Sometimes You Just Have To Lie To Your Kid

Before I tell you the story of how I tricked and deceived my son, an innocent seven-year-old who trusts me with his life, his happiness and his dignity, let me first explain how much I hate Plants vs. Zombies. I cringe just typing the name. A clip of the music or a piece of the art is enough to make my gut shrink. I don't blame the game, which is a perfectly great, smartphone-friendly tower defence title. I hate it because of my son.

We were stuck on a long plane ride when I introduced him to Plants vs. Zombies. I probably just handed him my iPad, in a distracted way, cuing up that game out of all the ones in my library because I thought he'd like the graphics. He became obsessed — teenager-in-love obsessed, cultist-in-thrall obsessed, me-and-Star-Wars obsessed. He would talk about nothing else.

He liked to play the game, obviously, but that was just a fraction of his obsession: he memorized all of the plants and the zombies — their names and their back stories. He played all of the mini-games. He drew pictures of giant wars between the plants and the zombies and aliens and dinosaurs. Every single conversation turned back to Plants vs. Zombies. Walking to school with his mother, he would ask, "In Plants vs. Zombies, what's your favourite plant?" Walking with me to get ice cream, he'd say, "Hey dad, did you know that in Plants vs. Zombies…"

Not only does he care far more about Plants vs. Zombies than I ever will — he only cares about the parts that bore me. I've tried to tell him about George Fan, the guy who made the game; he has no interest. I lever the game into discussions of the tower defence genre and he doesn't care about that either. All he cares about are the plants and the zombies, and which one's stronger, and who would win if x and y, and what would happen if they ganged up on some robots.

It consumed his imagination and nothing could knock it loose. So I started begging him to stop. I would change the subject; he would change it right back. I teased and threatened him, but he wouldn't give up. So in desperation, I tried to trick him.

We were walking through the neighbourhood, by the old pond that smells like algae. We were talking, like we do, and the kid started: "Hey dad. In Plants vs. Zombies …"

I stopped him right there and I explained that he had to quit, quit, quit talking about that game. And if he didn't, I would take a desperate measure. See, I explained, the other night I was on the Internet, and I found a secret word that would make anyone who heard it forget everything they knew about Plants vs. Zombies. All I had to do was say that word and he would forget everything he'd ever learned, every good time he'd ever had. I would throw out his drawings, too, and then I would delete the game from my iPad and that would be that.

Naturally, he didn't believe me. He dared me to say the word; I told him I didn't want to. He demanded proof and I told him it was on the internet, which, he doesn't even know what the internet is yet, so he'd just have to trust me. He kept insisting though, so I had to think on my feet, and that's when — with a nod to Kirsten Dunst's arc in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — I got an idea.

"Listen, I still feel bad for the time I made you forget about Oceans Away. I don't want to take away another game."

Oceans Away, of course, is totally made up. But he doesn't know that. He's seven. He doesn't know anything. He's never played a first-person shooter, never played Tetris, doesn't know what Half-Life is and has never heard of Blizzard, Infocom, Leisure Suit Larry or the Sega Genesis. He knows next to nothing, except what I tell him. Could I lie about a made-up game to him and get away with it? Yes. Of course I could.

Here's what I told him about Oceans Away.

It was a video game that he played last year. It was his favourite game of all time and he was really good at it. But he never stopped talking about it, so I wiped it from his mind. No, I won't download a new copy and show it to him. No, I did not just make up Oceans Away. It was a real game. And I had to take it away from him.

Now, he still didn't believe any of this. But I kept the story going for long enough that he was no longer sure that he didn't believe it. The more questions he asked, the more details I had to invent — that the fish were fighting the crustaceans, and his favourite character was the crab, and the lobster's name was Lobo — the more he started to play with the idea in his mind. And the more he protested — "Dad, if you're making this up, I'm going to be so mad" — the more he was hooked. Proving it was fake would give him a chance to one-up his dad, but imagining that it was real would open up a new, strange power in the world — where a magic word could make him forget a game like a dream.

As silly as my prank was, there's a weird kind of logic behind it. While he enjoys playing Plants vs. Zombies, he enjoys even more the process of thinking about it and playing with it in his head. It's easy to sentimentalize the mind of a child. We like to picture them as boundless imagineers who can pick up a stick and build a world around it. But kids, like us, need something to work from — a character, an archetype, a story, a weapon — and something to play with in their hands and in their heads.

Plants vs. Zombies will hold my kid, at least until Pokemon takes over, and then Mario, and then whatever else can fill his mind — a mind that must look like the bolts and screws aisle of a hardware store, with hundreds and thousands of little plastic drawers sitting open and ready to fill. He needs this stuff, so he can consume it, digest it, and maybe someday, keep it to himself.

Chris Dahlen is a freelance writer, editor and developer. He writes a monthly gamer dad column for Unwinnable, and he is the writer on Klei Entertainment's upcoming title Mark of the Ninja. Find him on Twitter @savetherobot.

Republished with permission.


    As far as I'm aware this is the main reason to have children.

      Have to agree, it is certainly right up there with naming them, deciding they eat and what time they go to bed.

      ^^ THIS! :)

    I always imagined an old man's brain to be like the warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Arc. Full of other useless information, but the piece he actually needs is lost amongst the rest. Then I get sad.

    I don't have kids, but I was one (still am in a way) and to me this just seems cruel. The dad got one over his son, well done. Justified it too, bravo.

