As parents, ours is to arbitrate the diffusion of the world’s experiences to our children. Those joys and aches they will know in their earliest days are mostly under our control, or at least our influence. Spaghetti-Os for two meals in a row? A yes is the ecstasy of indulgence. A no is the bruised, battered heart of betrayal. The choice is ours to make. So long as these initial contacts with life’s pleasures and anguishes are small, manageable, our choices are colored more by attempts to inculcate our children with Lessons. Delayed gratification > instant gratification. Per the Stones, You Can’t Always Get What You Want. Eating dessert with every meal is a bad idea for the waistline, gum line, and the checkbook’s bottom line. You get the idea.
So, Joshua, Grandma, and I found ourselves at the Virginia Museum of Transportation on his birthday. It was an unplanned visit, as we’d intended to go to a park that we, ultimately, could not find. This was despite the availability of two different GPS devices in the car and the [missed] opportunity to get directions from someone who’d actually been there before. As we drove in circles around the Flying Dutchman of public parks, it became apparent that the daylight hours of Joshua’s 4th birthday were better spent doing something other than just driving. So, to the VMT we went.
Now, I didn’t have super high hopes for this visit. Joshua’s last trip there, nearly half his life ago, combined the frustrations of his general disinterest in all things transportation with a head wound as he stood up too quickly beneath one of the displays. So, at the very least, I was hoping to avoid a concussion this time.
No head wounds marred this visit, and that was only the beginning (and an excellent beginning it is in almost all things*)! Joshua very quickly became enamored with the museum’s large, operational model train layout. He stood transfixed by the O-Gauge trains going through tunnels, over bridges, around curves, and just generally doing train things. He very quickly, and then only at the urging of Grandma and Dad, peeked into the automobile exhibit, but upon discovering that this exhibit did not also feature an operational model train layout, he pitter-pattered back to the trains.
Trying to wrest his attention from the small trains to get him to look at the very large, very real engines and train cars at the museum was quite the challenge. When we did finally get him out to the rail yard to see the genuine articles, he was initially interested only in climbing on the benches next to several of the museum’s largest pieces. But once he discovered that he could climb on and in some of them, the rest of his time there was a two-man parade as he led Grandma onto and into everything that wasn’t roped off, and a few things that were. He and poor Grandma toured the caboose about 5,000 times. Even after all that, he still wanted to see the model trains again before we left.
I’m not sure what it is about boys and trains. I used to work at the VMT, and I saw boys of all ages share this timeless, boundless passion for the iron horse. The little boys would play with the wooden trains, the bigger boys would gawk at the model trains, as Joshua did, and the biggest boys (and I include in this group full-grown men) would pose for pictures next to their favorite engines and other rail equipment. But one need only flip on an episode of Thomas the Tank Engine to halt a young boy’s play and induce a full-on boy-gasm. Joshua seemed immune from the steam engine’s siren call for a long time, but he, too, has succumbed. For days since, he implores anyone who isn’t talking to him to begin talking to him, and that the subject of these talks be Trains. By the way, if you’d ever like to see how much or how little you actually know about a subject, try to describe it to a 4-year old. Recently, I’ve discussed, trains, the development of the alphabets (Greek, English, Spanish, and German), how yeast works, the importance of dental hygiene, and the heiiocentric model of the Solar System. That was on Tuesday.
The visit culminated, predictably, in a trip to the gift shop, because to my mother, going to the gift shop after touring a museum is just What You Do, like eating cake on your birthday or thinking about how much you hate mowing grass while you mow grass. This was the same store that I used to run during my time there, and it was in my old store that Joshua saw the apex, the confluence, the sum of all his boyhood dreams — wooden train cars with letters on them. Combining his indefatigable love of the alphabet with his newfound obsession with trains, this seemed to be as good as toys could get. And so, naturally, he asked for them. At $4 per letter car. Obviously, dropping over $100 on these things after he’d already had some birthday presents and a trip to the museum was not going to happen. Though we hadn’t set out to the museum or its gift shop to teach any of life’s lessons, here it was that I got to instigate for him the realization that he cannot always get just anything he might want. He took the news stubbornly at first, responding as only a 4-year old can, “But I want them!” as if Grandma and Dad simply misunderstood his intentions, and If They Only Knew That I Want Them They’d Get Them. We firmly but gently let him know that this was not an option and that he could look for something else. Remarkably, he did so without any significant Fukushima-style meltdowns, and settled on a truck which had, naturally, letters on it.
This is probably the part where I should talk about how I learned a lesson or something. I’ve been trying to think of one, because I feel like this is one of those times where I’m supposed to learn from my kid as much as he’s learning from me***. All I’ve come up with is this:
Check out the gift shop before your kid goes in.
*The only time I can think of in which a head wound would be a good beginning is some sort of contest in which competitors try to get a head wound**.
**Odd though it sounds, this is basically the plot of the Jackass movies.
***This whole line of thinking, that we can learn from our kids, is basically bollocks. If you’ve made it to adulthood and you’re learning things from your kids, you quite obviously missed a few things earlier in life. Pay more attention.