Henry’s toy collection is all over the place, as in it’s (figuratively) diverse and (literally) scattered all over the house.
He’s got stuff that talks and moves, beeps and flashes. He’s got a workbench filled with tools that look and sound like the real deal. He’s got a train that whistles and rolls with the help of a AAA battery. He’s got a guitar that doubles as a keyboard and a set of John Deere tractors that double as throwing stars when hurled in fits of rage.
He’s got a hand-me-down tricycle, a hand-me-down kitchen set and a hand-me-down horse on a set of squeaky springs. He’s got Legos and blocks and puzzles and books. He’s got a toy rocket, a wheelbarrow, a lawnmower, a leaf blower, a trampoline and a vacuum.
Wait. He’s got two vacuums – an upright and a canister.
He’s got a dog that won’t stop talking, a bear that won’t stop singing and a baby doll from the Goodwill that wont stop threatening to stab me in my sleep.
Henry calls this soul-sucking demon by the name of Etta. Up until I moved her into a bin with the “outside toys,” you could find her in a soft bunting, cooing death threats from my son’s room.
So yes, other than the creepy baby doll, he’s got it pretty good. And yes, he plays with all this stuff to varying degrees.(Especially the lawnmower. Ask my neighbors. He mows their lawns at least twice a week.)
But his favorite toys, the ones with which he plays obsessively are as follows:
1.) A wooden duck on a stick, the kind you might catch an Amish kid pushing down a gravel road.
2.) A primitive wooden rabbit you pull on a string, the kind that looks like something your 9th grader might make in shop class with a reciprocating saw. The name of this rodent, by the way, is Gino. My child named him after a boy at our library hour whose grandmother drives us crazy. (Long story.)
3.) A wooden back scratcher that my husband acquired years ago from a friend who thought he needed help itching. Hank calls this his “weed wacker.” At any point in the day you can hand it to him and he’ll begin weed wacking everything in site. It doesn’t matter if you’re inside or outside. It doesn’t matter if you’re near a plant or a grand piano. Hank makes his signature weed wacker sound and suddenly your living room is landscaped.
All three of these things have at various points traveled with us to stores, friend’s and relative’s houses and most recently, preschool. Sometimes Henry won’t even get in the car if his wooden duck isn’t in the back seat beside him. You should see the looks I get from store employees.
Store clerk: “Oh hi sweetie! Is that a back scratcher?”
Henry: “It’s a weed wacker.”
Store clerk: “My kid was attached to his blanket. How funny, yours has a wooden duck on a stick.”
Henry: “Duck mows lawn in store. Nooo. Duck goes QUACK QUACK. Henry so silly.”
Last week we ignited a major playground war when Henry pushed his wooden duck past a group of young boys and their mothers.
One mother: “THAT DUCK IS SO DARLING!”
Another mother: “WHERE DID YOU FIND SUCH A THING?”
Me: “My neighbor gave it to me. It belonged to her kid at one point.”
Little boy: “I WANT IT!”
Another little boy: “LET ME PUSH IT!”
A third little boy: “GIVE IT TO ME!”
I coaxed Henry into sharing, but that didn’t stop the other boys from squabbling amongst themselves. Within 10 minutes the mothers hauled ass out of the park dragging behind them a pack of angry toddlers, all of them in pursuit of a Cracker Barrel, which is where I think my neighbor said her mother bought the duck five years ago.
The point of this story is: sometimes children love simple toys. Why? Because small children are imagination machines. When a toy lacks all the requisite “stim buttons,” they grow especially fascinated with it and sometimes, god willing, they play with it longer. Why? Because they can Make-Believe it into doing anything their hearts desire.
It’s the old cardboard box theory. Give a kid a toy and you entertain him for a day. Give a kid a cardboard box and you entertain him for a lifetime.
This doesn’t mean Henry isn’t already hooked on TV, computers and
cocaine iPhones. He is. Every morning he crawls into bed and pleads for his father’s iPhone, on which he watches any number of videos, including old episodes of Pee-wee’s Playhouse (long live Jambi), U.S. Military robot prototype videos (don’t ask), Calliou (ugh) and NASA space shuttle launches (my child is a genius).
This also doesn’t mean we don’t hand Henry the iPhone at restaurants when he turns into the Tasmanian Devil and we need to buy 10 minutes of peace and quiet until the check arrives. We do and it works.
I still don’t have a smart phone (WTF Heidi?) so these modern-day anti-tantrum tools only work when I’m in the company of my husband and his amazing phone. When I’m in public and alone with Henry (which is often) I’m forced to use my imagination, usually by forcing him to use … wait for it … his imagination.
(Note: this is not always preferable. iPhones are a way quicker fix.)
Even at home, where a 55-inch LCD flat screen looms over my son’s every move and two MacBooks taunt him from my office, Henry is repeatedly encouraged to use his imagination. This doesn’t make me a super parent. Two-year-olds are natural improvisers, so a little encouragement goes a long way.
One day Henry came up to me with his favorite little battery-operated train. The batteries were dead and the train had stopped moving and choo-choo-choo’ing.
“Train dud,” Henry said. (I’m proud that I taught him this word. It makes me laugh every time he brings me something that’s broken and declares it a DUD.)
“The train needs new batteries,” I said.
“Mama get new batteries,” Henry said.
“I’m all out of AAA batteries,” I explained.
“Mama go store, get batteries,” he sensibly replied.
“Henry,” I said, tapping the top of his head. “For now the train runs on imagination.”
He narrowed his eyes, displeased at first with what I had said.
“Imagination is free and never runs out,” I continued. “It can power anything.”
“Daddy lawnmower run on imagination?” He asked.
“Yes,” I said, astounded at his comprehensive. Our lawn mower had quit working earlier that week.
“Imagination cool,” he said, pushing the train across the floor. “Choo, choo!”
I had no idea how valuable this information was to my son. From that point forward everything that didn’t light up, move or whistle, was described by Henry as “running on imagination.”
The concept even trickled into other areas of our life.
When my mother left for New York after spending two weeks at our place in Florida, I found myself constantly explaining the technicalities of air travel to a toddler who insisted he could simply “take a rocket to Buffalo.”
One night, after failing to negotiate his rocket launch, Henry looked at me defeated, resigned to the fact that he couldn’t visit his Nana.
“Henry see imagination Nana,” he said.
My heart filled at once with joy and woe. I had taught him that his imagination could do anything and now here he was – imagining my mother in his room before bed.
Last week at a play in Tampa, I overheard a friend gushing about the release of the new iPhone. A self-described tech geek, she said she couldn’t imagine her life without one, especially now that she has children. So she asked her mother how she managed to raise kids without today’s glorious technology.
I’m not sure what her mom said because our conversation was cut short by the start of the play.
Which leads me to this question, which I’m aiming at parents of adult children: what did you do without today’s technology? Play Jacks? Build forts out of asbestos? Toss your kid a refrigerator box and tell him to pretend it’s the Titanic?
As someone who cautiously embraces new technology, I’m genuinely interested in your responses.
Oh, and here’s a photo of Henry in his cave drinking chocolate milk.