What A Night at Chuck E. Cheese Taught My Son About Generosity

Family Matters on 11.08.11
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Photo: Mark Schiefelbein/Wireimage

I first learned about the school charity night at Chuck E. Cheese at the monthly parents' meeting at my son's school. At first, I thought, "Rafael will love it!" A moment later, I thought, "Ugh. Maybe I can get the hubby to take him."

I tried to forget about it, but of course the boy was very excited about it - for five hours, Chuck E. Cheese would be closed to everyone but those who went to his school. A percentage of the take would be donated to the school, and all the children got a certain number of free tokens, as well.

If you've never been to Chuck E. Cheese or the myriad copies it has inspired - they're basically arcades, but you get tickets when you play the games and can turn the tickets in for free stuff. I use the word "stuff" very loosely, because it's more or less plastic garbage made in China. If you do the math, you're paying probably 1 million times the production cost after you account for the cost of the tokens, how many tickets you need to get the stuff, and so on.

But Rafael's friends would be there, as would some of his teachers, and it was for a good cause. Plus, Rafael's worked really hard this year and deserved a special night out with Mommy. So, we went after he finished his homework, though we were approaching bedtime.

Chuck E. Cheese reminds me of Atlantic City. It's loud, dark, crowded and there are no windows. No booze or cigarettes, though, fortunately. The entire purpose is to keep its customers inside and lose track of time (again, this is not peculiar to Chuck E. Cheese - all arcades have always been like this).

It's hot, too, but living in New Jersey, it was a chilly October night and we were layered. I would need a shower when we got home. Rafael's cheeks turned pink pretty quickly - flushed with heat and excitement.

We got our free tokens and I bought another $10 worth. If we were gonna do it, we were going all in. That many tokens would keep us in games for a good hour or so, I figured. If I could last that long.

I was so ready to leave after we'd been there an hour and a half. Rafael had seen several friends and watching him interact with them amused me greatly. I met his gym teacher and saw his assistant principal, who remembered me from the parents' meeting. It was good that we went, spending time as part of the greater school community.

As we fed our tickets into the machine so it could tally them and we could get our plastic prizes, about 10 tickets got eaten. Those would have put us over the next threshold for prizes, and Rafael was disappointed.

We talked about it a little as we waited on line as other parents and children ahead of us chose from among the tchotchkes. I told him I'd tell the workers there what happened, and we'd see what they said.

Then, another mom heard us and handed Rafael a coupon she'd printed out that was worth 30 tickets. His eyes lit up and a smile spread across his face. We thanked her and she humbly said it was no big deal. She had a couple more and made a couple other children in line very happy.

Rafael chose his prizes, equally divided between those for himself and his brother. Then, he looked at me and asked if we could go back into the arcade so he could give his leftover tokens to his friends.

So after being completely done with the experience - sweaty, tired and over waiting in line for games, tickets and prizes - I saw that the biggest lesson Rafael had gotten from the night was in being generous.

Someone had given him an unexpected bounty and he wanted to do the same for his friends. We had $2 or $3 left in tokens - a very small price to pay to watch my 7-year-old be selfless. Rather than save the tokens for the next time we came to Chuck E. Cheese - I told him that was an option - he wanted his friends to enjoy them.

Once more into the breach - we went back into the arcade area and were fortunate enough to find his friends relatively quickly. As he handed them the cup with the tokens, their eyes widened and they looked at me, questioning. I winked and said, "Enjoy!"

"Thank you," they said, grinning.

As we walked out of the windowless building into the refreshingly cool night air, I was smiling, too. I looked down at Rafael, holding my hand. There was a bounce in his step and he looked at the prizes he'd won.

He started telling me which were for him and which for his little brother. As I made sure he was strapped in properly in the back seat, I gave him a big kiss on the forehead.

If the price for seeing my son learn to care as much about others as himself is the occasional night at Chuck E. Cheese, well, I guess I can survive.

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