In the weeks before his eighth birthday, my son would sit at the kitchen table compiling his wish list. “Oooh,” he said, pointing to a $100 3D-printer pen that made figurines by extruding molten plastic. “Wouldn’t that be awesome?” He was drawn to the fancy Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue, and to items with commas in their prices. I shook my head. As his 11-year-old brother once put it, correctly, “You always look at the price. Dad concentrates on the awesomeness.”
Or maybe the kids and I just have different ideas. When my sons were toddlers, everyone told me they’d prefer the holiday wrapping paper to the toys inside. I didn’t learn that lesson until I had bought a succession of European-made trucks, puzzles, and nontoxic tea sets. No matter how many gold seals from parenting groups or “hours of fun” the boxes promised, I could never tell what the boys would use more than once.
So I had low expectations for the tree swing. My younger son had played on a friend’s, and now he wanted one. The friend’s swing was homemade and adorable, but there was one online—made, less adorably, of blue plastic, but also less than $20. Okay, I thought, we have a tree. I ordered it.
When it arrived, I contemplated tossing it aside, where it would end up on one of our dreaded to-do lists. (“Update wills, hang swing.”) But the boys were already pretending to throttle each other with the rope, so I grabbed the stepladder and went outside. They watched me attempt to throw the rope over a branch, only to have it finally land ominously close to the tree trunk. Later, I said, we’d move it farther out and maybe add mulch underneath. Of course, we never did.
It didn’t matter. The kids loved it. That night they tried to go out in their pajamas for one last whirl.
That was two years ago, and they still love it. They swing in the drizzle, under the canopy of leaves. They swing in winter in coats and mittens. Sometimes one of them twirls slowly for an hour with a comic book. We have never gotten more use out of a product, ever.
Not always, not even all that often, the simple things win out. Awesomeness and value are inter-twined, for me, in the gift of watching my sons on our swing, tracing three-dimensional shapes in the air.
Elisabeth C. Browning is a writer in Philadelphia.
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