by Andrew Santella
GQ, July 2004
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 involves trying to shoot his toy cars up a steep toy-car ramp, sending them airborne across an expanse of his bedroom and finally over the lip of his laundry hamper to land inside it, cushioned there by a pile of his soiled Toughskins. After much practice, we now succeed on 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’ll lose interest after a while, move onto another, more destructive activity in some other part of the house. But I’ll keep at it with his cars, trying just one more time to launch one into his laundry 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 were still in the room when she walked in, nothing would seem 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 blessings 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 give 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 Hasbro adjustable basketball hoop. I binge on Post Alpha-Bits. I spend hours with the Cartoon Network.
In fact, now that I am 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 the 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 puttering around on our micro-scooters. 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 each episode of "Blue’s Clues." I know guys who travel out of town on weekends to compete in dodgeball tournaments. And what is a driver of a Hummer doing but playing with an enormously expensive Tonka toy? We may look like grownups, 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 kiddieland 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 in the treehouse and play pretend pirates. My neighbors see me running around in the backyard chasing a wiffleball 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 be caught dead running the bases with unrestrained glee the way I do. Hell, I can’t really remember him ever taking a turn at bat. He was the batting practice pitcher, the instructor, the coach. The grownup.
But what about a sense of playfulness, ask all the amateur psychologists. Don’t we value that? The problem with sticking up for playfulness is that you sound like such a ninny doing it. George Bernard Shaw is credited with observing that, "We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing." He was probably exactly right, but to me the sentiment loses all credibility because it sounds like greeting card copy. I’m more inclined to listen to philosopher-third 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, the urge to stop the mayhem is intense.
This compulsion to play protector arrived as part of the fatherhood package, right around the same 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 his cars up 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 just handed me. Soon, he’ll get tired of this game and head elsewhere. I will stay close, just in case I need him.