By Lu Hanessian
Issue 115, November/December 2002
Nicholas rummages through the kitchen, brandishing metal salad prongs. "Castanets!" he yells. "And," he adds, hoisting up an empty water cooler jug, "a tuba!" During our three years together, we've been learning the language of inspiration. I see an old broom; he sees an upright bass. I see satellite dishes on top of buildings; he sees trumpet horns.
I give Nicholas 20 feet of purple beads, a Christmas tree decoration. He sits at the top of our basement stairs and slowly releases the string from his hand, watching the shiny beads tumble to the platform below. "I'm making a waterfall," he explains, entranced in his rainforest reverie. Nicholas's friends have things, too. Three-year-old Jack owns dump trucks in 14 different sizes, a five-foot tall playhouse, and the complete "Thomas the Tank Engine" set of trains, bridges, tunnels, and play table. Ricky has three remote-controlled, jumbo fire engines with foot-long ladders and sirens that can be heard a block away. Justin has two bulldozer trucks the size of cocker spaniels, a motorized crane, and a racing car big enough to get pulled over for a moving violation. Mark has enough Legos to build a lovely extension on a house. There's a part of me that wonders if my son wants what they have.
Last year, I bought Nicholas that toy fire engine he "really, really, really" wanted. Half of it lies at the bottom of a drawer. And the little green tractor? He uses it to barter for other toys at the playground sandbox, demonstrating the Universal Law of Attraction to Other Children's Stuff.
Each toy that has come through our front door has seen an intense but brief period of play. Each has collected dust. Some have been stashed away and rediscovered after several months. Often, Nicholas will dismantle a toy and create another from its parts. Sometimes a gift is entirely eclipsed by the wrapping: "Look, Mommy! It's a new toy called a Bouncy-Bounce!" he squeals, playing the curly ribbon like a yo-yo. "And a cruise ship!" he declares, folding himself into the empty cardboard box. It's not that he is more excited about the ribbon than the gift, in a purely comparative sense; it's just that he is more excited about the playthings he creates--the astronaut helmet he discovers in a colander, the lawnmower he devises out of a rolling carry-on suitcase, the rhythm section he assembles using two whisks and throw pillows on the couch. Yet there's something about a makeshift toy that compels a parent to want to replace it with the real thing.
Nicholas is rifling through our junk mail. He spots a toy catalogue in the pile on our kitchen table. His nimble little fingers flip through the pages when he suddenly slams his palms on a photo of a boy playing the drums.
"Mommy," he says slowly, "look at deez drums!"
"Ooh, I bet they sound just like the wonderful drum section you made over there," I say, pointing to the arc of bowls on the floor in front of the couch and the metal spatula he has slipped in between the seat cushions as his high-hat cymbal.
Nicholas gazes at the picture of the shiny red drum set. "A bass drum, a snare drum, a tom-tom drum, an' a cymbal!" he says pointing to each one. "Mommy, can I please have doze drums? I really want dem!" On his face is a look of yearning, of melancholy. We are at a crossroads-at the corner of buy and don't buy, of materialism and my son's ingenuity.
"Can we buy dat drum set please, Mommy? So I can practice?" I feel something catch in my throat. My chest tightens. "Well," I say, "it is a nice drum set, but it's $99.00 dollars!" My boy begins to cry. "It's too many monies!" I hold him tightly as he sobs into my collarbone. A half-hour later, he's sitting in the living room arranging his drums: large cookie tin on its side as the bass, mixing bowls as snares, pot lids for cymbals, two whisks for drum brushes, cookie rack as his glockenspiel. The catalogue lies on the piano, on top of last weekend's New York Times. Out of his sight, on my mind.
