The Borderlands Parenting Method

As my kids get older, I sometimes think parenting is going to get easier. It doesn’t. To be fair, it doesn’t get harder either. Instead, it gets different. Or maybe different is harder. By the time the difficulty of raising a child increases, your skill as a parent has also improved so what others see as more challenging is not of greater difficulty to you. Just different.

I could be wrong though. Maybe parenting does get harder as kids grow up. Perhaps the difficulty level remains constant. Either way, one fact remains true, it doesn’t get easier.

I’ve spent time pondering how things change as my kids grow up. I linger on the issues they face and the best strategy to deal with each individual challenge they experience. I’ve engaged in conversations of how it sometimes seems harder, yet at the same time it only feels like a different kind of difficulty. As I try to explain what being a parent is like to me, my mind wanders to a motley collection of treasure hunters on the alien planet Pandora.

Wait, what?

Pandora is the setting for the Borderlands series of video games. Gaming is one of the ways my kids and I bond. My oldest and I have been playing the first Borderlands game together, going through the story in co-op. Along the way, he’s learning the value of teamwork, problem solving and strategic planning skills, the payoff of trial and error, and relief from dumb luck.

Borderlands is one of my favorite games from the last ten years. A unique art style, seamless blend of a first-person shooter with role-playing mechanics, adventurous Indiana Jones styles story that’s part sci-fi and part western.

Players select one of four treasure hunters, each possesses an individual skillset so each character plays differently. They set out to find a mythical vault on a remote mining planet inhabited by bandits, savages, rakks, and skags. Along the way, you search every locker, toilet, and pile of sticks for money, ammunition, and health kits. You protect locals, take odd jobs, and work as a mercenary while accumulating the ability and powers needed to defeat increasingly bigger and stronger enemies. You choose your missions based on your skill level, careful to avoid those tasks too difficult or dangerous for your character.

image courtesy of 2K Games

While Christian and I have enjoyed our time facing each trial as we explorer Pandora, I realized we were playing more than a game. Our button mashing translates into an allegory for my role of a father.

When you start the game, the first enemies are weak and easily defeated. Yet the character you play is inexperienced and powerless, so those wimpy bandits are challenging for a new player. As you battle ravenous creatures and face off against the violent profiteers, your strength grows. With new powers, those early enemies seem much easier to overcome. You can kill them with one shot instead of expending your entire supply of bullets on a lone thug. However, to continue the main story, you must tackle bigger and badder foes. Missions are progressively more perilous. Boss battles increase in difficulty. Objectives are harder to achieve. The final mission is more difficult than the first, yet it isn’t unsurmountable. It’s a different kind of difficult because your abilities grow along with the power of your enemies. A seasoned player will struggle through later stages of the game the same way a first-time player will struggle through the initial battle.

Just like parenting. With more guns.

Nothing really prepares you for your first child. Read all the books you want. Educate yourself and get advice from experts. You can be mostly ready. Sooner or later though, your child will do something so mind bogglingly absurd your only logical response will be frozen terror and the sudden recognition you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing.

A newborn presents many challenges for first time parents. Diapers are confusing to someone who’s never had to change one before. There are products like wipes and powders that must be juggled with a circus performer’s skill. Once you kinda get the hang of it, your baby will pee in your direction (perhaps on you) the moment their privates are free of the confines of their diaper. Dressing your child for the first time can be confusing, and you might feel like you need a degree in chemistry if you want to prepare their bottle with the correct formula to water ratio.

In retrospect, these tasks are simple. After a few months of changing diapers, you could probably do it blindfolded. You can strip them of one outfit and into a change of clothes fast enough to elude notice. Bottle feedings become so routine you’ll inevitably fall asleep while holding a bottle in your child’s mouth. When they cry, you’ll know their either tired, hungry, or poopy; it’ll be trial and error trying to figure out which. The things you once thought difficult will become second nature. You complete these tasks on instinct and muscle memory.

Yet, as you find certain aspects of raising a child easier, new challenges arise. Your kid begins to walk and you quickly discover your preemptive attempts to baby-proof your home were woefully inadequate. When they transition from milk to solids, baby foods will prove to be a more difficult medium for feeding your child. I’ll promise the first time you try to shove a spoon in their mouth, more food will get on the outside of them than the inside. Again, you’ll figure it out. It’ll get easier and at the same time get harder. They get older and bigger and present new challenges.

You’ll face sickness and accidents. You’ll corral crying children in the middle of a grocery store under the judgmental glare of strangers. You’ll fend off the beggings of a toddler who wants only wants you to buy them a treat. You’ll tackle teaching them to dress themselves, brush their teeth, ride a bike, throw and catch a ball. You’ll struggle through school enrollment and dropping them off at their first day of kindergarten.

There’s more. Soon you’ll navigate the world of homework, parent-teacher conferences, school bullies, extra-curricular activities, dating, and juggling all the schedules for everything related to your child. You’ll buy new clothes then a week later, your kid will hit a growth spurt and those new clothes won’t fit any more. You’ll have to figure out what music you feel are appropriate for your kids and determine what TV shows and movies you will allow for enter entertainment. You’ll struggle steering them away from friends who are bad influences.

As each prior task becomes manageable, the next task shows up with increasing difficulty. Your skills and abilities and talents as a parent grow just in time to face bigger and badder parenting tasks. However, it never seems like the new challenges are harder than they were when you were a brand-new parent. It’s not harder, just different. The things that frustrate parents of teens would be impossible for you to face when you were a new parent. Yet everything you experienced from that moment on will prepare you for what is happening now. Even though now is harder than then, you’re also more prepared and capable than you were back then.

Just like Borderlands. With less guns.

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