The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

November 15, 2012

Sarah Coyne, columnist: Distractions happen naturally

By Sarah Coyne
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — A neighbor and I were chatting in her living room while my 1-year-old explored on the floor. We found ourselves with a few spare minutes for reasonable, adult conversation; a luxury to any full-time caregiver.

We become enthralled with the novelty of using sentences that consist of more than a half-dozen simple words, yet switch back into baby-cooing and simpering without a whisper of explanation. It works.

While we talked, I noticed that my little one was as entranced as he’d ever been with a toy. Only it wasn’t a toy at all. It was a set of bowls.

Two large, plastic bowls were holding his attention as he stacked, poured and restacked for the duration of our visit. As I watched, an idea dawned bright, sunny and fresh: I would buy him a set of bowls.

It sounds almost as dull as it looks on paper, but hold on. My baby boy had yet to develop a firm attachment to any toy. I think we simply own too many toys and he’s probably having trouble noticing any one toy long enough to become besotted.

Or the toy box is too irritatingly full to be dug through day after day.

So for the most part, this toddling, squealing boy has called upon people for entertainment. This is normal for babies and developmentally correct: Infants are attracted to eyes, emotions and expressions. They help babies begin to unravel the puzzle of humanity.

But at some point parents require a few minutes of needlessness. A few minutes of distraction. A few minutes of toys.

The next week, I came home with a nested stack of brightly colored plastic bowls to fill this void. I set them on the floor next to my clingy boy and got to work preparing dinner.

It was sad, really. The bowls occupied him for less than the time it took to chop and sauté half an onion. I urged him to continue, using my highest eyebrows and sing-song-iest voice, but it wasn’t meant to be.

The bowls seemed to have lost their glamour somewhere between my neighbor’s house and my own kitchen. The baby climbed and clambered up my legs while I stood wondering what was next.

My foolproof entertainment was a bust. My dinner was burning. My money had not been well spent. I tried to rationalize it; at least I could use the bowls for real bowl-worthy events.

With a bit of resignation and a dab of hope, I reached across the counter for a wooden spoon. Maybe this would keep him occupied for a few more minutes.

His eyes lit up like I was offering him a glowing ember of stardust.

Now, I’ve been offering cooking implements to children by way of distraction for several years, but this time it was different. This time, the spoon was a gateway to independence. From there, he discovered the pots and pans. The bottom shelf of the pantry. The mismatched Tupperware lids and bowls.

I would worry that he only seems interested in food and dishes if I weren’t so pleased that he’s found some lasting self-entertainment.

This is how it goes, I now remember. First, we cuddle them day and night. Next, we guide them toward playing on their own. Soon, they find friends that aren’t mere kitchen tools.

Eventually, they become enthralled with imaginations and independence, yet race back to the safety of a parent’s lap without a whisper of explanation. It works.

Sarah Coyne lives in Joplin. She writes about life and motherhood at her personal blogl, http://thisheavenlylife.