The Great Chain of Toys

I’ve come to a realization about toys in babyhood. When she was a baby, especially, as K started to gain control over her hands, I grew concerned about what we were supposed to be giving her to encourage her growth. I remember reading that she was supposed to have a rattle as soon as she could follow her hand movement with her eyes, and I remember the panic I felt that we were several weeks behind.

My thinking now is that less than less is more. Our toy buying has become more and more conservative since her first year birthday. It’s not that there aren’t things that I want very much to buy K, but I have come to the realization that they are more for me than her. The big moment of realization for me was when I started obsessing about her wooden train set. There are so many things to buy or make for it–a crane, a roundhouse, different kinds of engines. But K really is quite happy and cruising along with the minimum. While she played with the train constantly for months, it was entirely to reenact her trip to Japan. She would name the stations she had been to, and line up peg dolls to represent her family. Even the station, she was happy with the basic model that came with her set or a few blocks set up to represent a platform.

Actually, we’ve become very suspicious of stimulation in general. Thinking back it seems mad that we believe that babies need extra stimulation. Especially since that usually takes the form of toys with bells and lights and tinny music. When I think back on it, what I remember about those toys is a general frustration. The would seem so cool and so to promise so much, but I remember becoming quickly bored with their limitations and frustrated that they broke so often.

I’ve come to like calling the problem the “great chain of toys” because it so clearly builds on itself. A child used to lots of bells and lights comes to need bells and lights. And we are trying very hard to stay off of it. The problem is it isn’t at all easy to keep things away. Not only does K. get presents (often), but she likes them. And I simply can’t be the kind of parent who sets up strict rules about toys, food, etc. and then rigidly enforces them. I don’t give K. lollipops, but when the grocer offers one I let her take it. I am thankful, however, that it’s been over a year since she actually bothered to eat one of them.

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Frozen Out

I feel like we passed a milestone this weekend in our relationship to pop culture. The girls at K’s preschool are, of course, mad about Frozen. My first hint of the depth of this mania came last spring when one of our favorite little girls was late to a playdate because she insisted on sitting through the movie once again, but I still feel taken by surprise. Aren’t they young for this? One little girl comes to school in blue sparkly gloves with a music box on one that plays one of the songs from the movie. At the playground they all run around arguing about who gets to be Anna and who is Elsa. I once witnessed a whole flock of three and four year old girls crawl around on all fours pretending to be Anna’s cat (does she even have one?).

This is relevant because it represents the first instance of a conflict that I expect to run into more and more frequently as K grows. I am very proud that she is one of the 6% of three year olds who watch less than 2 hours of TV a week. In fact, since we don’t have a television and are very careful to limit K’s YouTube time, most weeks she watches none at all. Really, my irritation with Frozen is not about it’s evil qualities so much as how it threatens this lovely little bubble of innocence that we’ve carved out. Disney is just so incredibly good at reaching their target market. The music, the outfits, the animation, the threat is how very very well considered they are and how well attuned they are to how to get inside a little girl’s intimate life.

Because her friends all speak fluent Frozen-speak, K has had to catch up. Early on, one of her little friends  snarked at her for not having seen the film (at four years old!), but she has mostly caught up by listening carefully and by studying the images she does see. Once, when I started describing the movie she jumped in to correct me about some plot detail, and as far as I know she’s right ( I’ve only seen about a half an hour of it myself). Still, I imagine she can’t help but feel a bit left out.

Which is where this story comes in. One of the other mothers in K’s class organized a trip to see “Frozen on Ice” next week, and of course most of the girls in the class signed up. Maybe because I over identify with K I really really wanted to say yes to her. But really, from the website it is clear that the production is not simply a retelling of the story, but an introduction to all things Disney, and we’re just not willing to sign over that much of our child’s brain to cooperate marketing.

But the best thing is that when I told K she simply accepted the decision without fuss. I stumbled around trying to explain why to her, but she was much more concise. When I asked her if she understood, she said yes, she wasn’t old enough, which is exactly how I should have put it in the first place. So please forgive me, but for the moment at least I’m walking around in a bubble of relief.

