Recently I was struggling (audibly, possibly profanely) with a teapot; I cannot pour from it without spilling. My wife said, “Hey, I like that teapot—don’t go ‘Diaper Genie’ on it.” She was referring to when, as a new parent, I lost my temper over our diaper pail and hurled it down the stairs. (To this day I feel my action was justified. A “friend” had given us a lightly used Diaper Genie, which—despite having its original box, so it could be passed off as new—wasn’t compatible with the modern bag/liner cartridge it came with, so in trying to install the cartridge I was unknowingly attempting the impossible.)
As maddening as baby-related accessories can be, parenting itself can be even tougher. Read on for the tale of how I came this close to executing improper parenting techniques. This was at Target, where I came into contact with the retail equivalent of an Improvised Explosive Device.
November 8, 2003 - Irksome Little Pony
Today I took Alexa [age 2 at this point] to Target to get a new Diaper Genie. (The manufacturer stopped making cartridges for our old one.) I had my wife make a list of other stuff to buy. “DVD entertainment” was not on the list, but I headed over to the Audio/Video section first thing anyway. I’m getting tired of Alexa’s meager video library and I must confess, I’ve been so tired lately I’ve been letting her watch non-child oriented fare, like Bond movies.
Of course, the vast majority of Target’s inventory of child-oriented videos are crap, like Barney, the cloying purple dinosaur, and the Teletubbies, those really uncanny, creepy little . . . heck, I don’t know what to call them. Gnomes, I guess, with TVs built into their bellies. They give me the willies. Alexa watches them occasionally at day care, alas, and seems to love them just like the rest of the kids do. That’s probably the creepiest part. I mean, I can see why she likes Wallace and Gromit; they’re neat-looking, and there’s lots of action. But Teletubbies? These creatures seem barely smarter than cows. They can’t even talk; they’re just like little pawns.
And don’t get me started on “Baby Mozart,” “Baby Shakespeare,” and “Baby Einstein,” which masquerade as educational fare but actually feature totally dippy, non-name-brand music with the camera panning lovingly over still-lifes of bright new toys, like a damn product catalog. Over my dead body. I’d rather put “Dr. No” in again and explain to Alexa, “See? The woman is sleeping,” and hope that my innocent daughter doesn’t yet understand what gunfire is.
In the video aisle somebody had abandoned a little toy. Alexa, sitting in the shopping cart seat, legs swinging, immediately became enchanted with it. I grabbed it, out of idle curiosity, and discovered it was a Poky Little Pony. I only have a vague awareness of Poky Little Pony. I’m guessing this toy is an offshoot of a kid’s book. This one had a fancy mane, made to seem like human hair, and came with a little choking-hazard toy brush and some other stuff. The accessories were lashed firmly to the packaging, so I figured Alexa couldn’t do much damage to Poky or herself, and I let her play with it while I looked for the video. (I decided to indulge her partly because she was running a bit ragged; last night was rough, and she was a bit late for her afternoon nap.)
Alexa struggled in vain to remove Poky from the package. “Help, Daddy,” she said. I tried to ignore this, but when she dug deep and came out with, “Help, Daddy, please,” I was so won over by the lessons she’d learned—don’t just scream; ask for help; say please—that I relented and freed Poky. (After all, some other kid had already ripped open the package and abandoned it in the DVD section. This was a problem already in motion.)
Man, what a lame toy. The head didn’t even turn. No small child could be interested in this toy for more than five minutes. Or am I underestimating children? I guess a bright kid could figure out a new, illicit way to have fun with Poky (e.g., taunt a less privileged child with it; try to eat its head; tear out its hair; use it as a spoon; slather it with model airplane cement and torch it). But of course Alexa loved Poky, and instantly memorized his/her name, turning this name into a mantra as we continued our shopping.
[I guess I should point out that, as I discovered years later, the pony isn’t actually named “Poky.” It’s called “My Little Pony” and actually there are lots of different ones, with names like Blue Bell, Snuzzle, and Skydancer. My bad. I’d seen a New Yorker cartoon showing hip-hop revisions of children’s books, one of which featured Jay-Z fronting The Poky Little Posse. I thought “Posse” was replacing “Pony” but it’s actually making fun of Poky Little Puppy, apparently some classic children’s book. So my daughter—oblivious, at this age, of the need to second-guess me—blithely accepted that the horse’s name was Poky.]
