The wheel thing

by Kylie Ladd

My son likes cars. Actually, he doesn’t so much like cars as eat, sleep and breathe them. Old cars, new cars, anything with four or more wheels, vehicles of every configuration… but most of all toy cars. As a baby he was never particularly interested in any of his rattles or teething rings and occasionally I worried that he had a short attention span. Then one day just before he turned one (and was still not crawling, never mind bipedal) I put him down next to the upturned vacuum and he discovered it had wheels. Bingo. His eyes lit up and the glory shone around. He spun those wheels for a good hour, watching them intently. The next day I went to a nearby dollar shop and bought him five cheap plastic cars. If not the best dollar I have ever spent it was the certainly the most momentous. For days those cars were never out of his chubby fists. Maybe they represented the mobility he lacked; maybe it’s just something inherent to the Y chromosome. Whatever, he was hooked and we were with car.

Four years later it is a love that refuses to die. At last count we had close to two hundred die-cast additions to our family, stuffed into plastic crates and abandoned under beds, popping up with alarming regularity in the washing or my briefcase. Somehow he knows each and every one of them by name and in lovesick detail, and expects my husband and I to share this knowledge. “Where’s the ute with the green stripe and red bumper?” he demands as soon as he wakes up or returns home from kinder...that is, when he isn’t asking for his second oldest steamroller or the bulldozer that looks as if it is smiling. Each night like a prince in a harem he selects a different one to play with in the bath then take to bed. In between we regularly find him squatting shivering and dripping wet on the bath mat, using his towel to carefully dry his precious vehicle before he dries himself. We can only hope that in the future he will treat women so well.

And when it comes to the lucky car that will share his pillow he is never lost for choice. There must be more means of transport available in miniature than there are on the actual road. Take helicopters for example. A quick survey of our main car-crate revealed a rescue helicopter, a hospital helicopter, a beach patrol helicopter, a news helicopter, an army helicopter, a police helicopter, a navy helicopter, a cargo helicopter, a bushfire helicopter… at present I estimate that we possess more choppers than the entire Australian Defence Force.

What’s more, just like Prada there is a whole new line every season. Those people at Mattel sure know when they’re onto something, every year rolling out literally hundreds of new conveyances to be whined for, cherished and eventually lost at the park. Oscillating between the twin gods of Matchbox and Hot Wheels (surely the precursor to that age old Australian male dilemma of Holden vs. Ford) my son pores over the Mattel website or the display stand at the supermarket like a teenage boy with a lingerie catalogue.

But as any parent will know, the greater the love a child feels for a toy the greater the anguish when it is lost. And lost his cars inevitably are, given that representatives of the group must seemingly accompany us everywhere we go. When one is misplaced he lies awake at night and thus so do I. Did we leave it at the library story time? Has it fallen down under his booster seat? There is little more humiliating that having to ring Coles to issue an all points bulletin for an airport fire-engine with detachable ladder, or being caught by a friend scrabbling in the tanbark at the park hoping you’ll turn up the green dragon dragster.

Often it’s not even my son’s cars that I’m searching for so desperately. To a five year old boy, no visit to a friend’s house is complete without some swap of vehicles, often furtively completed out of the maternal gaze. Each exchange program follows the same trajectory: infatuation bordering on obsession with the new addition, slowly replaced by a gradual dwindling of interest to the point where one of the mothers can hand it over to the other in a brown paper bag at kinder drop off. As a result it has occurred to me that I have developed a scarily intimate knowledge not only of my son’s collection but also that of the boy next door, four friends from kinder and two from swimming. When you can retrieve a car from under the couch and know instantly not only whether it is a Hot Wheels or Matchbox but approximately which year it came out and whom of eight local boys it might belong to, it’s time your son took up cricket.

Still, I suppose it could be worse. My two year old daughter is beginning to cast longing looks at the Polly Pocket section of the local toy shop and I fear that soon I will have thirty tiny pairs of shoes and matching plastic outfits to keep track of. Just as long as Polly doesn’t come with a convertible.


© Kylie Ladd
(First published in the Child magazines, Australia, 2005)

“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*

I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.

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* Gloria Steinem