I’m trying to say “yes” more as a parent. I don’t mean I want to give Rowan and Isaac more stuff, but rather that I want to remember to make parenting decisions based on a sense of possibility, rather than immediately defaulting to a baseline of, “How much of a mess will this make? How much energy will this cost me? How much masking tape will they use up?”
So often, the kids have one agenda (Play!) and I have another (Preserve sanity!). Neither is more noble. Both are necessary. But too often, I feel as though I get stuck in a rut of preserving sanity, of tidying up, minimizing risk and adventure for the sake of order and bedtimes. And while order and bedtimes are important, I also need to play more, hold on to less.
It’s a complicated project, though. Like this past weekend, when Isaac came across a bag of scrap metal. We’d had some windows replaced, and I had carefully gathered up the metal brackets that held up the dusty old Venetian blinds, with the intent of recycling them. “Can I have these?” he asked, and my gut response was to tell him, No, that they were going into the scrap metal pile, that I didn’t want them scattered all over the house, that he would make a mess, etc.
Fortunately, I managed to squelch that response. “Yes,” I said, and handed it over. And then I mostly managed to shut up and back off. He spent the next two hours fashioning complex models—drilling tools, he said—from the brackets, incorporating household string and electrical tape into the mix. Two hours of creative self-entertainment. Like a parental dream—especially when (and I swear I’m not making this up) he said, “I should be a mechanical engineer!”
And then it occurred to me that we have an old Meccano set in the basement. I’m not sure whether Rachel would appreciate me calling her childhood toys “vintage,” but this is her childhood toy, and although it is well-used, it is in pristine condition. It’s fascinating: hundreds upon hundreds of tiny metal parts, all neatly slotted into their custom-molded spots in their Styrofoam trays. There’s a something so refreshing about the dearth of plastic or instructions, the way it challenges kids to figure things out, experiment. (My feminist self is both amused and horrified by the promotional copy on the box: “Meccano turns a boy’s world into a man’s world.” Hunh.)
As I dusted off the Meccano set, I could already feel myself getting tense about what havoc Isaac could wreak upon this beautiful, vintage, fascinating toy. Left his own devices, he’s the kind of kid who likes to squirrel away shiny things, repurpose them for his own imagination. I knew he’d be fascinated by the set, but I also knew that he’d want to screw together all the metal rods and create a sword, and then take it outside, and then whack trees with it, and then forget about it.
So, I searched for a middle ground: “You can play with this, but you have to promise me that all the pieces stay together at the table,” I told him. “When you’re done, everything goes back until the next time.”
He nodded, and then got to work building a bridge. For the next four hours!
Read more: How to raise a creative child>
Every so often, he’d ask me for a bit of help with tightening a bolt or figuring out some engineering issue. At one point, I put a glass of water and a banana and a grilled cheese sandwich on the table, and they were consumed. When nuts and bolts dropped on the floor, he mostly remembered to pick them up. And when he tried to sneak upstairs with two long metal rods tapes together with (obviously) masking tape, I stopped him. “No way, José.”
You know what? The Meccano set is not going to stay pristine. We will talk about boundaries, we will clean up again and again and again, we will discourage contraband smuggling of nuts and bolts to various bedrooms. But, in the end, we are going to lose a few pieces of it. And I am (mostly) OK with that, because in the long run, we are going to gain hours and hours of creative entertainment and pleasure.
He’s learning to build bridges. And so, in a way, am I.
Thunder Bay, Ont., writer Susan Goldberg is a transplanted Torontonian and one of two mothers to two boys. Follow along as she shares her family’s experiences. Read more of Susan’s The other mother posts and tweet her @MamaNonGrata.