We try our best to keep our children from the mass of plastic, noisy, electronic garbage that passes for toys these days. Children used to play with wooden or metal toy trucks that required them to scoot around on the floor and make sounds. Now they are given plastic trucks with electronic gizmos that won’t keep quiet, and a remote control so they can sit on their fat little fannies and steer them into the ankles of nearby adults. Even Tonka, the great toymaker of my childhood, now produces almost nothing but this junk.
Anyone looking to explain the rise of attention-deficit disorder, beyond parenting that fails to instill self-discipline and peacefulness, need look no further than the hyperactive electronic surroundings of the modern American child. We overdose them on sugars, stick them for hours on end in front of a big box with flitting color pictures and overly loud sounds, give them toys that produce the same effect, and then marvel over the fact that they can’t sit still, or pay attention long enough to learn to read.
Despite our best efforts, Caleb is fully aware of the importance of batteries. This is because two of the things he loves — flashlights and a child’s tape player, feed on them like vampires. Thus we are inevitably searching for batteries.
I tell you this so you will understand the following scene: Caleb is sitting on his little potty. It is during a period when he has decided that his poop is too precious to release into this uncaring world. The hour of crisis has arrived, when the danger of unintentional release has compelled him to direct his body to release no waste, lest the dam, if you will, burst forth.
So there he sits on the pot, happily reading his big Busytown book, while I cajole him.
“Oh bother (for he loves Winnie-the-Pooh — pardon the pun), I’ll have to poo-poo later.”
“How about now?”
“Oh bother . . .”
“Alright, alright. But don’t you need to tinkle?”
A serious look comes over his face as he contemplates what it will take to achieve this while continuing his poop embargo. Finally he declares, “my pee-pee’s not working. It needs new batteries.”
May that never be true.
A few nights before Christmas he was again enjoying a good read of Busytown (he calls it his “big book busytown book”) when a knock came on the door. I opened it to find forty or so carrolers on our front lawn. They commenced to singing, and upon hearing them the lovely wife walked towards the foyer from the kitchen. Now, Caleb loves visitors. He had only just an hour before made fast friends with a hopelessly deluded and earnest college student seeking contributions for a local environmental group. So as my wife came down the hallway, she — thankfully — intercepted Caleb, waddling as fast as his pants, which were still down around his ankles, would let him. She helped him get decent before bringing him to the door, which I’m sure the crowd appreciated.
And then there is thankfulness, which, like many things that we are tempted to take for granted in children, must be inculcated. We are standing in the grocery store check-out line, and Caleb is trying, and failing, to keep his little hands off the candy.
He asks, holding up a bag of M&M’s, “can I have it?”
“Can I have this?” He is holding a Twix bar.
“Can I have this?” Bazooka gum.
“Can I have this?” Tic-Tacs.
“No, Caleb. Listen, we just bought you a something. We need to be thankful for what we already got this evening.”
He studies the candy shelf in silence. I count the items in the cart wheeled by the woman in front of us. There are decidedly more than twelve. I feel a tug on my jacket, and look down. Caleb is now holding a Snickers bar.
“Can we be thankful for this?”
That’s not as easy to answer as you might think. Moral instruction is especially difficult when one is struggling not to laugh. I wonder if God ever has this problem.
So now he’s into Mr. Rogers. I am fine with this. The Grand Marshals of the Rose Parade this year, by the way, were Mr. Rogers, Bill Cosby, and Art Linkletter. The only interview I saw with them was on a Spanish station, during which they spoke in English and their interviewer translated for his Spanish-speaking viewers. At one point, the interviewer asked Bill Cosby whether he believed there are still good television shows for children.
“No,” said Cosby, suddenly going from jovial to a bit angry. “There are things on today that my parents would never have let us watch, and there are few shows that I think are good for children to see any more.”
While a slightly surprised interviewer translated his answer, Mr. Rogers reached out and put his hand on Cosby’s arm in a show of support. So I dig Mr. Rogers, and Bill Cosby, and I recall Eddie Murphy’s famous spat with Cosby, and now conclude that Murphy will be blessed if he can ever claim to be half the man that Cosby is.
But back to Mr. Rogers, and his influence on Caleb. My son has some cheap blue nylon tennis shoes with velcro straps. They look a lot like the blue shoes Mr. Rogers puts on when he comes in to his house, singing his famous song. A few weeks ago my wife happened upon Caleb at the top of the stairs, slipping on his “bobos,” as I call them. “Would you be mine, could you be mine, please won’t you be my neighbor,” he sang.
God bless Mr. Rogers.
And as a good neighbor should, Caleb often tries to be helpful. The other day he and Eli were in their bedroom with their mother. She and Caleb went into another room for something, leaving Eli to play on the floor with a block in the manner he has, which involves lying on his back and chewing fruitlessly on it, in the hopes that it will transform itself into food. After a moment he realized he was alone, and began to fuss.
“What’s wrong with Eli?” Caleb asked.
“Oh, he doesn’t know where we are,” replied his mother.
Caleb ran back into the bedroom. “We’re in Virginia, Eli.”