Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Of Mice and Munchkins

The most notable and surprising disappointment of our recent excursion to Chuck E. Cheese’s with the little guy was the complete absence of a ball pit. I had genuinely expected there to be one, in no small part because some of my buddies used to work at the House of the Rat back in high school and the ball pit figured in more than one of their stories, but no. (What a difference the almost twenty years since high school graduation makes, I suppose.) My mother-in-law had also admitted to seeing an enclosure of multihued plastic spheres in her mind’s-eye conjuring of the place and asked me to take a picture, which was already on my list of things to do, because come on: a smiling tow-headed cherub half-submerged in primary colored balls? That is a textbook Kodachrome moment right there. Alas, all it takes is one toddler coming up with a cigarette butt in her mouth left behind by the highschoolers who closed up the night before and the ball pit becomes more maintenance trouble than it’s worth and goes the way of … Kodachrome, I guess. (I hear textbooks are on the way out, too.)

But since the little guy had absolutely no expectations whatsoever, he had a grand old time. He’s still a bit too young for the video games and the tests of skill – though he played an 18-wheeler driving game with his mom and helped me swing my arm for a bit of Skee-Ball - but he’s plenty young enough for the kiddie rides, and in fact for big vehicle-shaped hunks of plastic which rock slightly back and forth to qualify in his mind as “rides” in the first place. In even more telling point of fact, for the first little while that we were there he was perfectly content to climb into one of the rides, spin the steering wheel a bit while making vroom-vroom noises, and then climb out. Then at some point we showed him what happened if we actually fed a token into the ride, and he was pretty well into that from then on. He also worked his way up to feeling brave enough to ride the tiny, three-pony carousel a couple times after initially being overly wary of it, but mostly he enjoyed rocking the school bus ride, the roadster ride, and the Scoop (the backhoe/bulldozer from Bob the Builder) ride. He also cracked us up by consistently referring to the tokens as “gold doubloons” – he’s been on quite a pirate kick lately.

Other than that, you know, I think given the sensory-overload nature of Chuck E. Cheese it was largely lost on the little guy that he was at a birthday party in the first place. I think he was just about the youngest child who attended the party and, at this stage, being even two years younger than the birthday boy means they’re not really peers at all. For all the little guy knew, his mother and I just took him to Chuck E. Cheese’s for fun, and at one point we forced him to sit down with a bunch of other older kids and eat pizza and chocolate cake (neither of which he finished, since he was much more interested in playing and generally running around).

Ah, those were the days.
Even the singing of Happy Birthday To You didn’t particularly make an impact, I imagine, since it was integrated into the hyperactive Chuck E. floorshow and commemorated about half a dozen birthday boys and girls at once. Speaking of the musical entertainment, another thing that struck me as times-a’changin was the fact that the animatronics seem to have been largely replaced by video screens, which I suppose is how the current generation of rugrats receives most of their information from birth onward anyway. Here’s the real downside, though: the videos for the sanitized covers of pop music that was marketed to tweens-and-younger to begin with star human actors in character costumes instead of plushie-bots. And I’m sure you can all think of disturbing things related to cybernetic plushies, but trust me, humans in costume are worse, especially when the get-up in question consists of fitted street clothes with animal hands and feet. Miley Cyrus is terrible and her quasi-song Party in the USA is pretty insipid, but a video in which Helen Henny dances around to said noise in an immobile chicken mask and shakes her jorts-clad booty to emphasize “moving my hips like yeah” – that will haunt me.

But where was I? Oh yeah, taking a two-and-a-half year old to Chuck E. Cheese’s. Honestly, I think every parent should take their child there at that age, and I’m completely serious, and here’s why: at one point the little guy was on course to get on the Scoop ride for about the seventeenth time that afternoon and a slightly larger, slightly faster and definitely oblivious-rather-than-malicious kid cut him off and climbed on first. The little guy of course responded to this in a very two-and-a-half year old way, by immediately throwing himself on the ground in utter, wailing despair. Which lasted for a little less than three seconds before he got right back up and looked for another ride; I reckon that three seconds is about the amount of time required for him to calculate the weight of all the running around and climbing on stuff he could be doing against any possible sympathy he might be incurring with a tantrum, and to decide that the tantrum was a waste of time. So with zero intercession by me, he self-corrected almost immediately, which was an object lesson (and one I admit I need reminding on now and then) in the fact that much of the time his tantrums are all for show. He’s extremely adept at making it seem like they come from a place of legitimate anguish, but they’re pretty superficial ploys for getting what he wants when all is said and done. And since I don’t really want to raise a child who sees tantrums as a good way to get what he wants, it’s important to remember that those tantrums only have as much power to make the little guy truly miserable as he gives them himself.

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