Babes in Toyland

Sunday Signal

By Jim Mullen, Signal Contributing Writer

If you know anything about children and cats, you know they are one thing: fastidious. 

When you put a child in the ball pit at the local fast-food restaurant, you can bet that every ball will be licked clean and ready for the next child to play with. And the next, and the next, and the next. So there is really no reason for the restaurant to clean those balls more than once every 18 months or so. Talk about a win-win situation! Sure, some children may lose a shoe or a diaper in there, but who’s counting? At least you get to spend some quality time with your children before they start throwing up in the car on the way home.

But some children need more stimulation than a boring old ball pit or bouncy house. They need room to run, jump, scream and yell. That’s why so many people take them shopping. What better way to let them run off some steam? 

It was a children’s festival last week at my local big-box store. The shelves were packed with Christmas toys and candy, and the aisles with holiday shoppers. Talk about fun for the whole family! Sure, let little Billy push the shopping cart he can barely reach. Why not? Nobody’s ever died of having their heels rammed by a shopping cart, have they? And it’s so cute to see his little sister screaming that she’s not a baby, and that she can do anything Billy can do — at least until she gets bored and starts playing Jenga with a corner display of soda bottles. 

Over on aisle 67, the sound of heart-piercing shrieks sends a slew of Good Samaritans running to the scene of what must be a horrific accident — surely some poor child is bleeding from the head — but when they arrive to help, it turns out that Mrs. Jones had just said “no” to her 4-year-old. Turns out, the child had never heard that word before.

Where are all these children coming from? It’s a Wednesday. Don’t they go to school anymore? And didn’t I just read somewhere that American families were getting smaller and smaller? I know many parents who complain about how exhausting it is raising their one and only child — with the help of a nanny, four grandparents and several on-call psychotherapists. How my parents raised eight children with no help at all still staggers me. As a child, I knew a family down the street with 11 children. The last one was named Junior.

Then it hit me: Of course, big-box stores are going to be full of large families. Very few single people, I imagine, need to buy the 48-pack of toilet paper or the crushed tomatoes in the 10-gallon can. For me, buying in bulk is convenient, because then I don’t have to go shopping as often. But for big families, it’s almost a necessity. 

There is also a strange social thing going on in the store. For every shopper who is there trying to save money on necessities, there is an equal-and-opposite shopper just trying to get a bargain, no matter the cost or the item. One family is trying to save a few pennies on peanut butter while the guy across the aisle is thinking of buying a $1,200, tricked-out grill — only because it’s selling for $999. 

“It’s a deal, Martha!” he informs his wife. “It has a bun warmer!”

Martha asks what he plans to do with the $500 grill they already have at home. She is not impressed by the fact that this one is very shiny. That will surely make his hamburgers taste better. 

“It’s not on the list,” Martha counters, sensing that he only wants it to impress their neighbors, the Fergusons. “And we only used our grill twice last year.” 

The man is not listening. He is already looking at car-battery chargers.

“This could come in handy one day,” he says. 

“Bill,” the woman says, “could you push the cart for me? And watch where you’re going.”

Contact Jim Mullen at [email protected].

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