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.