HiroP and his little friends are all mad for Star Wars, bakugan, and Pokemon cards. They’re also all expressly forbidden from having them out to play during the school day. If they can take them out to finger, it’s only in “aftercare,” when the teachers are off duty and the folks who keep watch over the kids on the schoolyard are decidedly much more relaxed about everything.
Since HiroP has been at this school, his very best friend is another Asian American boy named H. H. is basically a very sweet kid, with an inborn charisma, impish joyfulness, and effusiveness that draws other kids to him. (If I were to be all sociological about it, I’d say it’s partly because H.’s dad is the alpha male; i.e., unimaginably wealthy through various businesses. Great wealth provides great freedom, and who doesn’t respond positively to that ease and worry-free, boundless optimism?)
H. sometimes has an acquisitive streak, however, and no more do we see this in the Bakugan Incidents and the Great Pokemon Free Trade Agreement.
HiroP is by nature a guileless, giving, generous child. When bakuganmania swept through their pre-kindergarten class, thanks to H., HiroP had to participate. We bought our son some, with the caveat that if they break, that’s how the cookie crumbles. (These little 3D puzzle balls unfold in unexpected ways when you toss them against a hard surface. Hello? Toss against a hard surface=break.) If he purposely smashes them all or doesn’t take care of them, he doesn’t get a thousand more.
Well, the kids like to trade and fondle their bakugans and Pokemon cards. Sometimes the play takes on a slightly darker shading, as when one innocent child is descended upon by others demanding that cards or bakugans be given to them. (It’s sort of a regressive tax: the insistent and greedy can end up extracting quite a bit from the insecure and naive.)
It sometimes requires clever Jedi mind tricks to stay on top of it all.
The Bakugan Incident
One day early in the year, H. requested that HiroP trade him a bakugan.
I heard about it in the car on the way home.
“I gave him my blue-green dragon, my purple and black one, and [fill in a few others].”
“That sounds like fun. What did he give you in return?”
“How was it a trade, then? Trade means you give one, you get one.”
“You didn’t get any back?”
“Okay, then, what you did was give him a gift. That’s different from ‘trade.’”
HiroP thought about this silently. Not-good feelings were swirling inside him. He now only had a few bakugan left, and H. had many many. Plus, the “trade” had been misrepresented to him by H.
“Honey, it is okay for you to ask for one back if you give him one. That’s what trade means.”
HiroP digested this quietly as he sat in his car seat. Later, Ms. R, HiroP and H.’s teacher, told me she bans these toys for precisely this reason. “Some kids don’t understand what it means to ‘trade,’ or the difference between ‘giving’ and ‘borrowing’–that once you give it away, it doesn’t come back to you. And we get upset kids.”
I grasped what she meant. The playground Pokemon or bakugan economy is one of desire, envy, possession, inequality, wanting to be liked/included, and hedging against being unliked/excluded. It’s seductive for all those reasons and more.
The Bakugan Incident, Part II
We don’t always chat in the car ride home, we also chat in our jammies right before the bedtime story. That’s when HiroP told me in passing how he’d admired H.’s “suitcase” of bakugans.
“Can I buy twenty-hundred thousand MORE bakugans, mama?” he asked. “H. has so many he has to put them all in a little suitcase.”
“Wow, that’s a lot. How many do you think are in there?”
“HUNDREDS. Can I buy lots more too? I want as many as H. has.”
“Well, H. brought his in to share. Did you get to play with H.’s a little?”
“No. He didn’t take them out. Just showed them to everybody. No one was allowed to touch them.”
“No? That doesn’t sound very fun for you, just looking at them.”
It was completely incongruous, but at that moment I thought of Thomas Harris’ novel the Silence of the Lambs and a line where Harris wrote of evil dressmaker Jame Gumb (paraphrasing), “to see was the essence of envy.”
It occurred to me that H. had recently returned from a lengthy stay at the family’s other home. H. had made a prince’s entrance, welcomed as a conquering hero. And the “giant” suitcase of bakugan was part of H.’s re-entry.
“Hmm, you already have lots of bakugan yourself. And you can always add a request for some to your birthday wish list.”
“Pleeeeaaaaaase? I want as many as H. has!”
I hugged my son close. Pressed my nose into his freshly washed, damp hair. It smelled delicious. “Did you ever stop to think that H. goes to two schools? The one you go to, and then the one at the other place he lives?”
I could tell HiroP was intensely curious as to where this was going.
“Well, maybe the reason he has so many bakugan is that he has to make twice the number of friends. He has to make sure he has friends in both places. It must be very hard to do that: a little scary, a little lonely, even. Maybe having so many toys helps him.”
Instead of HiroP seeing H.’s material abundance as sign of plentiful inner fulfillment, I’d now flipped the perspective so HiroP could see all those bakugan as a sign of insecurity, lack, even the absence of something all kids keenly understand the need for: friends.
(It might not be wholly true, but it’s worth considering.)
I decided to let HiroP determine if this had any ring of truth, given that he sees his friend day in and day out. The cumulative experience of his friend, and HiroP’s gut, would tell him if what I said about H. carried weight.
HiroP was very very quiet, as when absorbing something and mulling it.
And you know what? That night and since then, there’s been NO begging by HiroP for zillions of bakugan and a little suitcase to carry them in. None.
The Great Pokemon Free Trade Agreement
Flash forward to the spring. HiroP now has a very full deck of carefully selected Pokemon cards, partly from gifts (bankrolled by grandma and grandpa!) and outright gifts and trades from other kids. He’s a full-fledged participant in the underground Pokemon economy.
In the car ride home, we somehow get to talking about Pokemon cards. HiroP tells me in exhausting detail the ones he has. (I tune out for about 5 minutes.) And then, he mentions that he sometimes trades his undesirables for ones H. doesn’t mind giving up either.
“It’s even-stevens?” I ask, remembering our conversation earlier in the year.
“Yes. Although sometimes H. will go ask A. or L. if he can have one of their cards, and they give it to him. ‘Will you trade me that for free?’” HiroP says, imitating H.’s sing-songy wheedling tone.
“Do they give it to him?”
“Yes. But not me. H. knows with me he has to give one to get one.”
I marvel at how well my son has drawn boundaries. I’m happy that he has a reciprocal and equal relationship with his friend H. And I also marvel how H. works his scam on his other friends.
“Will you trade me that for free?” Parsing that more closely, we see that H. does understand what ‘trade’ means, but doesn’t care. And the wheedling tone says he knows he’s not dealing from a position of reciprococity, or with any intention to do so.
“I’m glad you set H. straight about trading,” I tell my son. “See, you told him what you think is fair and he agreed to it. And it didn’t hurt your friendship to say what you needed.”
HiroP imitates H.’s high-pitched wheedling tone again, not in a mocking way, but in a knowing way. I’m glad my son’s tuning fork is so well sounded.
But I felt bad for A., and L., and their having been taken advantage of a little by H. They will have to learn this lesson later. Hopefully it’ll be before more than a simple toy has been given away.