Deal With It

My children have a train table. It has little drawers to hold all the parts, and the boards on top flip over for a "change of scenery." I remember buying that train table, before our second was even born, and I remember thinking that my firstborn was still too young for it. I imagined pieces everywhere and the train track in a constant state of destruction.

I was right about the constant state of destruction. Every time I would sit down and put the train track together, my son would play with it for ten minutes and then tear it apart. When my second son got old enough to toddle around, he also started destroying it. It started to become sort of a pet peeve of mine. Finally, I just stopped putting it together. Why bother? I knew it would be destroyed in less time than it took me to build it.

A few months after I stopped rebuilding the train track, I was visiting the home of some people who were interviewing me for a job. I noticed they had the same train table sitting in their living room. Their sons were both about the same age as my boys, but miraculously, the train track was not being torn to pieces. Their older son pushed the train around the track for a few minutes and then moved on to something else. The younger son didn't even bother with it, favoring the remote controls on the coffee table. I was surprised enough that I mentioned it to the parents.

"Wow, I have the same train table. But mine never stays put together like that," I exclaimed, trying to hide the jealousy in my voice.

"Oh, ours didn't, either," the mom replied, "not until Bob screwed the pieces into place!" She beamed, obviously very proud of their successful plan.

You would think I would have been excited at this revelation. That I would have ran right home and gotten out the screwdriver. But instead, I felt a little sad. I felt sad for their children, who would never be able to figure out how to put that train table together by themselves. I felt sad that their train track would always look exactly the same, and they couldn't use their little imaginations to reassemble it. I wondered what else these parents had bolted in to place--literally or metaphorically--and what kind of effect it might have on their children.

That day, I realized that there was a damn good reason to keep putting together that train table. And for letting my kids dump the whole box of blocks all over the floor. And for taking every single crayon out of the box at once. It might be a little messy, but it's nothing we can't reassemble later. And in the meantime, it's an extremely safe way to let them spread their wings and figure things out in their own way. The minor frustration it causes me is not worth the detriment it would be if I stifled their creative play.

This isn't to say I don't sometimes wish I could glue a few things down. In fact, I had quite a little fit yesterday after the kids disassembled the train tracks because I had spent quite a bit of time putting it together. Maybe I'm writing this more to remind myself more than anything else.

Today, I'm going to put that train track together, with my two favorite engineers at my side. It will take forever if I let them help instead of following the plan. It will probably be torn down before the day is over. But I'm going to bite my tongue and turn away if I start getting frustrated. Because it's a toy. And we can fix it. My kids, their budding personalities, and our quality time together are all worth it.

Please remind me of this later when I complain about the train tracks everywhere.


Corinne said...

We go through the same thing daily... except we don't have a table, just the wooden tracks. So they cover our entire living room, and it's crazy. But it's so much fun to see my sons brain work as he figures out new ways of putting them together, and as he teaches his sister to do the same (ok... that might have only happened once... but it was fantastic and heartwarming...)
but man, that is kind of brilliant to screw down the tracks. Think of how much less time you'd spend picking up train tracks? But I couldn't do it :)

Aging Mommy said...

Lovely post - I cannot believe those parents you visited had nailed down their train tracks, that is the sort of helicopter parenting technique that leads supposedly to repressed imaginations. I totally agree with your views on this.

We don't have a train table but we do have a dolls house, filled with the teeniest tiniest of things that end up everywhere and it takes forever to put it all back together, but taking it all apart and investigating is what being a toddler is all about.

Anonymous said...

With two little boys I GET THIS, oh how I get it. And I have an obsession, I really want to keep like toys with like toys. So I plug away at it, putting little people with little people, and cars with cars and block with blocks. And sometimes I blow my stack because of the tedium of it, but then I see them discover it all over again, and like you I'm reminded that this is just all part of the process.

Really enjoyed this post. Gosh, we really can all relate to one another can't we, and it really helps!

Heather said...

Sometimes, I would give anything for my daughter to play _correctly_. Don't ask me what "correctly" is. I just want it, anyway.

MidnightCafe said...

Good for you! Most of the fun is in putting it together and destroying it anyway! That's where the real play (and the real learning) take place.

Rudri said...

I think part of growing up is to build things and then take them apart. That's the fun stuff. That's being a kid.

Enjoyed this post.