I’ve tried for years to inspire my children to set goals. When that didn’t work, I tried trickery, shame and bribery.
“Jackson, it’s time for your weekly goal-setting session,” I said last summer to my oldest, who is now 18 and working on his associate degree at Daytona State College, while living at home.
The response was sometimes a groan and sometimes a subtle exit from the room.
When he finally decided on a goal, I saw it mostly as his scheme to skirt our family rule that limits video game time.
“I want to play Pokémon,” he said.
“Jackson, come on,” I said. “That’s not a real goal.”
But he made his case, explaining how much strategy was involved. Eventually, his goal crystallized into something I could recognize: He wanted to compete in the Orlando Video Game Regional Championship in February 2023.
Over the next several months, Jackson joined online leagues, spent countless hours making meticulous charts to analyze his strategy, and he even got up at 4 a.m. to watch the streaming coverage of the World Pokemon Championships. He made friends online and bought equipment to try creating streaming content himself.
He was blossoming, stepping out of his comfort zone, taking responsibility, following through. He helped made arrangements with his aunt to stay at her home in Orlando for the weekend.
All this time, I maintained a hands-off approach, partly because I didn’t want to remind him that he was engaging in the dreaded goal-setting process, and partly because I had no idea what a Gholdengo Make it Rain was anyway.
Finally, the time came to register, and when got in, he was beaming.
My wife, Hailey, and I have always tried to attend our five children’s events, and we talked about taking the whole family to Orlando for the weekend. But other children had conflicts, and it turned out that there wasn’t a good way to actually watch Jackson compete; he would be sitting across a table from one opponent after another in the middle of a crowded convention center, for about 10 hours. So we asked Jackson how he felt about going alone.
“I’m fine with it,” he said. “I understand. It’s not like you can really watch anyway.”
After all his work, though, I kept having second thoughts, as I imagined him all alone in a sea of nerdy strangers. So a couple of days before the event, which was Feb. 11-12, I told Hailey that I wanted to go with Jackson, and she agreed it would be good to have at least one of us there.
I also felt a certain pressure as I realized that I won’t have many weekends with my son before he leaves home for good.
We drove to Orlando and found the conference center, with its hundreds of rows of blue tables stretching for what looked like a mile. A booming voice, as if from heaven, announced that there were 1,471 masters level trading card players assembled, making it the largest regional ever. The players erupted in proud applause.
There were also 780 masters level video game players, and that’s where Jackson was competing.
Masters level means you’re 18 or older, and some were much older. I didn’t expect to see a gray-haired man concentrating so fiercely on a Nintendo Switch. Others appeared to be in their 40s, like me. A few younger masters clutched stuffed animals without embarrassment, and I realized what a tightly knit and uplifting, supportive community this was in the convention center. It was a nerd nirvana, and they were just fine with that.
Knowing that Jackson is not always comfortable in social situations, I stood at a distance and watched him chat and laugh with the other gamers as they waited for the competition to start. It was a happiness totally independent from me, something I could never have provided for him. I thought of the little 4-year-old Jackson who snuck books in preschool, the preteen Jackson working on Future Problem Solvers competitions, the teen Jackson who was often quiet and nervous about growing up. I wished for a moment that he wouldn’t have to, mostly because I didn’t want to lose him to adulthood. I wished I could have given him this happiness myself, wished I could always be his community, his support—all he would ever need.
But that is not the way of things. The father, one day, becomes a moon, orbiting quietly, leaning against a wall in the convention center, silently praying for the child’s happiness. Loving the child for who he was, who he is now, who he will one day be.
Jackson competed all day, and I came and went, keeping up with his results. He didn’t make the top 32 cut to advance to Day 2, but he’s already making plans for the next competition, making more goals.
In the end, the best part of the adventure for me was in the car on the way to Orlando early in the weekend. In a moment between segments of our conversation, Jackson said unexpectedly, in a sincere tone befitting the adult he has become, “Thank you for coming with me.”
Pokemon? All weekend? I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.