If I’d been driving, we would not have made the turn. But I’ll admit I did sigh with relief when that massive, colorful tangle of tubes appeared before us, surrounded by an empty parking lot, and crowned with the infamous golden arches screaming CHEAP AND EASY. I was low on blood sugar, sleep-deprived, and bleary-eyed from fighting traffic. We were on our way to a family retreat and just needed quick food where no one cared if my kids ran around screaming like chimpanzees.
So I didn’t protest when David made the turn and parked in the back lot. We spilled out of our Prius and snuck through the door, hoping other retreaters wouldn’t happen to drive by and see us. We were going to a Unitarian Universalist retreat, and I didn’t want to have to explain our restaurant choice to our liberal religious friends.
There was no line, but my family had to wait anyway while I contemplated the menu. Simon tried to crawl out of David’s arms and onto the counter to push the cash register buttons. Henry collected straws from the dispenser, apparently trying to count how many it held. Futilely, I searched the menu for words like organic and free range.
“Don’t they have anything on a whole wheat bun?” I muttered.
David rolled his eyes.
Hadn’t the owners seen Supersize Me?
Oh yeah. We were at McDonald’s. The founders of fast, greasy food for families.
I gave up and ordered a chicken sandwich with fries for myself and a chicken McNugget Happy Meal for Henry and Simon to share. David ordered a Big Mac. We corralled the kids into a corner booth with a high chair.
When they called our number, I volunteered to get the food.
“Boy or girl?” the woman behind the counter asked.
“Huh?” In my famished haze, I wondered if I still looked pregnant after fifteen months.
“Is the Happy Meal for a boy or a girl?”
“Boy…but…” Before I could explain that I don’t force my boys into neat little boxes that dictate they should like only violent or fast toys, she’d grabbed a dark plastic action figure, thrown it into the bag, and slid the tray of food across the counter.
“Enjoy your meal!” she cheered, then dashed away.
On my way back to the table, I peeked inside the Happy Meal to take a look at this action figure. It was a Bionicle, a blue and grey robot with glowing eyes, sharp teeth and giant clawed feet. One hand held an oversized phallic weapon, the other a disk-launcher, complete with cardboard disks. In all his four-and-a-half years, Henry had never played with a toy as nasty looking as this one, at least not in our home.
I avoided showing Henry the toy, keeping it in the bag as I unloaded the rest of the meal. Generally I delay showing him a restaurant meal toy until he’s done eating. In this case, I hoped to hide it altogether, waiting a day to see if he asks for it before getting rid of it. That is a trademark of my parenting style: rather than make an on-the-spot executive decision about what he can and can’t play with, I hide the offending toy until he asks for it. Sometimes he asks
right away, sometimes never. I realize the older my boys get, the less effective this strategy will be. I have been meaning to come up with an alternative plan.
As we devoured the greasy food, I considered trading in the boy toy for a girl toy. But when I saw girls walking by with Little Mermaid crowns, I realized their toys were just as sexist. Why turn Henry on to a story about Ariel: the mermaid who gave up her home and life to pursue a prince she didn’t even know? Was that any better than a violent action figure?
Once Henry’s McNuggets were in his belly (he doesn’t like fries or hamburgers, which is somehow a consolation to us) and Simon’s food was littering the floor, David offered to take the kids to Playland. I found myself sitting at a table alone, with nothing but indigestion and my thoughts to keep me company.
I took a deep breath. It had been a long day of packing for the weekend retreat. I contemplated the fun we were told we’d have: meals made for us, late night games and conversation, kids of all ages to play with, woods to roam, and porch chairs to read in. All this apparently came with a view of the Puget Sound, and a slower pace than our busy lives.
“Boy or girl?” I heard the employee ask a man at the counter.
“Girl,” he shot back, clearly more familiar with the question than I was.
“But she usually wants the boy toy. Hold on.”
He walked into Playland and yelled: “Does she want the boy toy?”
“The what?” the mom asked.
“You know, the manly toy.”
“Boy toy,” the girl yelled back.
Chewing on a cold fry, I wondered who chooses Happy Meal toys. Do they live in the real world, where children are not so stereotypical? I couldn’t help but see those toy choosers as my enemies. Simon was easy to protect–we had a good year before he learned about restaurant toys and the greasy, sweeter choices on the menu. But Henry was catching on, bringing his own ideas and choices–and society’s influence–into our complicated parenting mix.
My oh-so-deep mothering thoughts were interrupted by two giggling girls. They leaned into the Happy Meal display poster and conspired. “I got the Ariel necklace last week. I hope they have the lipgloss now. What do you want?” One of them pointed at the ‘boys’ section.
“Eww, Bionicle. I hate those.”
I decided to take a closer look at this sign. Before our visit to McDonald’s, I’d never heard of Bionicles or seen The Little Mermaid.
