By Andrew Santella
From GQ, July 2004
This morning, my wife found me playing with my sons 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. Hell lose interest after a while, move
onto another, more destructive activity in some other part of the
house. But Ill keep at it with his cars, trying just one more
time to launch one into his laundry hamper. Then my wife will walk
What strikes her as odd about the scene is not that Im playing
with my sons toy cars, but that Im 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, Im 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 sons 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 "Blues
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. Its 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. Its 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 cant 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.
Dont 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 dont 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. Im
more inclined to listen to philosopher-third baseman Brooks Robinson,
who when asked about giving up baseball said, "A man cant
play games his whole life."
And yet here I am on the floor again with my sons 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
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. Id never felt so vulnerable
in my life, and the feeling has not let up. What freaked me out
was not my boys 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
hes 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? Im on the floor, with the car my boy has just
handed me. Soon, hell get tired of this game and head elsewhere.
I will stay close, just in case I need him.