“I see your daughter’s enjoying the tractor today,” said an overcompensating stay-at-home dad whose son was busy zooming around the room on the back of the plastic fire truck.
My daughter was 2 and we were at a toddler class. There were a bunch of toys huddled in one corner and the rest of the room was left open for a handful of play cars, grocery carts, and doll strollers. The dad and I stood on the sideline having one of those conversations parents of toddlers have: attention divided, no eye-contact necessary.
“Yeah,” I said. “She loves those ride-on toys.”
“You’re lucky most of the boys aren’t here!” he called out to my daughter, Hot Shot, cupping his hands around his mouth. “You’d never get a chance if they were.”
My daughter was out of earshot; his message was really for me. And I was livid. Because it was true what he said. She was getting a longer turn than usual that day. And there were a number of boys who monopolized the ride-on toys. But more to the point, there were a number of parents who let their boys monopolize the ride on toys. He being one of them.
But I didn’t take him on, because you can’t win that argument, not when you don’t have a boy of your own. I’d learned that by then. Parents of boys insist their sons are hardwired for hording and destruction, and since I had no exhibit B to disprove them, I knew they would continue to dismiss me. So I held back my judgmental parent tirade and threw a half-hearted comeback pretending, like him, that the rolly toy shortage was our children’s problem, not ours.
“I think she can hold her own,” I shot back.
“Against the boys?” Complete disbelief. “Not a chance!”
I politely said goodbye and went to check on my daughter who was gassing up at a plastic pump.
The truth is I spent most of my time hovering near my daughter ready to pounce and remove her the second she tried to grab something from another child. At times she was so invested in not sharing that she rose off the floor in a screaming rage, but that didn’t mean I gave in and let her horde the wheelie toy. I required her compliance. There’s no reason why the parents of sons can’t do the same.
Five years later exhibits A & B (Moon Boy, 3 and a half; Ankle Biter, 2 and a half) are rolling across our living room rug in a double headlock and I’m looking for ways to explain it. There are two of them, I tell myself. I can’t monitor them the same way. I can’t intervene and redirect like I did with Hot Shot; if I spent that much time focused on either one of the boys, the other would be off smashing rhythm sticks through the windows. See, so that proves it.
And then there we are at the downtown library in the play section. At: The Train Table. We arrive just 10 minutes before story hour on a rainy Thursday, so the play area is packed. I watch my guys elbow their way into the scene, waiting for another child to look away momentarily, or trip, or sneeze, or be suddenly struck with tuberculosis–whatever–just so long as they can snatch away his train. As parents start collecting their charges for story hour, my boys see their moment and gather the train cars, one by one as they’re abandoned. By the time the play area has cleared out and I’m trying to convince them they don’t want to miss The Wheels On The Bus, the two of them are clutching their score to their chests like junkies. So we give up on story hour and I let them have The Table to themselves for 30 blessed minutes.
But when the rest of the knee-high train addicts return, Moon Boy hasn’t had his fill. I insist he relinquish a box car here, an engine there. Until he’s down to his last one, a maroon engine apparently a friend of Thomas’s because he’s got a name printed on his underbelly. Well there is one boy who knows this maroon engine and wants it. He asks to trade for a different engine. But Moon Boy just stares him down. The boy waits patiently and then asks again for a turn. Moon Boy growls. Still the boy waits and asks again, kindly.
“Answer his question please,” I say to Moon Boy.
“No!” Moon Boy says to the boy.
“It looks like he doesn’t want to trade,” I say with a shrug.
“Well,” the other boy’s Mom says without looking at me, “we’ll have to work something out soon. It’s too hard for kids this age to wait that long.”
I’m annoyed by her use of the phrase “have to.” I don’t actually have to make him hand over that train. Her son has a perfectly good train: it has a face, it has a name, it is a Thomas affiliate. Moon Boy has already given up four train cars and two other engines. I have already insisted that he do so. Neither of us are required to put in any more effort to this cause. So I answer, without looking at her:
“Huh. That’s not how we do it.”
She says nothing. Our boys continue to play. And then a few minutes later, as if it was his idea and he’d been planning it all morning, thank you very much, Moon Boy looked at that greedy little child, and offered to trade.
Read more about Liz’s family, My Black Son’s Pink Shoes.