We have guests for dinner tonight. Small wooden guests. Thomas, James, Percy and Toby… or as P likes to call him, “Tovy.” Four little wooden trains in a perfect line, surveying my son as he eats his dinner.
We’ve actually had these trains for years, except Tovy, who is a new acquisition. In fact, and don’t tell P this, we had five Thomases up until about six weeks ago, when I donated two of them to the Salvation Army in a toy purge. At the time he didn’t notice, but now he has them all catalogued.
What’s changed? Why have these humble little trains suddenly become such favourites that my son cannot sleep, eat or bathe without at least one of them by his side? Well, I’ll be honest: I let him watch the Thomas videos. And he was hooked. And suddenly he was rooting through that basket of trains, naming them, and listing which one he wants next.
Before Thomas, we had other dinner guests. First it was Lightning McQueen and pals. He saw the Cars movie at a friend’s house when he was being babysat. I had never paid much attention to Lightning McQueen before then, but suddenly he was everywhere: on sippy cups, bouncy balls, toy houses, fake computers, restaurant advertising. I’d walked through Toys’R’Us many times before, but after seeing Cars, it was no longer just a toy store. It was a toy store chockfull of Lightning McQueen merchandising. And my son has eagle eyes. No matter how high on a shelf, or how small the logo, he will see it. Once we were walking through a craft store and on a shelf about nineteen feet high there was a teeny-tiny Lightning birthday candle. “I want to see it! I just want to look at it!!” he yelled.
After Lightning, there was Buzz and Woody. I take full blame for this one – I (er, Santa) bought Woody and Buzz on sale at Canadian Tire and voluntarily showed my son the movie. It was nominated for an Oscar after all! Buzz and Woody didn’t just come to dinner, they even vacationed with us. On our trip to Mexico, Woody was everywhere – at the beach, at the ruins, in the hammock, cuddled under the hotel room. And his hat. P can be a little OCD about Woody’s hat, which unfortunately does not stay on particularly well. So I spent at least half our trip carefully tracking the movements of Woody’s hat – P fell asleep in my husband’s arms on our way back from dinner and my eyes were on that hat. Good thing too, because it fell off Woody’s head and landed under some brush on a tree, but I got it!
And so now, it’s Thomas. If I had known how expensive those trains were, I might not have showed him that video. One tiny piece of wood and plastic retails for $16 at your neighbourhood Chapters – which has an enormous display of them (along with several Cars characters and tie-in books). And no, they are not handmade in Switzerland by people making a living wage.
Part of me is grateful to Thomas and Lightning and Woody, and even Woody’s hat. They have given me many hours of free time as my son happily re-enacted scenes from the movies, or made up his own. And of course the shows buy me a half hour here and there too. But another part of me feels sad about it. I’ve made P three handmade toys. But there’s no show about those toys. There’s no multimillion dollar advertising campaign, no birthday candles, no outdoor baseball set or push-toys that tie in with them. They get played with for an hour, and then set aside.
I’m a perfect Waldorf or Montessori parent who avoids all plastic and mass-produced things. But once you open the floodgates to Woody or Lightning or Thomas, your child is inundated. He will find the Thomas ball at the thrift store, and the Lightning stickers at the dollar store, and the Toy Story book in the doctor’s waiting office. And then the doctor will see how much he loves that book and give it to him, so you’ll be forced to read it ad nauseum. And then he’ll cry at dinner because he desperately wants Annie and Clarabelle, who are “Thomas’s two very good friends!” And you’ll always have guests for dinner.