Sims 3 & the Boarding School Mom

| October 27, 2009

[caption id="attachment_1331" align="alignright" width="300" caption="The Sims go to school, but parents can't go inside"][/caption]

Now that we have had several months to play the hit video game of the summer, Sims 3, the reviews are in. And the critics are raving (at least at our house). With homework, after-school sports, and all the drama of middle school, we're too busy for computer games these days, but somehow my Sixth Grader manages to squeeze in a few hours now and then. A rainy weekend afternoon will find her constructing elaborate neighborhoods and populating them with these lifelike animated figures chatting away in their inscrutable language, Simlish.

What does this all have to do with boarding school, you may ask. (Actually, one of the first things my older daughter learned as a boarding school freshman was that there's no time for computer games.) Yet to follow up on my earlier post, I will get to my point -- I do have one. Sadly, this latest version does not possess the charming mechanism that allowed players to “get your Sim into private school” by bribing the headmaster with a gourmet meal. It does, however, have a few redeeming features.

Improvements that I especially like, because they seem to reflect a more enlightened style of parenting, introduce the concept of free will. Once you design your Sims family and set everybody up with the right outfit, facial features, and life goals, you can direct them to make their own decisions. So rather than having to click on the computerized image of a Sim when you think she might need a meal, you can empower her to eat, on her own, whenever she’s hungry. Teach a Sim to eat; she eats for a lifetime. Similarly (no pun intended), send a child to boarding school; she will learn to eat when dinner is served. (As long as it’s always at 6 o’clock.)

Sims 3 also features a more hands-off attitude when it comes to educational institutions. “In the old version, there were two schools: regular and private, but you couldn’t see the schools,” my daughter explains. “Now there is one school where all the Sims go, and you can see the building, and you know when they are in there.” So, I asked, let me get this straight: you can follow your Sim to school? “Yes, right, but,” she reads from the manual, “‘you cannot see them or control them inside.’”

To me, this seems an spot-on description of modern parenthood, and especially of boarding school life. Once our children are away at school, we no longer see or control them. But, aha! As with the Sims, we can enable them to make their own choices. They may not always choose the path I would choose for them, but isn’t it much more interesting to watch and see what they will do on their own? An attitude of observant trust, gentle guidance, and bemused admiration from afar – that’s the Zen posture I’m aiming for as a boarding school mom. Sometimes I even manage to achieve it. Not often, but sometimes.

Cam reads aloud at the breakfast table from her well-thumbed manual to Sims 3. She details the life stages the creatures move through if you click on the feature called “enable story progression.” This one click accelerates their passage through life in a way familiar to any parent who’s watched a child grow up far too fast. The Sims change gradually but inexorably, from baby, to toddler, to child, to teen and onward.

How do you take care of a young Sim? I ask casually, never expecting the profound answer that follows. “Make the most of this time,” she recites. “Make them do their homework, and send them to school with a happy attitude.” And what about on weekends? “Let them read, play, grow up, have fun!” I’m not sure whether this advice is coming straight from the manual or from my ever-practical 12-year-old. OK, I say, so that means you shouldn’t let them spend too much time on the computer, right? “Right,” she answers. “Let’s go for a hike."