    How long would of the child talked about it for? A week? A month? A month of tolerating or a lifetime of daddy issues. Hmmm.

    [Waits for sanctimonious "you don't understand you don't have kids" replies.]

      It will teach him to always question the man. I cant see a downside here.

        No, it will teach him his dad can't be trusted. I'm pretty much with Disco_box here.

          When you realized Santa isn't real did you really have mother/father issues?

            What? He's not real? D:

            MY WHOLE LIFE IS A LIE!

          I think it's pretty harmless. When I was a kid there was a wall in the town where I grew up that we used to walk past often. Us kids were too small to see over the wall but dad would tell us what he could see: robot battles and flying ponies and such. But he'd never lift us up to see over! When I was in my early twenties I took a trip back to the old town and finally saw over the wall... It was a carpark. Had a good chuckle about it with my sisters.

    Children are easily manipulated... which i guess is why so many kids are scarred into thinking that they are causing the planet to heat up. Bloody manipulative left wing teachers.!!!

      haha so true - I worry about the rest of the population who didnt have sensible parents teaching them how to think.

      Children are easily manipulated... which I guess is why so many kids are scarred into thinking that there is a global conspiracy in climate science to make outrageously coordinated claims using intricately fabricated evidence simply in order to get less money than they'd make being employed by a financial institution. Bloody manipulative paranoid parents !!!

    Oceans Away. Loved that game. Who could forget Lobo. And using the shell cannon. :D


        Sorry man but at least I didn't tell you about the relationship between Lobo and the fish.

    My silly brother introduced my 4yr old to Plants vs Zombies the other day and she's starting to take an interest similar to the boy in this story. I am scared because of the nature of what a "zombie" is (She thinks they are goblins for now) How the hell do I explain Zombie to a 4yr old? After reading this article I am going home to delete Plants vs Zombies from the iPad

      Sounds to me like it's a good leeway into discussing Death in a more light-hearted manner than waiting until a pet/relative dies.

        You see son, sometimes when someone dies they come back to life and eat the brains of those who wronged them. Make sure you are nice to people son.

        My son who is now 5 is like this about Plants vs. Zombies (much like other games too). When he was 4 he had asked me what zombies were and why were they trying to get into the house. I told him plain and simple: "Zombies come to kill and eat your brains, fo REALZ". Of course he didnt believe me, he knew they were make believe. He asked me to show him zombies, I ran some clips from movies and TV shows to show him what zombies are.
        Now, i dunno if this is damaging for him but he still doesnt buy that their real. I've told he that they're make believe and I think he believes so too but sometimes he'd do something say hide a large stick under his bed, I would ask what for and he's reply "I know zombies arnt real daddy but just incase I have this stick to fight them"

    You bested a seven year old in a match of wits. You sir, are a god amongst men. Ugh. This is such a cruel thing to do. I teach young kids, and there is this one kid that has taken a liking to me and is obsessed with Dragonball. Obviously, I like dragonball, but not the extent where I would write down all the lyrics to all the theme songs in my notebook...

    Anyway, she always comes up to me to talk about dragonball, and while I'm sick of it, I grin and bear it. I know it would absolutely crush her spirits if I told her to stop talking about it. You don't understand how fucking stoked young kids get when an adult (or even a 'cool adult' like me ;)) takes an interest into something they are obsessed with.

    Like the other commenter have said, he would have eventually gotten over it (again, another trait of young children is how easily distracted they can be), but rather than let it run it's course you decided to fuck with him because you were sick of talking to your own kid. Parent of the year right here

      +1. I remember as a young kid finding an adult who liked Star Wars (this was back in the early 90s when SW was rather unfashionable for a while). I probably bored the crap out of him, but hot damn I thought it was awesome to have an adult to talk to about it.

    My dad told me once that he would build me my own mech like the ones out of RobotJox.
    He didn't, I have never let him forget this.

    You had to go through all that trouble?

    I just tell mine to STFU. If they're in my ear when I am on the computer, they also get a GTFO.

    Easily the most interesting and well written article on Kotaku this year

    PvZ was my son's 2011 obsession, some time after his Banjo Kazooie obsession (my fault), his Transformers obsession (my fault) and his Lego Star Wars obsession (my fault). Late 2011 he moved on to Minecraft (my fault), then Skylander (again my fault), back to Minecraft and now onto something called DragonVale (definitely not my fault - yeesh!)

    My 3 1/2 year old loves plants vs zombies and beat the whole game with a little help from Papa (His Grandfather) on some of the harder levels, he only talks about it occasionally and whenever we are in the car he says excitedly " are we going to nanna's and papa's to play plants vs. zombies" and loves it. He was easily able to accept that zombies are made up creatures just like the plants in the game and makes jokes when I do something stupid that the zombies must have eaten my brains. He loves it no more or less than any child loves something they have a great interest in and I am glad he found the game.

    Doing something like this to your children I consider cruel, making them believe that something will happen if they don't stop talking about what they love and want to share with you, there are much easier and better ways to deal with that problem, and the problem is with you not with the child. Trying to make them believe they have forgotten something they love is just as bad, just because you didn't want him to talk about it.

    This is very cruel and you have a right to raise your children as you wish but if it was me I would be ashamed of myself.

    I don't know about you guys but I'm pretty keen for Oceans Away

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