When Nick sprang out of bed 2 weeks ago, I knew he had A PLAN.
“Nana,” he announced. “I am going to get a Teddy Bear from the claw machine!”
“OK,”I said, as enthusiastically as I could at 5am. We had discussed going to JumpZone for some well-deserved fun-time between the end of school and the start of camp. “But just know that you don’t always get a prize. You’re paying for a chance to get a bear.”
“Oh, I know,” he replied offhandedly.
I knew he didn’t.
Of course we went.
Of course he made a b-line for the machine.
Of course it took his dollar.
Of course he didn’t get a prize.
He stared in disbelief through the glass separating him from the blue plush bear just inches from his face. Hadn’t he positioned the claw exactly over the bear? Hadn’t the claw dropped into perfect position? Hadn’t he closed the claw just so, but it wouldn’t close tight enough? How could he get the claw to –
BZZZZZZZ! Time’s up.
He turned to me, a wild look in his eyes. “I need another dollar! I have to get that bear!”
“Nick, sweetie. Remember what I said this morning? The dollar is just a chance. C’mon. We’re at JumpZone. We’re here to jump, right?”
But he wasn’t seeing me. The glazed look in his eyes told me he was replaying the last 30 seconds. He could not fathom how he could not have gotten the bear. He had done everything right. Just like at the other claw machine, where he had snagged a lobster that the restaurant happily cooked for us.
“But I saw the claw grab it…” And now the tears fell. Long, slow tears that streamed down his cheeks and pooled where he had pressed his face against the glass.
“I know you did, Sweetie. You know what? This machine is rigged. The arm isn’t strong enough to pull the bear up. Here, I’ll show you.” I whipped out my pocket Delphi and did a quick search for “rigged claw machine”.
“See,” I said, as the behind-the-scenes video played. He watched for a few seconds, but could not help but look back at the machine. “I really wanted the bear.”
“C’mon. Let’s walk away. Looking at it is only going to make you more upset.”
“Excuse me,” a small voice piped up behind us. “I lost a dollar in there too. So I don’t play that one anymore.”
“See, Nick? It happens to other kids too.”
The girl took a step closer, extending her hand to Nick. “Want to come play?” He resisted at first, tugging backwards on her arm. But she was persistent, and by the fourth step, the two were running towards an inflated pirate ship.
Disaster averted, I sank into a misshapen leather chair with a long exhale. Nick feels everything so intensely. It can be exhausting just keeping up with the soaring highs and devastating lows.
I glanced to my right and noticed an older woman with a faint resemblance to Nick’s new playmate.
“Is that your daughter?” The woman nodded.
“She’s very sweet.”
She seemed surprised, as we all are when someone compliments us on our kids. Parenting can be such a thankless task, and we’re shocked when someone takes a moment to say, “Good job!” Lord knows, we don’t hear it from our kids – until they’re well into their 40’s. (Thanks Mom! Thanks Dad!)
“She was consoling my son after he lost a dollar in the claw machine.”
“The one back there is terrible. But there’s one on Dempster where the kids can play until they get a prize.”
“Really! That’s great!”
At the end of open play, I shared the news with Nick.
His eyes lit up. “Can we go today?”
The cynic in me wanted to say “no, not today, but yes, maybe later in the week” so that the day’s experience could sink in. He could learn, as I had over the years, that life isn’t fair. People will try to deceive you and not give a damn.
But is that really what I wanted to teach him?
The world was still one giant playground, and my job, as a parent, was to keep it that way for as long as I could.
The hot dog joint was the kind of place where the cashier calls you “hon” no matter how old you are. She asks your son, “what are you doing this summer?” and “are you a good helper to mom? Yeah? OK, then go ahead and carry this tray over to the table for her ‘cause that’s what good boys do.” Long-retired men pat your son on the head, fish a quarter from their pockets and tell him to “go get a gumball with that, kid. And stay in school. Be sure to study real hard.”
It was a place where, tucked in the back, a kid could put $2 in a slot and come away a winner.
“Nana! I got 3 prizes! I was aiming for 1 and I got 3!!” He was absolutely ecstatic. “One for me, one for Gabe, one for Olivia!”
He returned to our table, radiating pure joy, as he lined his stuffed animals up and happily munched on a fry.
This is what childhood should be.
He was happy.
I was content.
And all was right in his wonderful world.