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Lisa Catherine Harper

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Is My Son's Love for Lego a Sign of an Addictive Future?

Posted: 08/09/11 09:28 AM ET

The day my son, Finn, turned five, he dedicated himself to the art of the brick. That part of his brain formerly devoted to cars and coloring books and kicking balls, unit blocks and UFOs and sneaking cookies was, in one short day, rewired by the glacial beauty of those candy-colored bricks. Studded on top and hollow-tubed on bottom, the precise, binding snap of their plastic coupling proved to him as seductive as opium and more satisfying. In his small hands, the interlocking geometries of bricks, platforms, axles, gears, and mini-figures conjured a universe, a system as vast and expandable as it was bounded and controlled. Even the name--compact and defined as the bricks themselves--assumed a magical, talismanic quality: Leg godt, "play well." This command he understood implicitly, his childhood's first and most singular epiphany.

Finn's passion did not start slowly, unless, of course, you count the many hours he spent studying the crumpled, page-worn catalogues stashed in his private drawer, or the long minutes stolen from me in big box stores, where I would find him kneeling, an acolyte before the altar-like display, each kit a set of unassembled dreams, each a covenant more promising than the next. In these moments, the boy Jesus in the temple had nothing on my son. I understood my job was simply to acknowledge his calling and wait for his adoration to run its course. And for months, the vision was nearly as good as the revelation: in his devotion, Finn was content to study and wait. Then came the birthday, the Lego party, and the advent of the long awaited sets that--quite literally--sent him trembling with joy. That morning, it was clear that in another life, Finn would have been a Shaker.

Later that afternoon, he sat in the middle of the living room and built. And built and built and built until the 554 pieces of set 7623 were assembled. He ignored his sister. He ignored his grandparents. He ignored his father. He certainly ignored me, and he very nearly ignored his birthday pumpkin pie. There was something sad about his gleaming, new red bike, leaning against the car port wall like an abandoned friend.

The next morning, the Age of Lego dawned, eclipsing TV, breakfast, and (predictably) getting dressed for school. Within 24 hours, his sister had left me a note: "Dear Mom, Finn is obsessed with Lego. All he wants to play is LEGO, LEGO, LEGO. He's been playing Lego nonstop for two whole days. It's not fun. Love, Ella."

So magnetic was the attraction that we instituted a new rule: On school days, no Lego before breakfast; no Lego before getting dressed and brushing your teeth. This mandate had a powerful affect: eating, dressing, teeth brushing became swift and efficient. But soon, like any addict, he began to scheme and lie, declaring: "I'm not hungry. I don't want any lunch." When pressed, the truth came out: "I just want to build."

About a week after his birthday, on the way home from school, I asked him what he had done that morning. He sighed, "Le--," then he stopped himself.

"Not I remember," he said.

This was not an acceptable answer.

He slumped forward and pressed his hands to his head. "Mom! I only have Lego in my brain." For a while he stared out the window, then added emphatically, "I only want to think about Lego."

I had no doubt that his little synapses were exploding with colored blocks of possibility; he saw the world in terms of how it might be constructed in brick. After lunch, he spent 4 hours alone in his room completing a 377 piece flatbed transporter. That night, my husband said to him, "When I was little like you, I really loved to build things, too. It's fun for me to see you building things now."

Finley smiled a glinting little smile.

"Why are you smiling?" his father asked.

Finn responded with the otherworldly confidence of one who has found his true calling. "Because I'm just so proud of myself."

A few nights later I found him at bedtime under his covers, a nimbus of light cast across his pillow, the instruction manual for Set 7686 covering his slumbering face.

Most everyone approves of these endeavors--and I know they are not unique. But what if Lego is merely priming the paths of his brain, readying his synapses for something more sinister?

Addiction runs along every branch of our family. If my husband and I have been spared, and consider ourselves to be basically well-adjusted, even-keeled folk, we have brothers and uncles and aunts and grandparents who have fought, are fighting, and have lost their battle with drugs or alcohol or both. Then there is the business of the cult, specifically the cult Finn's grandfather joined when my husband was three, and in which he remains to this day. For this cult, he abruptly and completely abandoned his wife and son, abdicated his paternal rights, and went to live on a private Fijian island. We may not be, historically speaking, a family who withstands obsession, devotion, desire.

Addict. Devotee. Artist.

This is one of parenting's most ordinary and magnificent premises: that a simple box of Lego might, like that mythological box, spawn a universe of fear.

So I wonder: is what I see now as Finn sings and plays blissfully with the seven iterations of his new pirate set a glimpse into a future full of beauty and imagination and consuming desire? (He is, in fact singing as I write: "It's a big, wide beautiful world out there....") Or is it something darker? And how do I help him to master this vital force, without being mastered by it himself?

 
 
 

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