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bouncy bouncy bouncy, too bouncy

Just before Thanksgiving I made my first real mommy friend in the neighborhood (we moved her over the summer). Her baby is 2.5, nearly a year older than K. Even though the mother is very laid back and seems thoughtful, baby G positively vibrates with energy. K and I have a running joke about G. I make my finger go up and down and say “bouncy bouncy bouncy.” But to be honest, it goes a bit farther than that. Once in a while baby G will get a look in her eyes that there’s no way to describe other than mean.

I’ve never seen her give K that look, and she has also displayed some lovely gestures of generosity and friendliness to K. G seems to have the most problems when she feels like her things are going to be taken away. Our best interactions have been when I’ve been able to reassure her that K isn’t going to take anything. At one point, she spontaneously offered K her crackers, but only after I reassured her that we weren’t going to take them. So I don’t want to overdo it. But I am uneasy with her.

So here’s the dilemma: I like having a mommy friend who lives a block away, and I like having K making friends with an older girl. But I’m worried that the influence is negative. Part of me feels like I’m overreacting to toddler things, but another part has protective parent instincts flashing red. Ko thinks its a given that we need to keep our play dates to a minimum, and I’m sure she’s right, but it does give me a pretty bitter taste of what things might be like in a year or so. The simply truth is I think G is more the rule than the exception.

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the red and the green pants

It’s been a running meme for me that K is gaining independence, and this week has given me a lot of new ammunition.

On the positive side, I took her to a puppet show story time Wednesday morning that we have been going to periodically. It is in a hip coffee shop near our apartment and is typically jammed by the time K and I arrive–which has never been less than a minute late. As a result we’ve never gotten a seat.

This wouldn’t be such a big deal, but with the crowd of kids has always seemed to intimidate her, and so most of these events she’s spent clinging to me or, at best, sitting on my lap as I sit cross-legged on the floor.

This time she got up so early that I thought we could get a seat, but even though we were 15 minutes early, we ended up standing again and doing the same routine. Until about ten minutes in. All of a sudden, K started twisting around and insisted on being put on the floor. I put her down and she very hesitantly made her way to the inner ring of kids jumping up and down.

And that is largely the way the rest of the story time went. She would come back once and a while and try to pull me into the ring, but I explained to her that there was no room for me, and gave her as much encouragement as possible, and off she went. I tried to be as unobtrusively supportive as possible, which I decided meant that I should act as if I was having a super fun time, so that when she glanced back for me she would feel like it was okay doing what she was doing.

I suppose I overdid my part a bit–after the show the guitarist thanked me for my enthusiasm–but it seemed to work wonders. K would stand around for a little bit, and then do a little dance, and then stand around again. It was impossibly cute.

The thing is, after the show, she didn’t put the independent streak away. Instead, for the rest of the day, she just wouldn’t take anything I said at face value. She refused to let me put on her coat or sit her on my lap so I could put on her mittens. She grabbed her cup of water with one hand and wouldn’t hear at all me telling her to use two. And she refused to let me settle her down with a book or colored pencils.

Of course, this wasn’t much fun. The water ended on the floor, and the pencils were scattered before long. But I was also very clear to myself that this was the downside of the extraordinary upside I had just seen, and so I tried hard to keep my patience. On the way home I decided that what I needed to do was give her more constructive avenues for asserting her independence, and so I settled on giving her as many choices as possible. I asked her which cup she wanted to use, if she wanted milk or water. Should I warm the milk up in the microwave or give it to her cold.

After a bit she seemed to get the hang of it, and started responding to the choices well. At one point, she squirmed up from a diaper change and made very clear she didn’t want the same pants to be put on her. Instead, she went to the dresser drawer and pulled out a pair of pretty red pants that I like very much.

That was all fine, but a little later, after I had managed to get those red pants on her, she came back with a pair of green pants that she clearly wanted to wear. Of course, I’m doing my best to avoid frustration, so I cheerfully started to get her undressed.

Here’s the punch line–she wouldn’t let me. It turned out that she didn’t want to change pants. She wanted to wear both. It’s one of those moments that could have gone very badly. I couldn’t help but laugh, and in a sense I’m surprised that my laughter wasn’t taken as insensitive, but it wasn’t. Instead, after a pause she broke out into smiles and laughed too.