After getting the modern Diaper Genie and other items, there was just one more thing to do before checking out: return Poky. I vainly hoped Alexa would be excited enough by the new synthetic fireproof blanket I’d put in our cart that she’d forget about the stupid toy, but instead she—adorably—put it to bed on the blanket. Man. I can’t think of a more volatile situation than bringing a toddler to the Toys section of Target. I was tempted to abandon my daughter in some boring aisle, like linens, and then return Poky on my own. You know, surgical—get in, make the drop, get out. But this is America, which means if I left Alexa alone for even a second, she would either be abducted, or—worse—somebody would find her, turn her in to the authorities, and I’d end up doing time for abandoning her.
I cursed myself silently for allowing things to escalate like this. My wife would have never snatched up Poky in the first place. Heck, she probably wouldn’t have been in the video aisle to begin with—she’d be getting the things on the actual list. But I’m a softie. Besides, I’d deluded myself that Alexa would quickly exhaust her joy over Poky, and we as a family would enjoy all the benefits of having actually bought it, with none of the expense, clutter, or model-airplane-cement infernos. On some subconscious level, I must have convinced myself that if Alexa and I made enough of these shrewd moves, over time, we’d eventually rule the galaxy as father and daughter—Alexa drawing from all the novel stimulation she’d had as a kid, and me drawing from the vast financial empire I’d built up from all the money I didn’t waste. But instead, I found myself rolling Alexa toward what I feared would be my Waterloo.
I was tempted to employ trickery to save the situation. But I hate to manipulate a child. After all, it’s not really fair, given my vast advantage of life experience, to take advantage of young naivety. Besides, there are so many ways such trickery can fail.
For one, what if your manipulation doesn’t come off? That can be humbling. I’ve tried many times to outsmart the cat—to trick her into coming over by pretending I have food, for example—and she’s looked at me with a feline expression that says, “Exactly how stupid do you think I am?” Or there was the time I tried to outsmart my niece Lonneke, when she was Alexa’s age. Lonneke had discovered the TV remote control and was annoying me with it, changing the volume and the channel, etc., so I took the batteries out. She came after the batteries and I freely gave them to her, figuring that she’d never figure out how to reinstall them in the remote anyway. I figured wrong.
Another problem with manipulation is that it can give the manipulator, if he’s successful, a touch of contempt for the manipulated. For example, many times I’ve pretended to throw a stick for a dog, who stupidly runs out to catch it, and then looks all over the sky for it, then starts sniffing all over the ground for it, while I’m standing there still holding the stick, shaking my head. After the tenth fake throw in a row, as the dog is still gamely running for a phantom stick, I’m completely disgusted with the entire canine kingdom. I’d hate to draw subconscious conclusions about my own child based on my ability to easily deceive her.
Third, there’s a guilt problem: taking advantage of the trust of your own child, and abusing that trust for short-term gain, could easily gnaw on a guy, at least a softie like myself.
Finally, perhaps most importantly, if you underestimate your kid, a lame attempt at subterfuge could insult her intelligence. Sure, I might trick the kid when she’s too young to know any better, but that doesn’t mean she won’t remember what happened and put it all together later. Then she’ll realize what a dick I was, and be suspicious of the more sophisticated deceptions I might be employing later on.
So I stopped the stroller at the end of the Toys aisle (though I pointed it away from the goods). I asked Alexa to hold the video, and then asked her to hold the fireproof blanket. Little kids are always so eager to help out, especially when it means holding things. (I guess the novelty of effectively employing one’s newly prehensile hands takes awhile to wear off.) Then, Alexa’s hands being full, I took Poky.
This was the key moment where I forever defined who and what I would be as a parent. To take Poky without Alexa noticing would be manipulation. But by distracting her somewhat, I theorized, I could mitigate her sense of loss, and do so without trickery by announcing what I was doing. “Here, I’ll take Poky,” I said, loud and clear. And of course she immediately began yelling in protest. While Alexa yelled, I spun around, located Poky’s clones, reunited “our” Poky with them, and took a moment to satisfy my curiosity about the price ($4.99) before returning to the cart. Within a minute or so Alexa had basically calmed down. Sure, the loss wasn’t forgotten; for several hours she kept asking where Poky went, but never did throw the tantrum I’d so dreaded.
I have concluded that Alexa is not (yet) a spoiled rotten brat, but she’s not (yet) a beaten-down, joyless automaton either. Heck, maybe I actually played the whole thing perfectly. She derived 90% of the joy and mental stimulation the toy is capable of providing (the other 10% being the use of the hairbrush, which I’d flat refused to remove from the packaging). I’d survived a battlefield test of my parenting tactics and ideals. Alexa, for her part, had a not-so-painful lesson in the sad fact that you can’t always get what you want. And if Target runs out of non-tampered-with Pokies, I’m sure some harried parent will shell out $4.99 for the one with the slightly damaged box.