssey for the first time, I felt some serious buyer’s remorse.
I sat in the toile wing-back chair in our front room with a novel tented across my legs. My 7-year-old son revolved around me like a spinning top, throwing out sheer nonsense as fast as his mouth could move. Cappy can turn into animals, and Pokios climb with their noses, and the Luncheon Kingdom is full of pink lava.
This was obviously not the Mario I remember from my childhood.
Not that I ever actually played Mario. I consider myself allergic to video games. Why did I agree to let him play this?
“Wait, what?” I asked aloud, utterly mystified. “Is Cappy Mario’s new sidekick? What happened to Luigi?”
“No, Mom, Cappy is Mario’s hat! I captured Cappy, and now I can throw it at other stuff.”
“What?” I asked again. My head was starting to hurt. I tried to stay engaged because he was obviously excited…but at the same time, I didn’t give two tiny figs about Mario. I let my son chatter on for another minute before waving my hands in surrender. “Buddy! Buddy!” I called, trying to get his attention. “I think I’ve had enough of Mario for now.”
“Can I just tell you one more thing?” he asked eagerly. I slouched down in my chair and hung my head.
“Okay. One more.” I’m sure he could hear the dread in my voice.
“Mom! Will you come watch me play Mario today?” my son asked a few weeks later, bouncing on the balls of his feet. His face sparkled with light and hope.
I could think of literally nothing I wanted to do less. Watching someone else play video games sounded about as enjoyable as shaving my legs.
But those eyes. They were so earnest.
He wanted to share something with me, something he loved. On his scale of least to most favorite activities, Mario was off-the-charts amazing.
“Please, Mom? You can bring your computer and do work at the same time!” he wheedled. “Daddy usually works while I play!”
My heart broke a little for this boy who just wanted the undivided attention of a parent, someone who would see his spectacular accomplishments and his near misses. Someone who would build a common vocabulary with him and get to know his passion.
“Sure, bud,” I agreed, ruffling his hair. I settled on the couch and watched him play for 20 minutes, forcing my eyes to focus on the screen (and trying not to giggle at a far more entertaining sight: my son leaping around the room, mirroring Mario as he mashed the controller buttons). To my surprise, the bizarre puzzle pieces I’d been gathering for days began to fit into place. Now I knew what he meant when he said he could throw Cappy to become a Goomba. Now I had a visual of his ship, decorated with stickers, and the Crazy Cap Store that sells vegetables and costume hats.
I still genuinely believed video games were mind-numbing and useless. But my son did not agree. To him, this was a magical wonderland.
I drew the line at talking about Mario with every waking breath. Doesn’t this kid care about anything else? I wondered on the car ride home from school. I had asked how his day was, and he spent the next five minutes telling me about a conversation with one of his classmates…about Mario.
I just wanted to know about school. I wanted to know whether he was respectful to his teacher and whether he got to play on the jungle gym during recess. But here he was again, chattering about where he thought Princess Peach was hiding.
In a stroke of genius, I thought of a solution that would kill two birds with one stone. A Mario journal! I crowed to myself. I could trick him into practicing writing (don’t judge me) and also give him a place to share all the mundane details he observed and things he wanted to try without having to listen to it anymore!
Back at home, I pulled out a bright red composition notebook and presented it to him. “This is your Mario notebook!” I told him magnanimously. “You can write anything you want in it—all the things you have been telling me about! The kingdoms you have visited, the stuff you are collecting, where you found a moon…whatever you want! And we can spend ten minutes every day talking about what you wrote.”
He took the notebook reverently and got to work. He wrote “Mario Notebook” on the front cover and immediately proceeded to make lists. Lists of creatures. Lists of hats. Lists of moves Mario can do. Yes! I thought. This is going to work.
But when he ran out of ideas a few days later, there he was, asking for my help.
I was exasperated. This journal was supposed to set me free from Mario. But now, he continuously updated me on how many pages he had used and how many words he had written, the number of moons that had special names—and could I guess which kingdom they came from?
Mario was starting to feel like an imaginary best/worst friend. This was the exact thing I dreaded, the exact reason I never wanted to open the door to video games in the first place: my son’s whole life revolved around Mario.
And, by extension, so did mine.
It turns out, my son is not the only one who can talk endlessly about his passions. Months later, I started reading a book about nutrition, and I found myself enthusiastically sharing kernels of wisdom with my husband. At dinner, he gave me a sidelong glance as he loaded extra greens onto his plate. My heart began to glow. He had listened to me! He cared about something I cared about!
But then a pit grew in my stomach as I suddenly saw parallels between my passion and my son’s. Just as I don’t intrinsically appreciate video games, my husband harbors no enduring love for discussing broccoli. He chose to invest in something solely on the basis of my interest.
I had not bothered to pay this kindness forward. I could recall exactly zero of my son’s Mario chronicles. His exuberant speeches went in one ear and out the other.
How would I feel if my husband responded to me that way? I wondered. Invisible. Unloved.
Is that how my 7-year-old feels?
I might not care about Mario very much, but I certainly care about my kid.
I would do anything for him—and actively listening should be on the list, even when he’s talking about Mario.
Maybe Mario is more than a meaningless game: it’s a path to genuine connection with my son’s heart. I want him to know he can share with me the things that matter to him, and I will not make him feel small. I want him to trust me with his big questions and ideas. Someday I want him to call me on the phone (or whatever the kids are doing), not just when he needs something, but because he misses me.
I’m pretty sure that starts now.
“Mommy! Daddy printed me a list of all the blocks and stuff in Minecraft!” I frown accusingly at my husband while my son talks a mile a minute. “Look! I bet I can make these with Legos. How old do I have to be to play Minecraft?” I sigh. Great. Here we go again, with a whole new game.
But I catch myself before I begin to sprint in the opposite direction.
Maybe God is allowing a new opportunity for me to embrace my son.
It’s harder than I expected to change my own mind. I don’t love video games. I don’t want to know them intimately. But I want to know my kid.
If that means I have to sit and play with him, then I hope I can do so with a whole heart. I hope I can find the courage to grab his hand and press forward into his wonderland.
Melissa Hogarty is a habitually overwhelmed mama who is learning to slow down and sometimes say no. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and three kids, who regularly teach her that she has more to learn in the areas of grace, patience, and letting loose. She can often be found cuddled up with a good novel or pulling cookies out of the oven. Melissa is an editor and regular contributor at Kindred Mom and a member of the Exhale creative community. She enjoys singing with her church worship team and fellowshipping with other moms. She also writes a personal blog, Savored Grace, where you can find recipes as well as ideas about motherhood and faith, and occasionally updates her Instagram.