Lego and other weapons of mass destruction
The US Navy Seals who conducted the deadly raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani compound worked under dangerous conditions. Hazardous stealth helicoptering, firefights and the wrangling of a feisty military canine called Cairo were all involved.
One peril, however, loomed above all the others and remains oddly under-discussed. I speak, of course, of the treacherous tangle of children’s mess that covered the Abbottabad compound floors.
Plastic pistols, a doll’s house, a red pedal car… The graininess of the post-assassination footage and the laconic inclinations of the Pentagon means it’s difficult to put together a precise inventory. But, given the bevy of bin Laden children living at the compound, it’s no surprise the domestic booby traps were numerous.
One can only imagine the rising panic of those brave soldiers as their night vision goggles adjusted to the bike-strewn gloom and they realised the potentially lethal obstacle course that lay ahead. Those with their own ankle-biters must have been especially tempted to abort.
“This is Neptune Spear to Big Daddy. This is Neptune Spear to Big Daddy. The entire carpet is Lego blocked. I repeat, the entire carpet is…. OWWW, dear Lord, no, my foot…”
The sight of bin Laden’s toy-strewn floors is also terrifying to outsiders because it reveals that there is truly no cure for the household havoc wreaked by children.
After all, if the most feared man in the megaverse couldn’t inspire his offspring to clean up their junk and stop trashing his lair, what hope do the rest of us have?
Oh, all right. That’s a tasteless joke. But there’s no denying that the shock and awe of children’s mess really does impose what’s known in military parlance as “rapid dominance”.
Like Dr Who’s tardis, kids’ toy collections look compact from the outside, but have cosmic inflationary properties which are truly Big Bangish. It’s a frequently observed fact, for instance, that the contents of even a modestly sized toy box can expand to a house, a backyard and several vehicles once removed from the safety of their receptacle.
“My youngest daughter’s inflationary skills mimic the Big Bang in speed, too,” observes one colleague. “Her toys can fill the observable universe in a picosecond.”
An inverse phenomenon occurs in relation to the all-consuming black hole under lounges, in that there is no limit to the amount of junk which can disappear beneath without ever materialising again.
Furniture crevices can also inhale staggering volumes of play things and dinner scrapings, which are regurgitated – complete with seething new ecosystems – at the most inopportune moments.
Four other toy mysteries:
* there will always be slightly fewer texta caps than textas;
* fluorescent Play-Doh smears can always be found between floorboard cracks even if no Play-Doh has ever been purchased;
* the favourite spiderperson/clip-on Barbie earring/purple horse is always the one which cannot be located;
* a child will always be able to mess up a house slightly faster than an adult is able to clean it.
While dealing with the chaotic fall-out of the average child’s play session has always been tough on grown-ups, there is evidence to suggest it’s getting tougher.
For starters, children have way more stuff than they used to. These days no childhood is complete without a zillion items of resource-chewing, rubbish-dump-filling, white trash-signifying plastic crap. (Please note that my dismissive reference of such crap is not to suggest I don’t also purchase planet-loads of it.)
Perversely enough, this increase in children’s possessions seems to be accompanied by a decrease in parents’ ability to deal with the consequent disorder.
One theory is that frazzled parents who try to get work done at home require atmospherics that are conducive to concentration.
“Parents furiously tapping on their BlackBerrys in the living room [are] too stressed by work demands to tolerate noisy games in the background,” The New York Times writes of the growing push to restore the messy business of play to the lives of overscheduled children.
This excess of structure and deficit of chaos can also be linked to the trend to hot-house their kids educationally.
It’s hard to imagine “tiger” children (such as those of writer Amy Chua) ever playing saucepan lid cymbals or constructing empires out of lounge cushions. They’re too busy practicing their scales and determining Pi.
Such approaches may produce violin and maths prodigies but they also have many downsides. Last month, the NSW Families Minister Pru Goward argued that overscheduled children can become tired, overwhelmed and irritable if deprived of down-time.
Tiger parenting also seems awfully narcissistic in that carefully cultivated offspring are used primarily as advertising billboards for the disciplined brilliance of their adult operators.
Free play, in contrast, offers children many advantages. In the most recent edition of his book Children, Play, and Development, US academic Fergus P Hughes, describes the value of play to intellectual functioning, parent-child attachment and social integration. This includes a delightfully detailed discussion of the properties and benefits of clay, play dough, backyard mud, snow and “other formless materials”.
Hughes lists five essential characteristics of play including that it be freely chosen by participants, that it involve a certain element of make-believe, and that it be done purely for the joy of it.
In other words, it won’t work if it’s forced, or is a form of thinly disguised scholarship. (Like their ability to eat round shredded zucchini in rissoles, kids have a sixth sense for stealth education.)
I also think it’s important to refrain from giving children orders about playing with toys in a strictly literal fashion.
While Barbie may not have been manufactured for use as a sword, this seems a perfectly reasonable deployment of the perky, plastic one. By the same token, matchbox cars make striking fashion accessories if they are secured onto one’s princess suit with sufficient gaff tape.
As a neat freak, I struggle with the domestic devastation wrought by my four-year-old, and often wish I had the advantage of Navy Seal training as I slash my way through the toe-piercing doll arms, the flesh slashing Tonka doors and the ancient mandarin quarters that have begun respiration all on their own.
Yet, for me, one of the great delights of parenthood is listening to the surreal connections and explanatory narratives that emerge from the mess. This week, for instance, Alice invented something called jingle bell astronaut school using only a zillion items of plastic crap and some modelling clay dissolved in a bowl of sugar-free Ribena.
I was so proud. I was also mopping up for a very long time.
Emma Jane is also a columnist for The Australian
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