Dad, Do You Want to Play?

August 16, 2011 by  
Filed under Joe Kita Blogs

by Joe Kita

You’ll be getting this question a lot. Here’s how to respond.

For my son’s second birthday, I bought him Rock ’em, Sock ’em Robots. In case you never lusted after this game as a child, it features two brawny machine-men inside a miniature boxing ring. Each player uses hand controls to maneuver his robot while thumbing buttons to throw left and right uppercuts. When you hit your opponent’s jaw in just the right place, there’s a satisfying “Eeeyyyaaawww” sound as his head springs up. This is called “knocking his block off.”

It’s that simple. It’s that thrilling.

Indeed, I am so excited by this gift I’m barely able to resist helping my son unwrap it. “It’s Rock ’em, Sock ’em Robots!” I scream, since he obviously doesn’t know what it is. But the box is big and colorful, and that’s exciting enough. While he smacks the tray of his high chair in delight, I begin assembly.

“Don’t you think he’s a little young for that?” asks my wife.

“Oh no, dear,” I reply, weaving the ring ropes through the plastic turnbuckles. “He’s going to love it. It’s a classic! I always wanted one when I was a kid.”

“But it’s so violent. Suppose he tries knocking somebody’s block off at day care?”

“Aw come on. It’s harmless. Here, I’ll show you.”

And with that, I place the game reverently between my son and me. He leans forward attentively as I demonstrate how to throw punches and glide around the ring. Then we touch gloves, I yell “Ding! Ding!” and the fighting commences.

For a while, it’s mayhem. He comes out of his corner flailing and squealing. I cover up. Then, as his little thumbs tire, I respond with a flurry of brutal rights. One finally hits home, and his block gets knocked off. Eeeyyyaaawww! I jab the air in jubilation, and my son starts crying.

“It’s okay, it’s okay. Look, we can pop the robot’s head right back on. See?”

After he realizes that defeat is temporary, he calms down, we regroup in our respective corners, and we emerge to battle again—and again.

Since then, as my son has grown, I’ve had similar bouts of joy with radio-controlled cars, Nerf guns, model trains, Creepy Crawlers, and whole battalions of little green army men. I used to love wandering the aisles at Toys ‘R’ Us with a shopping cart, throwing in all those things I begged for as a kid but my parents refused to buy.

But even more delightful than the purchasing was the playing: sitting Indian-style on the floor with my son, surrounded by 750 individual pieces from a giant Lego pirate ship, breath heavy with concentration, time suspended. I was never happier, never more relaxed, than when I finally pushed aside the work in my day and agreed to play.

Why was that?
I think part of the reason is because play is instinctual. You see it in cubs; you see it in kids. Give a child an interesting object, and it follows as naturally as giggles from a tickle. It is how we learn, how we explore, how we first open our minds. And when we stumble across it as adults, part of us remembers and prepares to grow again.

Another reason is that play provides balance. It’s a built-in buffer to stress, a sort of conscious version of sleep. Think about it. What rest does passively for us at night, play achieves actively for us during the day. It’s restorative. It’s refreshing. It’s another subtle dimension of life from which we awaken slightly better. For proof, watch children coloring, or listen to the happy hum of a schoolyard at recess. The delight in the moment is utter and pure. Play is child’s meditation, a toddler’s trance, the most-tender zen.

But adults don’t appreciate this. Most times, we are too busy to play, too mature to get down on the floor. When our children implore us, we give in grudgingly and then remain distracted by the hive of priorities in our lives. We place such little value on play that we rarely immerse ourselves in it guiltlessly.

The late writer Wilfrid Sheed told me this when asked for the secret to happiness: “Develop something outside of yourself,” he said, “a burning interest in Napoleon or the Civil War or anything that inspires the same kind of passion that kids have with ease but adults somehow forget about. I’ve never known an unhappy person with a stamp collection.”

He was referring, of course, to play. The point being that the thrill of getting a new bike is no less grand at 75 than it is at 5. It still feels just as good now to swing a bat, throw a Frisbee, run fast, or do a waterhole cannonball as it did then. It has to do with a willingness to call time out for recess and then be unafraid to do something spontaneous.

I found the Rock ’em, Sock ’em Robots the other day, deep in the toy closet, long since packed away. I started to get wistful, remembering my son’s second birthday and how much fun we had. I started to wish for good old times like that when life was innocent, uncomplicated, and free. And then I stopped myself, realizing that it still is. I opened the box, wove the ring ropes through the plastic turnbuckles, and then set off to find my 14-year-old boy—the one in my house and the one still inside me.

Excerpted from The Father’s Guide to the Meaning of Life by Joe Kita. To read more about this book and order a copy, click here.

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