Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Shattering the LEGO myth

As I’ve written before, I played with LEGOs a lot as a kid. My sister and I spent many hours constructing spacecraft, airplanes, buildings, and wheeled vehicles of all kinds. Sometimes we followed the instructions. Other times we mixed everything together to see what we could come up with. This was a special kind of play that challenged us in ways both technical and creative. It’s a kind of play that I had looked forward to sharing with Polly and Pip.

Unfortunately, this vision has currently run aground as our LEGO stash has become a central focus of a long-running tug-of-war between Polly and Pip.

Pip and Polly play with LEGOs in different ways. Pip likes to build things and have me build things with/for him. Polly likes to fiddle with pieces, swish them about in their containers, shovel them from one container to another, swim in them, and dismantle things – including the LEGO people - into their component pieces. These diverging interests seem about right for their respective ages and would not be a problem except that by the time Pip has settled down into building something, Polly has usually finished doing what interests her and is ready to move on to something else.

When this happens my tendency is to continue working with Pip and to pay only cursory attention to Polly. Ava and I have talked about this a couple of times, and my solution has been to find ways to engage Polly more when the LEGOs first come out. Now I ask her about the different colors she sees in the LEGO pile. I make small things for her to play with or dismantle as she sees fit. We roll the wheels back and forth. These efforts have gained me some extra time and have even yielded some positive results. This week one of the small spaceships that Pip and I made caught her fancy, and she spent a chunk of the morning flying it around the house. More often though, she is still ready to move on long before Pip has reached a good stopping point.

When this happens she acts out in various ways. She climbs on things she’s not supposed to. She runs around the house. She breaks down a LEGO creation that Pip had been working on. I’m not oblivious to all of this activity, but I feel torn about abandoning Pip’s projects in order to appease Polly. I find the romanticized image of a father and child bonding by building things together very appealing, and I see this dynamic at work when Pip and I are working on a LEGO creation. I hope Polly gets there one day as well but as a general rule I’m willing to put up with some acting out from her in order to have these moments with Pip.

On Monday afternoon, however, Polly got me. Pip and I were working on a project in the living room while Ava was pulling together some dinner in the kitchen. Polly was moving back and forth between the two rooms trying to decide where she wanted to play. When she would come into the living room, I would tickle her for a moment or do something to make her laugh and then go back to what Pip and I were working on. In my mind, this arrangement seemed to be working well. Then during one of her trips into the living room, Polly changed the game. This time instead of stopping in front of me, she dived into my lap. Then she slid off my legs and under the living room table. Landing on her back she pushed her feet up into the bottom of the table, tilting the whole thing just enough to knock a full container of LEGOs off it. With a sound like breaking glass, about two hundred pieces went splaying outward across the floor. Most came to a rest in the space underneath the couch.
It is difficult to judge how deliberate the specifics of this act were but the general effect was what Polly wanted: Pip and I put aside our building project and proceeded to move the couch and clean up the LEGOs, a project in which Polly could fully participate.

In talking about this episode after the kids went to bed, Ava laid out the situation for me in stark terms. She pointed out that the LEGOs have become a privileged site in Polly and Pip’s constant negotiations over how my attention is distributed between them. Pip understands at some level that by asking to build something with LEGOs he can corral my attention and tilt the distribution in his favor. Polly pulls back at this with her stunts. Dumping the LEGOs all over the place, for example, brings her back into the mix of things and dissipates the extra focus that Pip had successfully garnered.

As Ava was describing this scenario, I felt a ball starting to knot up in my stomach. The whole thing made me mad. I felt exploited by Pip and frustrated by Polly. I was angry at them for putting me in the middle of this kind of game. I want them to be better than this, to be above this kind of manipulative back and forth.

I was also mad at Ava for pointing the whole thing out. In many respects, I want to continue being naïve, to enjoy those nostalgic, Norman Rockwell-esque moments of playing with my children. For one thing, it makes me feel good. It makes me feel happy. For another, it serves a strategic purpose. By thinking of them as happy, cooperative, friendly, fun kids whose periods of misbehavior are momentary digressions I can maintain a sense of bemused calm when they do misbehave. This sense of bemused calm helps me correct them without overreacting or becoming mean. It helps me avoid creating the kind of negative reinforcement that can lead to further misbehavior. If I begin to think of them in Malthusian terms, engaging in a manipulative zero-sum competition for my attention, it becomes more difficult for me to maintain such a benevolent attitude towards them. In that scenario, each action they pursue takes on a sense of calculated motive, and it is difficult for me to find humor in that. Removing my veil of innocence in this situation makes me more cynical and less tolerant of the necessary experimentations of childhood.

Of course, this initial frustration with Ava and the kids will subside, and we will all move on. I’ll adjust how we play with LEGOs in the future – starting with daily time limits on building projects - and Pip and Polly will adjust their competition accordingly. They will probably move on to some other thing in the proxy war for parental attention. But it makes me sad to have the LEGOs covered in this kind of blood. The idyllic vision I enjoyed and nurtured of child and parent playing together will never fully recover. It will always be colored by the reality of what has taken place in the last few weeks.


  1. Love it! Hilarious! Keep up the great work together as parents!

  2. The following quote really struck me - "I want them to be better than this, to be above this kind of manipulative back and forth." It sounds like this scenario is a *perfect* opportunity to teach them just this. We aren't born with empathy or reason, after all. Instead of Polly being allowed to participate in the clean up, perhaps she should have had some sort of tangible consequence (e.g., a "time out") for choosing a behavior that disrupted the work of others. It seems to me that her options should be to either participate in the Lego building in a constructive manner or choose something else that she does independently . There's absolutely NOTHING wrong with spending time doing something with one child while the other looks on or entertains him or herself if they cannot handle participating (or simply choose not to). In fact, it's a rather important life skill, don't you think?

    Rather than giving up on the Legos or seeing them as some sort of "privileged site" that the children are using as a means for competition, try seeing that it's within your power as the parent to make the Legos *exactly* what you want them to be: a calm and happy past-time with your child. Wanting those moments with your children is not naive. Those moments are what help to sustain you when you're frustrated or tired. But, it's incredibly important to make them aware of such moments and let them know that it is never all right to disrupt that sort of experience between people.

    So, play on with the Legos! And, find something that you enjoy doing with Polly just as much. It will be a good opportunity for Pip to switch roles and experience what his sister goes through as the observer. I think everyone will come out better for it in the end.

  3. Anonymous, thanks for your thoughts on balancing the time between the kids. I agree with everything you said and am working towards creating better opportunities for Pip and Polly to switch roles.

    Pip and I still hold on to habits we developed before Polly was born and breaking them is more difficult than I would have ever expected. With Polly's emergence into a fuller sense of individual agency, it is understandable for her to be pushing back against us. The challenge now is for me to both appropriately define the time I spend with them and carve out specific activities for which Polly is the lead child. I'm getting there, but it is definitely taking some work.