By Maya Schenwar
“Bagel, can I eat you?” my two-and-a-half-year-old son asks shyly, jumping slightly, his blue eyes trained on the toaster. “If I eat you, you can eat me!”
It’s not the first time this sort of deal has been proffered. Recently, he has begun speaking to English muffins, bread, waffles, and anything else one might toast, as those items are plunged into the dark, hazy depths of the machine.
In fact, since the pandemic began, my son has developed friendships with a wide range of inanimate objects. He’s been out of daycare for nearly a year and isn’t playing with other children, but he has befriended the couch (“Can I climb on you, Couch?”), the dining room table (“Are you more bigger than me or am I more bigger than you, Table?”), and various sections of the wall and floor.
In a way, his tendency to animate the nuts and bolts of our apartment shouldn’t surprise me. Even before our son was born, my partner and I kept over 30 stuffed animals, all with names and personalities—Grass Ox, a happy-go-lucky baby muskox with a penchant for lawbreaking; Lambert, a nursing-trained sheep who brings comfort to anyone with a stomachache; Stencil, a silent, pacifist one-eyed monster. These “friends” have enriched our lives with whimsy and as an outlet for spontaneous creativity.
But for our toddler, it’s not just dolls and stuffed animals. It’s a chair, a tomato, a discarded plastic baggie whooshing down the sidewalk.
About a month into the pandemic, the three of us climbed the steps to our building’s roof, which is bare, save for an occasional chair and a few long-suffering potted plants. My son spotted a clump of dust hovering in a corner near the roof’s railing. “Who’s this guy?” he asked jovially, bending down to bring himself face-to-clump with his new friend. “Hi little guy! How’s it going?”
The voices he began creating for his found objects were alternately gravelly deep or rodent-pitch squeaky. He chatted with them for long stretches, trading observations on the details of the moment.
“Are you wet, Sink?”
“Yeah! I’m wet!”
“Do you want to be dry, Sink?”
“Can I help you be dry?”
Once, spying on him after bedtime via his baby monitor, I heard him say, “Door, are you sad?”
In a phone call with a friend, I mentioned this endearing phenomenon as, perhaps, a result of my son’s lack of contact with other children these days.
“Don’t a lot of kids have imaginary friends?” she asked.
Yes, I thought, but his friends aren’t imaginary; they’re real parts of his environment. They do real things (even if, for some of them—the chair, the couch—the main thing they do is sit still and accommodate us). Yet for him, they also…talk.
I worried—what if these “friends” are actually the opposite of good stand-ins for human friends? They don’t require sharing toys or food. (In fact, half the time, they are food.) They don’t encourage listening, since, in reality, my son is doing all the talking between them.
Plus, in general, these “friends” only do what he assigns them to do. He’s the default ringleader. When it’s safe to return to daycare, what will he do among children who have their own ideas about how to play, how to sing, how to be? Will he be ready?
I tried calling other toddler parents on FaceTime, so our kids could interact with each other. “Here’s your friend!” I’d tell my son, plopping my phone in front of him, waiting for him to engage in the kind of thoughtful conversation he’d usually have with a bookshelf or a strawberry.
But he would simply continue whatever activity he was immersed in—building a block tower, eating lunch, looking out the window. Sometimes he’d say “hi” if prompted. But gradually, it became clear that the inanimate objects in his immediate surroundings were realer to him than the tiny, disembodied, two-dimensional faces materializing in front of him on FaceTime.
I enrolled my son in Zoom-based music classes, so he could be “around” other kids on a regular basis. He enjoyed class, often singing along and joining in activities, but the other children were—when it came down to it—faces in boxes. He didn’t ask anyone, “How’s it going?” as he had with his treasured clump of dust.
The answer began to occur to me while attending a Zoom meeting of my own. Halfway through the meeting, I found my eyes closing involuntarily, even tough I didn’t feel tired. I wasn’t hungry, but longed to step away for a snack. Meanwhile, when I glanced behind myself, a broken printer we’d stashed in the corner seemed to throw a doleful glare my way. The cup on the desk lacked water! The blinds were beginning to reveal a hairline split at the top—only a sliver, but growing!
I was drawn to what was going on in my physical space. And that’s when I started to realize: Why should a two-and-a-half-year-old person have to ask, “How’s it going?” in a Zoom class, when the room where he sits is bustling with activity, from whirring heaters and humidifiers to magazines strewn across the floor, half-eaten apples on the table, books filling shelves?
And why should he not interact with those in his immediate presence—even those who don’t happen to move, breathe or think? Could it be that these interactions are worthwhile in and of themselves, filled with wonder, imagination, life, even magic?
He is casting spells, paving his own path through toddlerhood under super-weird circumstances, using the materials available to him in the moment. He’s creating his own ways to learn about trust, empathy, play, interaction, friendship.
As my partner puts it, “He knows what he’s doing.”
Our son is still staring at the toaster expectantly.
“Are you happy, Bagel?” he asks.
I put on my best bagel voice, “Yes, I’m very happy. Are you happy?”
“Yeah! Are we gonna put some cream cheese on you to make you more better?”
And then—the triumphant pop-up! My son jumps too, his hands clasped in delight.
“Bagel,” he squeals, “are you ready?”
Maya Schenwar is the editor-in-chief of Truthout, the author of two books and many articles, and the mom of a vivacious toddler. She lives with her family in Chicago.
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