Munchkin’s rapid descent into superhero obsession took us a bit by surprise. We consciously limit his screen time at home, but parental controls are no match for playground fads. As soon as Munchkin entered pre-K in the fall, his fealty to Paw Patrol and P.J. Masks was overcome by an overwhelming interest in Batman, Superman, Spiderman, and the like. At the library, he would pick out simple comic books for beginner readers; superhero-themed clothing began to multiply in his wardrobe; and the Disney/Pixar films D would sometimes watch with him on the weekends gave way to comic book-inspired cartoons.
When Munchkin announced that he wanted a Batman tower for Hanukkah, however, we hit the pause button. From their earliest moments, kids are not shy about expressing their desires; as parents, of course, we feel that we should balance their volition with common sense, gently steering our children toward things that are good for them. Junebug, for example, is entering an age when she grows increasingly demanding and melts down in fierce tantrums when she does not get what she wants — even when the things that she wants (typically to eat) are in no way good for her (like Play-Doh).
In the past, we chose gifts that would simultaneously be fun and challenging (strategy games, puzzles, books, construction and science kits), while trying to avoid the accretion of the kind of gaudy plastic crap toy makers excel at marketing to young children. “On the one hand, we already have too much junk and he changes his tastes so often, he might grow out of his Batman phase before the holidays end,” S mused, “On the other hand, we should take into account what he wants.”
In the end, we compromised. S’s parents gifted Munchkin the tower he said he wanted, while we got him a book on dinosaurs and a new cooperative board game. Watching him unwrap the giant Batman box was an exercise in pure vicarious happiness. We had Skyped S’s parents after lighting the menorah on the next-to-last night of Hanukkah, and Munchkin literally jumped for joy. “Yes! Yes! Yes!” he chanted, jumping up and down with a huge grin on his face, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”
During our visit to Bangor, Munchkin also had received other Batman-themed gifts: a remote-controlled bat-mobile from S’s uncle, a stuffed Batman doll, and a mask, cape, and tool-belt set that S’s mom partially made. He wears the cape and tool-belt quite often around the house. The toys, meanwhile, featured prominently in a briefly painful learning experience last week. On Friday, it was Munchkin’s turn for show-and-tell at school: his opportunity to be the center of circle time. Of course, he wanted to bring in his Batman gear. We tried to dissuade him, but he was adamant about bringing the bat-mobile and doll to show-and-tell. S called Munchkin’s teacher to ask that he keep an eye on these precious items, but to little avail. When S picked Munchkin up from school, the toys were nowhere to be seen. Fortunately, when S sent out a message to the class’s WhatsApp group, someone quickly responded to say that their son had brought the toys home and would be returning them the next school day. The teacher might have mixed up the two boys’ identical P.J. Masks backpacks.
The last night of Hanukkah Munchkin unwrapped our presents, and we were happy to see that here too we had hit the mark. The dinosaur book — part of the Usborne educational series — has become a bedtime staple, and the board game — Mole Rats in Space — is getting heavy use also. The game is a vast improvement on the classic Snakes & Ladders: players cooperate to help their mole rats navigate a snake-infested space ship, ascending ladders, sliding down chutes, and collecting key survival items on the way to their escape pod.
D tries to play a game with Munchkin every evening, using the little man’s recently discovered love of board games as a motivational tool to get him to eat his food. Not every night is a success in this respect; some evenings Munchkin is so uncooperative that dinner drags right into bedtime, which leaves both father and son a bit miffed at the end of the day. We began introducing board games around Munchkin’s third birthday, but it was not until recently that he finally developed the patience to play them the way they are meant to be played. In the past, he still enjoyed the games, but he tended to make up his own rules. In the last few months, however, Munchkin has surprised us with his concentration and strategic thinking.
The Mole Rats game, for example, is marketed for kids 7+ and is legitimately challenging — even with D helping Munchkin think through his moves, the snakes sometimes prevail. Munchkin does not always see multiple moves ahead, but after several iterations he has mastered the basic strategy and has grown adept at navigating his mole rat through the maze while sending the snakes down chutes that jettison them out into space (and thus off the game board). The game has earned a spot in the nightly rotation that also includes Outfoxed, a cute variation on the classic Clue in which players cooperate to identify a thieving fox before it escapes down a fox hole, and My First Carcassonne. Unlike the other two, the latter is not a cooperative game. D and Munchkin played it for the first time over the weekend. Again, D was impressed with how quickly the Munch grasped the game’s strategy. He even managed to win one of the rounds with only minimal assistance from D. “That was a lot of fun. I did very good,” Munchkin reported to S before going to bed, “but papa did most of the winning.”
As for the Batman tower, it has become Munchkin’s most highly prized toy. He keeps it in his room and locks the door when he leaves to ensure that Junebug does not play with it. He even insisted that we let him keep the original packaging and sometimes puts the tower back in the box for extra protection from his little sister and other would-be evildoers.