Now 20 months, Hal has a passion for books about tractors. His father, Roger Mills, on why that might be.
The other day my wife Jo was in a children’s bookshop with our son Hal looking around for some new additions to his library. Hal’s eye fell on a colourful title called Dig, Dig, Digging and once he had got hold of it, it could not be prized out of his grasp. Dig, Dig, Digging offers a series of double page spreads devoted to working vehicles or machines of one kind or another. There’s the digger itself. There’s a fire engine, a dustcart, a car transporter and a road roller. But there is one page that Hal loves above all – the tractor.
Tractors are becoming a bit of an obsession at the moment. Another of his books, Farmyard Tales, features four farmyard stories, but when we pick it up Hal pushes past the first three stories and demands you read the last one, ‘The Runaway Tractor’ every time. It’s the same with Spot’s Big Book of Words. Here, Spot the dog is found in a whole range of vocabulary generating locations from the kitchen to the beach. But Hal’s only interest is the farmyard page with its tractor. He even calls the book ‘Tractor’.
Talking to other parents I quickly realised that Hal’s tractor passion is by no means unusual, and that it fitted in with other fixations. Almost everyone I talked to who has had a young boy (girls’ enthusiasms seem to be a bit different) reports their sons being besotted with tractors, cars and trains. Big powerful moving vehicles, it seems, are uniquely appealing to very young boys.
But what is going on? What is it about tractors, cars and trains that makes Hal and numerous other small boys adore them so? Putting the question in a slightly more elaborate way, asking what it is that makes us have emotional identifications with things, suggests a possible answer. I would argue that we enthuse about things because in one way or other they can be an expression of how we feel we are.
When we are older, more self-conscious and less happy, what is expressed is often what we would like to be, not what we feel we are. You might be passionate about a powerful, expensive car because you don’t feel that powerful in your inner world. But before self-consciousness sets in, the connections are probably less complex. Boys like things like cars and trains and tractors because they offer an expression of something they feel in themselves.
That something, I think is energy. Small boys have vast amounts of it, a constant desire to be doing things, running around, fiddling with things, exploring things. Perhaps what boys love about cars and trains and tractors is that they too seem to be embodiments of energy. In a tractor or train, Hal sees a powerful mover that matches in some way the restless energy that he senses in himself. If only he could tell me if this makes sense to him. But by the time he is thinking like that, the small boy energy will have gone.
Dig, Dig, Digging, Margaret Mayo, ill. Alex Ayliffe, Orchard, 1 84121 080 3, £4.99 pbk, 1 84121 418 3, £3.99 board
The Usborne Book of Farmyard Tales, Heather Amery and Stephen Cartwright, Usborne, 0 7460 0263 7, £6.99 hbk
Spot’s Big Book of Words, Eric Hill, Puffin, 0 14 054899 8, £4.99 pbk
Roger Mills is a Psychodynamic Counsellor.