This morning my wife found me playing with my son’s toy cars again. It was the third time this week. My son and I have invented a game that involved us trying to shoot his cars up a steep toy-car ramp, sending them airborne across an expanse of his bedroom and over the lip of his laundry hamper to land inside it. After much practice, we now succeed in about 40 percent of our attempts.
My son seems to really like this game, but the trouble is that I like it even more. He will lose interest after a while, move on to another, more destructive activity in some other part of the house. But I will keep at it with his car, trying just one more time to launch one into his hamper. Then my wife will walk in.
What strikes her as odd about the scene is not that I’m playing with my son’s toy cars but that I’m playing with them by myself. If my son will still in the room when she walked in, nothing would seen at all out of order to her. My son, in other words, is my cover. As long as he is around, I’m free to indulge my every adolescent whim, all in the name of bonding with my boy.
Of all the blessing of fatherhood, this may be the greatest: the license to act like a 5-year-old. I always believed that fatherhood would transform me in some profound way―make me wiser, more loving, more of a man. What it has really done is given me an excuse to play with toy cars. In the name of parenting, I now spend entire days in an orgy of second-childhood indulgence. I do 180-reverse slams on my son’s adjustable baby-basketball hoop. I binge on Post Alpha-Bits. I spend hours watching the Cartoon Network.
In fact, now that I’m a father, I act more like a child than I ever did when I was an actual child. And that makes me a fitting representative of the most immature society in the history of civilization. Some have called it the Kidult Society, and others the Age of Adultescent, but whatever you call it, one thing is obvious: Never before have so many acted so childishly at such an advanced age. See us putting around on our microscooters. See us joining our fantasy football leagues. See us toying with our PlayStations and our walkie-talkies and reading our Harry Potter books. I know stay-at-home parents who build their days around episodes of Blue’s Clues. I know guys who travel out town on weekends to compete in dodgeball tournaments. We may look like grown-ups, but we act like a bunch of kids.
The amazing thing is that few of us seem to find this state of affairs unusual. It’s simply accepted practice these days for adults to veer off into kiddie land for a few hours at a time. Sometimes the childishness fits in under the pretext of parenting. Keep a kid at your side and no one will think twice if you want to climb up into the tree house and play pirates. My neighbors see me running around the backyard chasing a Wiffle ball like it was Game 7 of the World Series, and they invariably praise me for being “so good with children.” What they find so admirable, in other words, is that a grown man can have the manner, interests, and intellect of a fourth-grader.
What man can be praised for being “good with kids” and not cringe a little? Who wants to be known as a really good Play-Doh modeler? My father and the fathers of my boyhood friends were men of gravitas, authority figures. Even as we loved them, my friends and I were a little afraid of and in awe of our fathers. They were not childish men. It’s not that my father would never play, say, a game of Wiffle ball with me or my brothers, but rather that, restrained by some old-world code of sober masculinity, he would never have been caught dead running the base with uncontrolled glee the way I do. Hell, I can’t remember him ever taking a turn at bat. He was the batting-practice pitcher, the instructor, the coach .The grown-up.
George Bernard Shaw once observed, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” He was probably right, but to me the sentiment loses all credibility because it sounds like greeting-card copy. I’m more inclined to listen to baseman Brooks Robinson, who when asked about giving up baseball said, “A man can’t play games his whole life.”
And yet here I am on the floor again with my son’s toy cars, my son is next to me, having a conversation with one of his cars, inviting it to let him take it for a ride, I think. I want to warn the little car to be careful, because I have seen this routine before, and I know that within seconds my son will be crashing that same car into his bedroom wall, complete with sounds of explosions and wailing sirens. I know that my boy could only have learned this sort of thing from me, but all the same, my urge to stop the mayhem is intense. This compulsion to play protector arrived as part of the fatherhood package; right around the time I started playing with toys.
When we brought him back from the hospital, my son was moonfaced and snuffling, eight pounds of need. I’d never felt so vulnerable in my life, and the feeling has not let up. What freaked me out was not my boy’s need, because after all, it was not news to me that kids need their parents. No, the real news was how suddenly and completely I needed my boy. I do what I can. I go to my computer and tap at the keyboard, trying to produce enough words to keep him fed and clothed and protected. I stand by, concerned and useless, while my wife tends to him when he’s sick. And when he says, “Daddy, play cars,” I do as I am told and play with his cars. Now he has lined up his cars on the edge of the table in his bedroom and is pushing them off the edge one by one. When each hits the floor, he says, matter-of-factly, “Boom.” How absurd is it that it makes me nervous to see this kind of carnage going down in proximity to him, even though he is the one pushing the cars over the edge? I’m on the floor, with the car my boy has handed me. Soon, he’ll get tired of this game and head elsewhere. I will stay close, just in case I need him.