One of Nate's homemade Spelling Bee puzzles. (DREW HIMMELSTEIN)
One of Nate's homemade Spelling Bee puzzles. (DREW HIMMELSTEIN)

My 7-year-old has a new B-U-R-N-I-N-G passion

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We have a new family hobby, and it’s spelled C-H-A-R-G-R-I-L-L.

Or “dolphin.” Or “girlhood.” Or “mortify.” Those are all top-scoring pangram solutions to the addictive daily New York Times word puzzle “Spelling Bee.”

For the past few months, Spelling Bee has sucked me, my husband and my 7-year-old son into a daily quest to find the most words, score the most points and achieve “Genius” status by bedtime.

The Spelling Bee puzzle is shaped like a hive, with six exterior letters surrounding one letter in the middle. The goal is to make as many words as you can with the letters provided; letters can be used more than once in a word, but each word must contain the center letter. Every puzzle contains at least one pangram, a word that uses all seven letters.

In one of my husband Aaron’s favorite table games, players use repurposed Scrabble tiles to create, steal and rearrange words as quickly as they can. It’s called Cut-throat Anagrams, and it’s brutal. At this point, Aaron has exactly one friend who will play it with him, and he lives 3,000 miles away.

So it was natural that Aaron would be attracted to Spelling Bee, and on weekend mornings, he used to commandeer that Sunday’s New York Times Magazine and work on the puzzle.

When something comes in print just once a week, there’s built-in restraint. But that all fell away this fall when we discovered the daily online Spelling Bee, which boosts your ego by telling you “nice!” or “awesome!” when you complete a word. Soon I was hooked, and I guess wordplay is hereditary, because once Nate, 7, discovered us poring over it, he was sucked in, too.

Of all the electronic entertainment available these days, a static word puzzle seems innocent, educational and downright old-fashioned.

At first, Nate worked hard to put together simple words like “gate” and “hand” (the online version requires words to have at least four letters). Once he got some experience, he started to recognize trickier recurring words like “tort” and “tapa.” We all do the puzzle under the same login, so I would make sure to only fill in bigger words during the day, saving the four-letter words for Nate to fill in at night.

But soon that wasn’t enough for Nate. He figured out the regularly recurring words and started nabbing “rococo,” “ratatat” and “chichi.” He also began spotting pangrams, such as “unblock” and “pharmacy.” He wondered if we’d ever find a letter “S” (which Spelling Bee always excludes to avoid a plurality catastrophe).

Under increasing pressure, I stopped doing Spelling Bee during the day so Nate would get a clean shot at it in the afternoon. I started doing it less as he started doing it more.

Spelling Bee has become a point of bonding with friends and family who also are obsessed. My friend Gabriela asks Nate for advice when she’s stuck. My mom has started doing the puzzle to keep in the loop. Nate now has a nightly Facetime date to compare answers with his great-aunt Lynn, a crossword (and now Spelling Bee) maven. It has strengthened their relationship and also improved his phone manners; we practice making small talk before the call.

Spelling Bee has improved Nate’s spelling and expanded his vocabulary. The puzzle’s word list is fairly prudish; profanity and near-profanity are generally excluded from allowable answers. But that doesn’t mean Nate hasn’t been introduced to words like “hellhole,” “dildo” and “porno.”

We usually define new words for him, but I was relieved that he didn’t ask for the definitions of the last two. My kids are pretty knowledgeable about the basic facts of sex and reproduction, but I’d rather not explain sex toys to my 7-year-old.

Nate started asking to do Spelling Bee all the time, and we had to change the iPad password so he couldn’t start it whenever he wanted. Now we limit him to five or 10 minutes after school, then a short session after dinner before calling Aunt Lynn. Nate channeled his Spelling Bee enthusiasm into a creative offline pursuit: He began to create his own Spelling Bees on paper, complete with full word lists of the allowable answers.

Almost every night, we achieve the highest status in Spelling Bee: Genius. And we’re pretty proud of that. But Gabriela recently told me she reached a secret status I had only heard about in rumors on Twitter: Queen Bee, achieved only if you get every word possible in that day’s puzzle.

I would love to one day be a Queen Bee. But I haven’t told Nate about it, and I don’t intend to, because it would surely drive him mad. As a family, we just couldn’t take it.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.