If you are inside my house and you ask my three year old son what game he would like to play, 9 times out of 10 the answer will be an enthusiastic, “Animals and trucks!”
What is animals and trucks, you ask? Well, it’s not really a game. Or even what most adults would consider “playing.” Animals and trucks is pretty much the act of placing little plastic animals on or in one of my son’s toy trucks. That’s it…nothing more. The tub of animals gets dumped and they are placed somewhere on a truck. And yet, my son embraces it with the fervor of a twenty-something recluse addicted to World of Warcraft.
$50.00?! For little plastic animals?!
My wife and I purchased his first set of plastic animals at a store specializing in teaching aids. We gleefully headed there with the illusion that we would find a cartful of educational toys for both of our children. That was definitely not the case. We scoured row after row of ‘developmental’ toys and were coming up empty-handed in each one.
That is, until we reached Aisle 8…
There they were, resting on the second shelf from the bottom — the perfect height for a then 2 1/2-year old.
My son had already developed a fascination with all creatures found in the animal kingdom, both alive today and long-ago extinct. So we had no doubt the tub of animals he excitedly picked off the shelf would be enjoyed for at least a little while. But when I turned it over and saw the price tag, I almost shit myself.
$50.00?! For little plastic animals?!
Did someone finally revolutionize the manufacturing industry by creating 100% non-synthetic, totally organic bioplastic? And did they use that amazing breakthrough to mold little animals for kids? According to the package, no, someone did not. Someone did, however, outsource the production of these animals to China. For a moment, my ever budget-conscious brain thought we should leave them at the high-end educational toy store and purchase them elsewhere for half the price. But, honestly, the look of pure elation and wonder plastered on my son’s face while he stared at those tiny representatives of the animal world utterly demolished any chance rational thought had of winning out this time. Fuck it, I acquiesced. Let’s buy the polypropylene creatures!
Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that purchase would be—hands down—the best $50.00 I ever spent.
“Look! He’s hanging!”
Recently, while playing Animals and Trucks, I received an “important” email I had been waiting on. As much as I hate to pull out my smartphone while playing with my kids (unless it’s to quickly snap an adorable picture of whatever fun we're having), I didn't really have a choice this time. I reluctantly, but quickly, opened my email app and began to read. As I was about three quarters of the way through the message, I heard a tiny, yet exuberant, shout…
“Daddy! Look! He’s hanging!”
When I looked up, I saw that a plastic tiger was indeed hanging by its foot from the hook on my son’s crane truck. Not yet grasping the full impact of the moment, I bemusedly thought to myself, “Cool…”
That is until I raised my glance up just a little further to see the proudest, most ecstatic glow emanating from my son’s face. My “cool” reaction rapidly evolved into more of a “holy shit!” as I realized my child was sporting the same look that you or I would probably exhibit if we, just at that moment, cured cancer or brokered a previously unfathomed win-win deal for Middle Eastern peace.
Entanglement and perspective
This is where being a parent starts to get really cool. Before fatherhood, it was rare, if ever, that I experienced multiple sources of elation from a single catalytic event. However, in the last few years since my first child was born, I am afforded this opportunity on a near regular basis—as long as I am present enough in the moment to accept and appreciate it—and, usually, it comes about during an activity as mundane as playing Animals and Trucks.
The first source of happiness is pretty obvious. It is the joy any parent who cares at all about their child experiences when they are lucky enough to be responsible for making that child the happiest little munchkin on earth, even if that happiness is merely fleeting in nature. Despite its obviousness, though, it is a happiness that is truly hard to imagine until you experience it firsthand. The best part is that it can happen at any moment, for the smallest of reasons, and the intensity of the feeling never fails to take you by surprise.
I've often wondered why this phenomenon occurs. Why does immense joy suddenly wash over me like a euphoric tidal wave simply because, for example, I gave my toddler a piece of chocolate? Maybe it has something to do with quantum entanglement. Maybe, since 50% of the DNA that created my kids’ atomic particles came directly from me, a change in their quantum state can indeed directly impact mine. That, or maybe I’m just an overly sensitive dad. Either way, I wouldn't change it for the world.
The less obvious source of happiness — and the one that took me by utter surprise — is the fresh perspective I'm often privy to simply as a result of engaging with my little peanuts. I, once again, get to experience the process of learning how to navigate the world. Albeit, this time by proxy. But what that means is that I get to experience it as filtered through the lens created by the wisdom I gained from going through that process the first time around. And every time I see my kids accomplish or learn something new — even if it is simply how to finally keep a plastic animal from falling off of a crane hook after numerous attempts — and I see how proud of themselves they are, I am reminded of just how easy it is to feel that same emotion.
…More like $50.00 for enlightenment
It truly comes down to perspective. I found it a lot simpler than I originally imagined to go back to that place of being proud of myself for the things I do…even the little things. All I had to do was simply allow myself to go there. Somewhere along the way I forgot it was a choice. Before parenthood, never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined I could learn such an obvious, yet profound, lesson from a toddler. But then a lot has changed since I started playing Animals and Trucks.
Just as I made a conscious choice to spend $50.00 on a tub of animals, I am now reminded that I can also make a conscious choice to feel pride in something I do. Or I can decide to write it off as no big deal and move on. I have that choice as well. Either way, it feels good to know (once again) that I have that ability…and I’m proud of myself for hanging that particular tiger on the crane.