Just for kicks, I take Nicholas to a local music shop to browse through the shiny instruments-10,000 square feet of drums, trombones, trumpets, violins, guitars, bongos, and cymbals, floor to ceiling. I ask the salesman if they have any drum sets for toddlers. He pulls a five-piece set into the aisle and adjusts the stool to my son's height. Nicholas looks as if he just swallowed a warm breeze. He drums for 15 minutes, his lips together like he's sucking a mint, then scurries around the store greeting every instrument before we leave. On the drive home, I feel a strange mix of pride, joy, and guilt. Watching him in the music store affirmed his profound love of music. But by taking him there, letting him play, then leaving the drums behind, was I was pleasing him, or teasing him?
"I wonder if we ought to get him a set," I say to my husband, David, that night.
"How much is it?"
"The one at the music store? Two hundred and forty-nine dollars." I wince. We don't splurge easily, especially when it's something for a person less than 40 inches tall whose interests and whims are subject to sweeping changes during the course of an hour.
"The red drum set in the catalogue is $115, and the blue one is $39.95," I say, exploring our options. "Maybe we could order the cheap one and see where he is with all of this in six months." I'm nursing a hot cramp of doubt about whether buying the drums, any drums at all, is a betrayal of our son's imagination, a nefarious plot to kidnap his mind and hold it hostage in an age of infinite merchandise. Suddenly I remember Nicholas's words: Too many monies. Did I really want him to think that the only reason we wouldn't buy the drum set was the hefty price tag? That if we had lots of "monies," he could have the drums and lots of other things? What if we had the money? Would we indulge him? What if the drums were free? I don't want this to be an issue of deprivation or acquisition.
A few weeks later, Nicholas and I are out for a stroll on a warm and breezy afternoon. He is gathering small rocks and putting them in his left pants pocket. "eight, nine, ten!" he announces as he places each pebble in my cupped palms, then returns each to his pocket.
"That's quite a collection," I say, grinning at his lopsided pants.
"I'm saving dem," he informs me.
"I see. For what?"
"To buy doze drums," he says quietly, and waddles off, his khakis weighed down by rock coins. I am on the phone, reading the source code number from the back of the toy catalogue to a woman named Linda. She doesn't ask whether I'm really, really sure if buying the drums is the right thing to do. She works for a toy company. To her, selling out means something entirely different than it does to me.
The box arrives. I look at it with forced detachment, as if to let the drums know that their intentions will be scrutinized, their effects carefully measured. I feel irrationally protective. Nicholas is sound asleep when Dave and I open the box and assemble the drums in our basement. "They look smaller than in the catalogue," we mumble in unison.
In the morning, while Dave and Nicholas are making pancakes, I take the new blue set into Nicholas's room. Nicholas knocks on his bedroom door while I wait inside. "C'mon in, the music store is open," I reply. And a boy in dump-truck pajamas stands at the threshold, his mouth agape. One glance at his luminous eyes convinces us that buying the drums was a good decision. But something interesting begins to unfold. Ten minutes after his feverish drum solo in the bedroom mirror, he gathers his ice bucket, metal mixing bowl, and empty oatmeal carton, and assembles them around his new set. Over the next few weeks, the new drums fall silent. The blue set with the stars on the bass drum sits in his room, a thin blanket of dust coating the silver cymbal, until one afternoon a month later when Nicholas is inspired to experiment with various makeshift drumsticks.
"Oh-h no-o-o!" he wails. I find him sitting in his bass drum, heels pointing to the ceiling. "It broke," he says, with a curious mix of shock, disappointment, and intrigue. We stare at the ruins on his carpet. Suddenly he kneels down, places the remaining snare, cymbal, and tom-tom on the floor in a cluster, and begins to play his "broken" drums, more interested in the set he created than in the one we bought.
There are lessons in the catalogue caper. I wonder about our parental motivations. Do we buy to placate? To win approval? To console, reward, distract? To compete or keep up with other parents? To prove our love? Our worth? To relieve a child's boredom or our own? To fulfill our own unresolved longings?
I remember the sound of my son's muffled sobs when we looked at the toy catalogue. Too many monies, he said, and I felt the ache in his longing. Now I see that those longings were projections of my yearnings. A house with a wrap-around porch. A kitchen the size of Texas. A sprawling backyard framed with crimson bougainvilleas, with enough room for a vegetable garden, a hammock, and a tree house. A "real" home. A "real" drum set.
