End of the Chuck E. Cheese years?

Saturday, we spent a good chunk of the day amid the whirring, beeping, screaming, crying cacophony that is Chuck E. Cheese. Our youngest turned 7, and the trek to Denver for the Chuck E. Cheese thing has come to be an annual event since he was 3 or so.

We were wondering if this would be the last. When he turns 8, will his interest lie elsewhere? A pool party, perhaps, or a laser tag thing?

While Jen and I discussed this alarming possibility, though, I watched the other four kids tooling around what is essentially a kids’ casino, pumping tokens into the machines, delighting at the tickets that get spit out (for later redemption on plastic junk) and generally having a pretty good time of it. I found a Star Wars game I liked while Jen was taking all comers on the air hockey table.

When it comes to family fun, it seems, letting your inner nerd shine forth is a pretty good strategy. Or maybe it’s more of a “When in Rome …” kind of thing. Either way, I think Andy knows that when he asks for Chuck E. Cheese, he gets the whole family in one place, and that, more than anything, makes him very happy.

Having achieved the relatively mature age of 7, and he being our youngest, it’s somewhat sobering to contemplate the end of certain things. I’m not sure Chuck E. Cheese is completely out of the picture, but the baby rides at Elitch’s are a thing of the past, as are a variety of things from diapers and binkies to daytime naps, Blues Clues (mostly) and even most of our animated film collection. With our other kids at 14, 15, 17 and 23 now, the need for higher-maintenance parenting is markedly decreased.

Jen is already looking forward to grandchildren, needless to say. I figure I’m good for another decade.

We may still have another 11 years or so before we’re empty nesters, but with three ready to tromp off to college in quick succession starting in two years, the notion that the minivan is going to be mostly empty is hard to take. Sometimes, magic happens in that van when, again, we release our inner nerd. Jen had the kids singing along to Abba songs not too long ago, while I had them all stumbling through the words to Weezer’s “Pork and Beans” on a recent trip back from the movies. It’s all stuff that gets filed away, like my own childhood memories of massive water fights with our dad in the backyard. But like most memories, it can’t be recreated – only cherished.

Or can’t it? Not having experience grandfather-dom yet, I don’t know if doing that stuff with my children’s children will be the same. But I’m guessing it’s pretty darned close. And with Jen and I working full-time jobs now, it’s tempting to think that, by the time grandkids come along, we’ll have a little more time to play. Again, though, I can wait a little while for that.

As we head into another family tradition – the trip to the big balloon festival in Colorado Springs for Labor Day – it seems we freight them with greater expectations as they grow in our family lore. But kids get older, they want to bring friends or boyfriends, and things that used to fascinate them become less enchanting. There’s a progression to all this that makes sense, but it’s never easy for the parents – we who remember that smart-ass teenager when he was crying in the face of the shopping-mall Santa.

So will next year herald another trip down the hill to Chuck E. Cheese? I don’t know, but I will say this: I’ll still be up for it.


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