It’s hard to believe that it has already been five years since Owen bought his first split-level. Or since Ford got that stacked refrigerator. Or (thank goodness) since that whole fiasco over bringing a fireplace into the igloo.

Back then, we were all so new to Club Penguin, an online interactive site for kids, which, at that time, was not yet owned by Disney (which is to say, it was still underpopulated and cool — er, cold). In fact, we were living in Florida when Ford first found Club Penguin, and the whole idea of an igloo or ice fishing seemed far-fetched to my suntanned boys. (Note: They believed in global warming until we moved to the Northeast.)

The concept of Club Penguin is simple: The user’s penguin waddles around town, chats with friends and spends money on things (skis, terra cotta flooring, flippers) that penguins don’t really need. Or in other words: what Dustin thinks I do all day while he is at work.

But how does a penguin make money, especially in this economy, to spend on things it doesn’t need?

Good question! The answer: The penguin plays games. Connect Four, Mancala, Bean Toss. After the penguin has wasted a sufficient amount of time, he is rewarded with 5 to 10 coins. Much like an arcade, however, 5 to 10 coins won’t buy much, perhaps a scarf or potted plant. (What does a penguin do with a potted plant? He puts it in his igloo, of course.) To buy the really big, cool things, a penguin needs to waste more time and earn even more coins, like hundreds or thousands.

Tip: If you want to know how much time your child is spending on Club Penguin, sign on to his account, go to his igloo and check out his pad. To name just a few things that my boys’ penguins have collected over time: a fish tank, gothic candelabra, grandfather clock, lockers, mailbox, pipe organ, wood stove, armor, upholstered wing chair, cauldron, pirate’s chest and a marble statue of a monkey.

Every user begins with a basic igloo that has no furniture or decor. Only the most persistent and dedicated game players end up with the McMansions of Club Penguin. Thus, the split-level dilemma of five years ago.

Ford had a rock-star igloo with everything from bear skins on the floor to classic art hanging on the walls. He even had his own mood music, which was activated by clicking on the image of a cassette tape (Club Penguin: teaching children, one user at a time, what a cassette tape was).

Owen’s igloo had nothing, except for one or two happy puffles. Puffles are Club Penguin “pets.” If users forget to feed or exercise their puffles, the little balls of fur will usually run away, or worse, get angry and destroy the inside of the igloo. Owen’s puffles were always content; while Ford was building his mansion, some of his puffles ran away (life lesson No. 1).

I mistakenly believed Owen coveted Ford’s igloo in the worst way (perhaps in the same way that I coveted the fancy houses in downtown Pensacola, Fla.). Sometimes, I’d stay up too late playing Connect Four and competing against what I thought were other kid-users, but were probably mercenary moms like myself, in the hopes of earning Owen enough coins to at least buy a sofa. I had stockpiled quite a bit of money for him. Still, when I visited his igloo, it was completely bare. Meanwhile, Ford’s assets had grown so large, he had to “box up” some of the items in his crammed igloo and put them in storage.

One day I asked Owen, “Why don’t you spend some of your coins to decorate your igloo?”

And he said, “Because I’m saving my money for a split-level.”

A few weeks later, he was the proud owner of a still-empty igloo that had multiple levels.

Five years later, and it’s Lindell who wants the gingerbread model igloo.

This is very characteristic of their personalities, by the way. And if you have multiple children playing Club Penguin, I urge you to visit their igloos one after the other to see the differences.

Ford’s igloo has always been the showy mansion. Owen’s is orderly, efficient and (finally) well-equipped. Lindell has decorated his penguin’s home with lollipops and candy canes. He has a reindeer in the living room, a ship’s sail on the floor and a giant chess piece next to an indoor snow fort.

What Lindell really wants, however, is something out of the new January-February “Better Igloos” catalog. But he doesn’t have much money (because mercenary mothers are beating him at Connect Four).

Which is why you shouldn’t be alarmed if you overhear me telling my son, “Honey, you’ll never be able to get that Santa suit if you don’t play more computer games!”

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Her book, “I’m Just Saying …”, is available wherever books are sold. She may be reached at