Coercion Again


A grandfather, when visiting, might well take his grandson a present. Kids love presents. I loved it when my father brought something home from the city for my brother and me: little Matchbook cars, comic books, squirt guns. But when I flew out to Denver a few weeks ago to visit my son and his son, I didn’t take anything for Max. I had an idea, instead. A notion. A walking philosophy.

I figured I’d take Max out to the store and let him choose what he wanted. We could wander the aisles, he could look everything over and choose his own present. No imposition of my will. Adults, of course, are telling Max what to do all day and night long—and this is one of my topics: Why not let kids choose more about their lives, instead of making them into polite little martinets?

There’s plenty of this kind of thought in my book, but about the elderly. Do their caregivers really have to decide what they eat, when they eat, how they eat? Do we have to push and prod the old and infirm into the life we think is best for them? Must they socialize on a regular basis? All the old questions. I know my father did not want to be steamrollered into the world’s view of what was good for him. He had his own ideas—so I figured Max did too, and his present was to be a little adventure into non-coercive gift giving and basic empowerment.

Max is three, adorable and occasionally disastrous. He doesn’t want to ride in a car seat, tightly strapped into the back seat, but it must be done. I explain about state laws—not a persuasive argument to a young boy—and tell him there is nothing for it. Ultimately he submits, as he must do so often: no car seat, no trip to the store. Off we drive, headed to the store of my choosing, a Target on Colorado Boulevard. In ways, this is the most remarkable store I know. It’s a Super Target, so there’s an entire food section, which gives way to what looks like two or three acres of consumer goods. What amazes me are the thirty cash registers—and on a busy Saturday almost every one will be open. We are far, here, from Athens, Ohio.

Max, naturally, is in a good mood as we head inside, because we’ve come to buy something from the huge toy section. He really is a darling child. Later we’ll have a battle over what he can and cannot eat for dinner, but this morning the sun is up, we’re having fun, and both his parents are away for the weekend. (It’s the first time they’ve left Max for over twelve hours at the same time—and even now Janir is at a sales conference in San Francisco, and LL has gone to Milwaukee for a medical conference, so their only time together was passing through security at the airport.)

Father, son, grandfather at bedtime
Father, son, grandfather at bedtime

But it’s been too long since I took care of a three-year-old for any length of time (it was just at Max’s age that it became clear that I was going to be the one to raise Janir, as his mother’s schizophrenia took hold), and our trip into the store doesn’t go the way I’d thought it would. Whatever does? I had imagined us passing up and down the aisles, having fun as we looked over all the toys—but no, Max instantly sees what he wants. Some inner laser takes him straight to a little carrying case filled with cars from the Disney movie of that name, Cars.

Max has been a maniacal watcher of this video. He knows all the characters (no humans in the movie, they’re all cars, many of them quite engaging; I rather like the movie myself), and his obsession with cars and trucks and ambulances and backhoes and bulldozers is extreme. At home he must have thirty or forty small Hot Wheels cars. They’re in little truck carriers, they’re in his backpack, they’re in the kitchen, they’re in the bathtub. He goes to sleep with them. He clutches two or three of them in his fists when we go out to a restaurant. He loves his cars.

So now that’s what he wants. He makes his decision in thirty seconds: “I want that,” he says, pointing. He wants, for his present, another fifteen of these little cars, which already dot every room in his house.

So I, who had such well-intentioned plans about letting Max choose his own present, can now be seen crouching next to the boy and explaining how he already has so many of these cars, and maybe we could buy something else for a present. Look, how about this race track? That would be fun! Look how it sends the cars flying and crashing! That would be lots of fun, didn’t he think?

No. He wanted the fifteen cars in the clever little case.

Reader, I forced him. I steered and cajoled and imposed my will, and for some reason (to please me, to make me happy?) he gave in, and we went home with the racetrack with its dramatic little launcher. And in fact, I think it was the right choice, because the two of us set it up and played with it for a couple of hours—whereas the cars, I believe, would simply have joined the pile that he already had, a hoarded supply, absurd to my eyes. Yes, yes, I understand: absurd to my eyes. .

Did I learn any lessons about the ancient question? Only that coercion is a topic that never goes away. Only that I’m never sure about it with my grandson, any more than I was with my father.

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