Nicholas wants to have more in part because there's more to have. But buying more toys feeds into a gotta-have-it sensibility that can flat line a child's imagination. If I buy him a magnifying glass to replace the one he made with a metal sieve from the cupboard, am I not on some level giving him the message that his imagination is somehow second-rate, even illegitimate? At three, my son is old enough to want the Ride-On Excavator that scoops and digs for $39.95, to plead politely, to offer up all his toys for donation in exchange for it. He's too young to know that he will play with it for four days, then use it as a climbing apparatus before it breaks. Too young to know that by the time the average child is 20, he has received an estimated $33,000 in toys and allowance with little or nothing to show for it. Too young to know that his own imagination can sustain his interest far more than any toy could.
Nurturing Nicholas's imagination has required me to redefine my rules of conduct, to ponder how chaos and brilliance can begin to resemble one another. Imagination, I've come to see, isn't just child's play, but the fertile soil from which anything grows. To replace it or dilute it with the flash of merchandise is to risk pulling up the roots of a child's very selfhood. Disconnected from his imagination, a child can become disconnected from his own spirit, fueling an inner restlessness that can last a lifetime.
And what then? Wouldn't a person yearn for things to fill the void? With more and more stuff to fill the gap, our children can lose the thrill of exploring their own minds, and neither they nor we might ever notice the precise moment of forfeiture.
Perhaps a child's inventiveness and inspiration stand a better chance of survival if we can find magic in the mundane. If I get excited about overturned buckets in the sandbox, my son gets the message. Suddenly, a bongo concert takes the place of an obsession with another boy's dump truck. I have to make room for his imagination, literally. That means letting him turn the living room sofa into a secret cave. It means making planets for his bedroom window and playing I Spy in the Celestial Sky. It means trading in decorum for discovery.
But nurturing my son's imagination does more than cultivate his originality and vision. It offers him a whole value system, not regarding the price of things, but rather what the heart is worth. This becomes apparent one morning at the toy store, where we are browsing for a friend's birthday present. Nicholas falls in love with a four-foot-tall "horsey on a stick" that whinnies when you press his ear.
"Can we bring Horsey home?" he asks me, gazing tenderly at its mane.
"No, honey, Horsey has to stay here," I say. My son begins to cry that big, open-mouth cry, where I can see his back molars. "But you know what he told me?" I whisper to him in a close huddle.
"What?" he asks, suddenly seized with curiosity.
"He told me that as much as he would love to come to our house, he really wants to stay here with his family. And he said you can visit him here."
"O-h-h-h," he says calmly. "Buh-bye, Horsey. Have a good day."
His imagination fills in the blanks. It speaks of empathy and compassion, of family bonds, of home, the feelings of inanimate objects. It turns a stuffed toy into a horse with a heart. And it lets a boy put aside his own need to get in favor of his need to give.
I realize that I've had to respect Nicholas's imagination, to honor it, before I could ever understand the countless ways in which it could serve him as a child--or me as his parent. Nourishing his love of learning, dreaming, and creating means that I put his imagination before his fleeting fixation on a toy bulldozer. Somehow, because I value his ideas more than any item, he never gets the feeling that I am rejecting his wishes or depriving him of his heart's desire.
As my son grows through toddlerhood, he is processing the distinction between wanting and having. And as I grow through parenthood, I am learning to use both our imaginations to acquire things that money can't buy.
Lu Hanessian is a pianist, composer, and writer. A former anchor on NBC's Real Life, she is currently working on a book of stories about the first three years of motherhood called Let the Baby Drive. Her essays and articles have been published in The New York Times, Fit Pregnancy, and Parenting, among others. Lu and her husband, David, live in Englewood, New Jersey, with their sons, Nicholas (3) and Benjamin (9 months).
Illustration by Sophie Stroud, age 6.