But she was still a pain in the ass for the rest of the day.

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dancing by herself

In the middle of cooking K’s lunch the other day, I took a quick peek around the corner to make sure she was okay. As Ko has started saying, K being quiet is almost always K getting herself in trouble.

This time, however, I saw something very different. I had put on a Japanese kids’ CD before I started cooking, and we had spent a few minutes dancing together. When I peeked around the corner I saw that she was still dancing. At first she had a stuffed bear by the paws and was holding it out like a dance partner and circling. But soon she let the bear drop and just swayed and danced in circles by herself, making happy kind of gurgles and shuffling her feet. She seemed to be in a little dream world all her own.

It’s the first time I’ve really seen K alone in the sense that people can be alone. felt a sense that might be called shock, but I have to admit that I also felt a deep happiness of my own. Her little inner world looked like such a nice place. It touched me deeply.

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making soup

Last week, K did something that astonished me. She has been role playing with her stuffed animals for a while–feeding them and making them insisting on having them read books to her–but last week she play acted an entire meal.

I wasn’t there at first. We were all sick and I had gone out to buy knitting materials for Ko (since we were stuck at home). When I got back K had filled a pot from the kitchen with small toys like blocks and puzzle pieces. She was stirring it with a spoon and ladling out “soup” for her stuffed lion, bear, and rabbit.

It’s one of those moments where little changes add up to something extraordinary. There was also a little twinge in me because I had been making soup for the three of us continuously for the three days prior. Because we were all sick, I had twice bought an entire chicken and boiled it down to the bones so that we would have something easy and healthy to eat.

It always gives me an eerie feeling when I witness how closely K watches us. But having her step into my role felt like an entirely different level.

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telling stories

I had a rare moment of instant feedback on a parenting book today. My friend C (who is both a doctor in training and super-mom) recommended The Whole Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind to me a couple weeks ago, and I’ve been reading it over the last few days.

The book is by Daniel J Siegel, a neuroscientist, and Tina Payne Bryson, who has a PhD. The most interesting element of their argument so far is the idea of storytelling.

They start by conceptualizing the brain in various competing regions, each with its own strengths and agenda. The “upstairs brain,” for example, is the seat of reason and higher order thinking. The “downstairs brain” the place for emotion, impulse, and attachment.

As parents our best bet is to try and identify in what part of the brain the child is reacting out of, especially during tantrums. the best response to an “upstairs brain” tantrum, for example, is laying down the law since the child is in full control of their actions and using the tantrum to manipulate a situation. A “downstairs brain” tantrum, on the other hand, needs to be treated with more empathy since the kid is literally unable to control their actions.

This is all apparently rooted in recent research, but they allude to that rather than give examples. Still, some of it sounds an awful lot like Freud’s ego/id distinction.

As for storytelling, Siegel and Bryson advice finding ways to get the upstairs brain engaged to help a child overcome a block or waves of overwhelming feeling. In one of the most interesting passages they relate this to memory. After a traumatic experience, a child needs help making sense of the feelings of helplessness and fear that, while irrational, are floating around in their psyche.

So flash forward to this morning in the playground. K has been very enthusiastic about climbing lately. Over the weekend she very proudly scaled first a chair and then climbed right up onto the table, stood up, and did a little dance. At the playground, she has been holding onto a bar on the jungle gym and kicking up her feet so she can hang as long as she can. I usually cheer her along and count seconds (she has gotten as high as nine).

This morning she was going through this routine, but apparently her right hand grip wasn’t good enough because she slipped off the bar and bopped her head against the jungle gym. It couldn’t have hurt very much through her fluffy hat, but it did make a sound and clearly upset her enormously. And after that, she refused to lift her feet while hanging off the bar. She would suspend, and take a little weight off, but then quickly stomp her feet back down. Clearly she was traumatized.

So the payoff is: the story thing worked beautifully. I sat next to her and sympathized for a while, and then started describing exactly what had happened with some pantomime and sound effects. We both took turns whacking the offending bar and trying to make the sound that her head had made when it had hit. She was a little shaky, but she did eventually give another little four second hang before going off to use the slide.

So, as far as I’m concerned, bravo Siegel and Bryson.

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