Do toys and games shape who we will become?
My son recently turned six, and before that, my wife and I pushed aside the existential fear that his birthday invites in favor of something much more practical – finalizing the current list.
We have new diecast cars, but we had to choose between a track that does loops, a drag race track, and a track that creates huge crashes (I personally supported big crashes).
Also on the list is a new football goal, some board games and – much to my chagrin – a Dragons shirt because despite my constant explanations of why Manly are the top team in the league of rugby, he decided to barracks for the reds and whites. .
And as we go through the list, I can’t help but substitute one angst for another. You see, our son was the kid who specifically picked out a party tutu for his fourth birthday (dark blue with pom poms).
Her six-year-old gift list could have been pulled straight from the “boys” section of the department store catalog.
And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with my son’s changing interests, I struggle with the feeling that something has been lost – or worse, that I’ve done something wrong in as a parent who brought us here.
My wife and I have been typical millennial parents – trying to educate older generations on why it’s okay for our son to wear pink or wear a skirt.
I fear that my son’s toy transition is not just a change of interests, but the first sign that my son is internalizing the gender scripts we have tried to protect him from.
I’m afraid somewhere along the line he inherited a set of rules about what kind of things he should and shouldn’t enjoy. I worry that he chooses his interests and enjoys some things – and gives up on others – because he has a sense of what it takes to belong.
Am I overthinking this? For sure.
The angst of the relationship between sex and gambling is familiar to many parents. On the one hand, we want to avoid passing on to our children outdated gender roles, norms and beliefs. But on the other hand, the unicorn onesies everyone bought my daughter when she was born are so cute.
Yet, while overthinking is a professional hazard for a parenting unit made up of me (a philosopher) and my wife (a family therapist), there is something to be gained from considering when, why, and how our children’s interests change, and what happens when they do.
Because what my son finds interesting, fun and connecting matters.
Every passion my son develops represents a thousand passions he doesn’t have. Each of these unplayed games represents, to some degree, a change in the kind of person he is.
Every Pokémon battle, soccer game, and run is an investment in competitiveness that could have gone somewhere else — in imaginary, collaborative, or creative play — all of the interests it veered away from.
His playmates tend to be other boys, who speak the same gaming language. Which means his play tends to be dictated by the interests of those boys, and the next thing you know, tutus are gone, and with them goes a group of potential friends he might have bonded with had he had a wider range of playstyles.
Gone with them are a whole lot of opportunities to practice the kinds of connection that these forms of play invite. At home, that means her younger sister feels like she has to be interested in Pokémon or the NRL to connect with her older brother.
It would be easy to turn this into a discussion of how children’s play shapes the adults they become. But I’m not entirely convinced that’s true. I’m not sure that’s the primary concern either.
To adopt this as my primary concern would be to prefer the needs and interests of the adult my son will become to the person he is now.
I recently came across a distinction between two different ways adults see children: as human beings or as human beings in the making.
When we only see children as children, we tend to ignore what happens to them unless it has long-term developmental consequences. If it’s something they’re going to “get out of”, we’re more likely to tolerate it.
This makes it much easier to relax about a birthday list, but I’m not sure this is the right approach. I want my son’s life, interests and relationships to be as rich now as they will be when he is older. And that means a little extra toy anxiety.
But what should I do? After all, the heart wants what the heart wants – in love, as well as toys.
Also, there is something on a parent’s nose that imposes their own view of who their child should be, whether through gifts or other means.
At this early stage, perhaps the best gifts I can give my son are invitations – windows into new ways to play, explore, and be.
With that in mind, I searched for stories that take her out of the world of heroes in search and into relationships, care and friendship, and board games that require cooperation rather than competition.
They may gather dust for a little while, but they remind him – in case he needs to – that he can be whoever he wants to be at home.
Also, I could add a Manly cap to go with the Dragons jersey.
Matt Beard is a father, husband, ethicist and host of the Short and Curly podcast.
ABC Everyday in your inbox
Get our newsletter for the best of ABC Everyday every week