According to the Happy Meal sign, Henry could “help save the island of Voya Nui with Bionicle figures.” Each of the eight Bionicles had “their own cool battling functions,” referring to the weapons they held in each hand. The Inika are the good guys, the Piraka are the bad guys. Henry was blessed with a Piraka named Vezok. “As bitter and corrosive as the dark sea he thrives in, Vezok finds a strange joy in harpooning anyone or anything that crosses his path.”
The girls’ section included eight different Little Mermaid items: Ariel necklace, lipgloss bracelet, floral crown, mirror compact clip, treasure keeper, under the sea glasses, sea flower barrette, and the Ariel purse. Every item was pink and sparkly and designed to make a girl look pretty.
I felt nauseated. With 30,000 restaurants serving 50 million people in 119 countries each day, McDonald’s has serious influence on the world’s children. Here they are teaching kids that boys play war and girls play dress-up. Men act and women appear. Yet McDonald’s had also given me time alone while my boys wore themselves out scrambling around the giant rat-maze of tubes in Playland. Where else could I steal a few quiet moments to reflect on the ways that this leading global retailer undermines parents?
Of course! At the retreat! I gathered our garbage, bemoaning all the waste. When I saw the Bionicle in the Happy Meal bag, I considered throwing it away as well. But I imagined the six-year-old in a Chinese sweatshop who probably made the toy. I couldn’t just let Vezok go straight to a landfill without at least giving him a chance at making someone happy. Besides, I thought, it might come in handy in the car at a desperate moment when the kids are bouncing off the windows. I pocketed the toy and went into Playland to hurry my family to the retreat.
We ended up spending the weekend chasing our kids from dawn to dusk, then collapsing into bed moments after they fell asleep. No adult conversations, no late night games, and no forest walks. Driving home, I asked Henry what his favorite part of the weekend was.
“McDonald’s,” he replied.
Rushing out of the door one day shortly after our trip, I felt the Bionicle in my coat pocket. I tossed it into the nearest drawer and forgot about it. A month later, I discovered Henry next to the open drawer, Bionicle in hand.
“What’s this?” he asked, his eyes alight.
I played dumb. “I don’t know.”
“Where did it come from?”
“Probably a restaurant.”
For some reason, I decided not to mention McDonald’s. Maybe I didn’t want to remind him that fun things come from fast food restaurants. Maybe if I didn’t mention that this particular Bionicle “finds a strange joy in harpooning anyone or anything that crosses his path” he’d discover for himself a kinder, gentler side to Vezok. But immediately he started “killing” things with the weapons in the robot’s hands. I reminded Henry of our shooting rule: You can point play weapons at furniture or toys, but no real people or animals. Then I just watched. Henry’s imagination is usually sparked by music and books, not as much by objects. He doesn’t know what to do with a puppet once it’s in his hand, and he rarely does role play with toy people or animals.
To my dismay, the Bionicle ignited his imagination. As I ate an apple with peanut butter at the kitchen table, Henry ran to get his homemade “Music Show” puppet stage. He wanted to act out the Bionicle attacking the apple. I played along, making the apple run away in fear. He did it again, this time with singing “because it’s a music show!” In operatic voice we enacted an apple-and-evil-robot chase around the puppet show stage, entertaining Simon as he chewed his own apple wedge.
I looked into Bionicle and discovered that they’re made by Lego, one of the world’s largest toy manufacturers. Leaving little to kids’ imaginations, Lego has created a prefabricated world where these creatures do battle, complete with a description of each character’s personality, strengths and weaknesses. Scholastic has even published a series of Bionicle guides and adventure stories. Apparently the Inika came to the island of Voya Nui with the goal of finding the powerful Kanohi Mask of Life and using it to save the life of the Great Spirit Mata Nui. But first the Inika must face the Piraka, six evil guys on the island.
But Henry didn’t even know he was playing with a Bionicle, let alone one that lived on an island with a gang of evil comrades. Instead, Henry decided that when Vezok points the disk-thrower, he is good (luckily he didn’t find the disks in the drawer). But when he’s got his harpoon extended, he’s bad. Rather than playing out Lego’s one-dimensional story of good guys versus bad guys, Henry was creating a character with both good and bad traits, like a real person.
Oddly, this Happy Meal toy was growing on me. With my son’s influence, Vezok went from a mean, ugly killer to a multifaceted, devoted friend (not to mention a good dancer) that Henry would enjoy for weeks. Don’t get me wrong: I still believe that someone out there is trying very hard to make my boys into soldiers. But ultimately, their influence won’t make Henry turn away from his operatic leanings. Not as long as we’re his parents.
A few days later Henry wanted to name his new toy. “Corduroy’s good but there’s already a bear with that name. There’s Mr. Fuzz and Polly…” his thoughts drifted, considering toy names he’d already chosen and seeking the perfect one for Vezok.
“I know,” he giggled. “Apples-and-Peanut-Butter-Go-Crazy!”
“Can I call him Apples for short?” I asked.
I picked up the Bionicle and looked him full in the face. (Okay, he was still ugly. But in a cute, cuddly sort of way.)
“Apples,” I said, “welcome to the family.”