Thursday, August 11, 2011

Hearing ourselves, from the outside

Many years ago I was wasting time with Eldest and Big Guy in a toy shop in a ritzy part of town. They were little, at the age when a visit to a pet shop was on a par with a trip to the zoo. I never let on that you could actually buy things there, and they never quite knew.

A well-dressed, not-quite anorexic, perfectly complexioned mother came in with her preschooler. She needed to buy a birthday present for a five year old. "No more than $40," she told the saleswoman. then called to her son, "Henry, you can look around while I'm busy, but you can only get one thing."

The little boy wandered around the shop, much as my children were doing. Henry's mom yakked with the shop lady, and periodically called over to him, "Just one thing, Henry." I could tell she was determined to set limits. I wondered why she hadn't set the limit at zero, but figured maybe rich people could afford to think differently. Her shoes cost more than my annual gift-buying budget.

When the woman was done she came over to Henry and said, in an I'm-a-good-mom voice, "So did you decide what you want?"

Henry ignored her. He was busy exploring the shop. He didn't want to buy something and go, he wanted to stay and play.

The mother, assuming her son's disregard arose from a desire for too many things, grew irritated. "What do you want?" she asked, "Do you want the bubble set? Do you want a ball? The knight? I told you that you can have only one toy."

I watched the scene unfold in fascination. Henry played, and played deaf. His mom's increasingly shrill words echoed like a voice in a cartoon dream, "What do you want?...want...want?"

And I thought, How odd. She thinks she's teaching him limits, but what she's saying is that when you go in a store you're supposed to want something.

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