He was 18 months old the first time he touched a Matchbox car. On that day, in the early spring of 2008, my son wrapped his chubby little fingers around the cool metal of a paint-chipped 1970 Impala, and his life has never been the same since.
You may think I’m exaggerating, and there are days I wish that was the case. But our son is now three, and as the last Christmas season reiterated, there is nothing—nothing—on the face of this planet that amazes him more than a 99 cent Matchbox or Hotwheels car. Not knights, not Lego, not trains, not Play-Doh. Well-meaning family members and friends have only given him more cars, wanting to please him. While he loves books, he will find the one car in the entire book and obsess over it. Sometimes the only way I can get him to watch a movie is to promise there are cars in it, somewhere. We find cars in the sink, in the toilet, in our beds, in our shoes.
This is my life with cars.
Sure, my husband and I joked about what our son would be like in high school, how just to spite his geeky parents he’d play baseball and listen to crappy music and wear “popular kid” clothes (whatever that will be in the 2020s). I imagined that his formative years would be the easy ones, where I could force him—I mean, encourage him—to love the geekery I love, and that later he’d rebel. I wasn’t prepared for this.
While it’s been frustrating at times, I’ve learned a few things from my three-year-old that have surprised me, and hopefully might help you, too.
Cut your losses. About a year ago, I was sitting with our son, moving his cars around the lot and trying my best to keep him entertained. He sighed and looked up at me and said, “Mommy, you’re not good at playing cars.” It’s true. I like cars, but driving around a parking lot and getting gas is about as exciting as watching a file download. I have a huge imagination, but if it’s not steampunked or carrying a sword, it’s a little tough. Since that day, he’s not been terribly interested in including me. But that’s okay, because I’ve learned to…
Work hard to include them in the daily routine. While not exactly playing, cooking is something that I’ve worked to keep him involved. At the end of the day it gives him a sense of accomplishment to “help” me with dinner, and gives him a break from the cars. Because really, if given the choice, he’d do nothing else but play with the cars. But the kitchen is like a cool chemistry experiment, and even at three he loves seeing what happens and how food comes together. It’s something that we share together, and it’s blessedly car-free.
Never belittle. It occurred to me that my son’s car obsession is, in essence, his first form of geekery. Just because it’s my thing doesn’t mean he’s not a geek. In fact, my son is a car connoisseur. He doesn’t like flashy cars, or tricked out cars. No, he wants cars that look like they drove off the dealership parking lot. He wants Honda Civics and Dodge Rams. He can also spot a Saab at 100 feet. That’s pretty geeky, I must say.
Consider the long-run. Our son’s obsession with cars has led to a never-ending quest to figure out how they work. Suffice it to say, if you search my couches you will likely find many dismembered vehicle parts. While at first I chalked it up to a destructive nature, I’ve since realized that he’s just trying to understand the basic concepts of how cars work. Maybe this will lead to a career as a mechanic or an engineer. In the mean time, he’s recently become fascinated with Lego car sets, which he can take apart and put back together. Baby steps.
Find common ground (and be persistent). Sometimes our son is extremely resilient when it comes to thinking outside of the box. The first few times I suggested that you know, dragons could ride around in cars or that there were knights defending the bridge, I got some quizzical looks. But anachronism is fun, and stretching the imagination is always a good idea. I couldn’t get him to play with Play-Doh, either, until we designated some all-terrain cars. Also, Transformers have been a surprising success (although, sadly, Bumblebee has been um, permanently disassembled.)
Regardless, keep in mind that if you don’t share an interest with your child that, truly, you should be proud. Why? Because your kid is exploring the world of their own volition, and finding joy in something. It’s their first hobby, and that’s pretty special.