My twins’ July birthday is usually an indulgently carefree time: School is out, the sun is shining and the mood is joyful. To celebrate, we’ve had swimming parties, park parties, a visit to Disneyland and even vacations abroad. Last year, we were gallivanting around Europe, eating all the ice cream, making all the memories.
This year, not so much.
No, this year, my twins turned 6 right in the middle of the endless tedium and tragedy of the pandemic summer. There could be no birthday party, nor trip, nor theme park — no meaningful experience with a bigger group of friends and family, at a time when gatherings and travel were both off limits.
While my instinct is usually to shower my kids with indelible experiences instead of accumulating a bunch of material stuff, I was determined to spoil them in any safe ways I could this year. With limited options — and as the virus was spiking dramatically in our hotspot hometown — that included indulging them with copious toy-store pleasures.
I bought big-ticket presents, and passed on the rest of the wishlist to generous grandparents and aunts and uncles. I wrapped it all up and made it the eye-popping surprise at the end of a scavenger hunt that sent them searching for clues throughout our home.
When they found the last clue and opened the back door as it instructed, it was all there amid a swirl of streamers and balloons and a stocked piñata: There was an eerily humanoid Baby Alive doll, a slime-making kit, a magician’s dress-up kit, a unicorn tea set, a phases-of-the-moon nightlight with remote control, American Girl clothes with matching kid pajamas and Hot Wheels tracks for days.
There was even a three-story Barbie Dreamhouse that now takes up a substantial chunk of the footprint of our living room. (Whomever thought “360-degree play” was a good idea must have had a larger house than ours.)
Yes, when the big day came, the kids got everything their newly minted 6-year-old hearts could desire. I was beyond thrilled to see them light up with joy ... and in some ways I also instantly regretted what I’d done.
Prior to unwrapping these new toys, my twins had been so focused on making their existing playthings come to life using imagination and creativity. They filled buckets with backyard leaves and petals to make magical potions, and they made found-object scavenger hunts the highlight of their days in quarantine.
And they’d done it together — in a moving display of sibling bonding — creating intricate back stories, and using miscellaneous objects on hand to fill in details: Tupperware lined with sarongs made for doll beds, blue Legos made for a breakfast of blueberry waffles. Their developing brains filled in all the delicious details.
By contrast, Barbie’s Dreamhouse comes with its own bed, as well as an actual pool … not to mention a koi pond and toilet that really flushes. They don't have to invent any of the details for themselves.
These days, I’m glad when I see my kids enjoying their shiny new toys. But I can’t say I don’t miss the innocence, imagination and ingenuity involved with watching them invent a whole world without them.
As they grow, I know I will watch this phenomenon come into even sharper relief: Soon, not even a Barbie Dreamhouse will satisfy their material wants. Eventually, it will probably be a game system, and brand-name clothes, a mobile phone or tablet with whatever features du jour, and then a car. I’m not in a hurry for this.
The pandemic that shuttered classrooms and movie theaters and restaurants (not to mention Disneyland) required kids around the country to grow up faster than they otherwise would have. I can tell you that my 6-year-olds know more about virus transmission, politics and public health than I did at their age, for instance.
But I might have helped them hold on to a little more of the innocent magic of their childhood for just a bit longer had I not ensured that their material wishlists were fulfilled so completely.
Still, their beaming smiles are my truest source of joy — and joy is hard to come by amid the ongoing crisis. As the sun set on their big day, they emphatically declared it “the best birthday ever” — and I hope they’ll remember how pampered they felt not just by an outrageous pile of toys but by the loving intention behind the haul.
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