Why I Wear a Plastic Dinosaur

Why I Wear a Plastic Dinosaur

From A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul

Why I Wear a Plastic Dinosaur

The soul is healed by being with children.

Fyodor Dostoyevski

Why would a leader of the community, a respected family man, shamelessly walk around with a plastic dinosaur attached to his suit?

The setup occurred one day as I was pulling out of my driveway, in a hurry to run an errand. I spied my son running toward me, his tiny hand outstretched.

He smiled, his tender eyes aglow with excitement. “I’ve got a present for you, Daddy.”

“Really?” I said, feigning interest, frustrated at the delay and hoping he would hurry up.

Then he slowly opened his fingers to reveal a five-year-old’s treasure. “I found them for you, Daddy.” In those small hands were a white marble, an old and bent metal race car, a broken rubber band and several other items I can’t recall. How I wish now that I could remember all the little-boy treasures. “Take them, Daddy—they’re for you,” he gushed with pride.

“I can’t right now, Son. I’ve got to go somewhere. Why don’t you go put them on top of the freezer in the garage for me?”

His smile fell, but he obediently started walking into the garage, and I drove off. From the moment I started down the street I felt remorse. I made a mental note that when I returned I would accept my gift with more graciousness and gratitude.

When I returned, I found him. “Hey, Son, where are those neat toys you had for me?”

His expression was blank. “Well, I didn’t think you wanted them so I gave them to Adam.” Adam is a little boy who lives down the street, and I pictured him accepting these treasures with a great deal more gratitude and excitement than I had.

His decision hurt, but I deserved it. Not simply because it highlighted my thoughtless reaction to his gesture, but because it triggered memories of another little boy I remembered.

Childhood Hurt

It was his older sister’s birthday, and the boy had been given two dollars to buy something for her at the old five-and-dime. He toured the toy department repeatedly without success.

It had to be very special. He finally spied it sitting on a shelf, fairly shouting for attention. A beautiful plastic bubble gum machine, filled with brightly colored, chewy treasures. He wanted to show it to her almost as soon as he brought it home, but valiantly resisted the urge.

Later, at the birthday party attended by her young friends, she began to open her new gifts. With every present opened she squealed with delight.

And with each squeal, the little boy felt more apprehensive. These girls were from wealthier families that could afford to spend far more than two dollars. Their gifts were expensive and shiny and talked and went potty. His little package grew increasingly smaller and more insignificant.

Yet he managed to remain eager to see her eyes sparkle as she opened his gift. After all, she hadn’t received anything she could eat or collect pennies with.

She finally opened his gift and he immediately saw her momentary disappointment.

She was slightly embarrassed at it. Suddenly the beautiful bubble gum machine looked like the plastic, cheap toy it was. To maintain her standing among her peers, she couldn’t acknowledge the gift with too much enthusiasm. There was momentary silence as she deliberated her response.

Then she smiled knowingly at her friends, and turned to her brother with a safely patronizing tone and said, “Thank you, it’s just what I wanted.” Several girls tried unsuccessfully to contain their giggles.

She quickly returned to her next birthday game, and the little boy looked away, hurt and confused. The toy that had seemed so wondrous in the five-and-dime now seemed small and cheap.

He slowly picked it up, walked outside to the back porch, and began to cry. His cheap little gift didn’t belong with the other ones; it was merely an embarrassment.

The laughing and celebrating continued inside, which only increased his pain. Soon his mother appeared and asked why he was crying. He explained as best he could between muffled sobs.

She listened silently,
then returned inside. In a few moments, his sister appeared alone. He could tell by her expression that she had been sent, but her genuine remorse reminded him that she hadn’t intended to be mean or hurtful. She was only eight years old, and unaccustomed to the task of balancing the difficult demands of people’s feelings and queen-for-a-day euphoria.

She explained kindly in her grownup eight-year-old way that she really did like his bubblegum toy very much. He said he understood, and he did. She was just being nice.

Now it had come full circle. A new generation was faced with the same choice, except this new generation was mine. This little fellow would decide for himself whether it really is the thought that counts, and my response would play a large part in his decision.

The Ultimate Gift

We are repeatedly told growing up that the price of a gift isn’t important, it’s the thought that counts. But that can be hard to believe when Daddy gushes over an expensive new toy, but ignores a primitive token of love painstakingly created with tiny hands and huge hearts that care far more deeply about him than the hands that assembled that expensive new bike or CD player.

Which leads me to the daunting question I had to face that Christmas, the Christmas that my children were given money to buy presents at a school “Mistletoe Mall.”

Mistletoe Mall is a kindergarten through sixth grade holiday emporium of “unique” items (what retail stores wouldn’t carry if you paid them). However, all the gifts are designed for a child’s budget, and they love it.

They had bought me presents and were trying very hard to keep from telling me what I was to receive—especially my son. He would tease me with my gift, which lay “creatively” wrapped under the tree. But not a day went by that he didn’t make me guess what it might be.

On Christmas morning, very early, it was thrust at me first thing by my excited and impatient son, who insisted I open his first. He was giddy with excitement and sure I would never receive a gift of this caliber again. I excitedly opened the package and looked inside. There it was, truly the most beautiful present I had ever received. But I was no longer looking at it through 35-year-old eyes, jaded by promises of “newest technology” and “faster, easier and more economical.” Instead, I once again looked at it through excited five-year-old eyes.

It was a several-inch long, green plastic dinosaur of the Tyrannosaurus Rex variety. But my son quickly pointed out its best feature. Its front claws were also clips so you could—you guessed it—wear it all the time.

I will never forget his eyes as I looked at him that Christmas morning. They were filled with expectation, hopefulness and love—the kind found only in very young eyes.

History was repeating itself. That small, blond-haired blue-eyed face was asking me the same question I had asked years before. Is it really the thought that counts? I thought of how he must have agonized at the Mistletoe Mall to find a jewel among all the paraphernalia that would best communicate his feelings of love to his daddy.

I answered his question the only way a five-year-old would understand. I immediately put it on and raved how “cool” it was and confirmed that, yes, he was right. I did love it. For the next several weeks I went literally everywhere with a plastic dinosaur clipped to my lapel. Strangely, no one seemed to notice, especially when I was in the presence of my son. No one, that is, except him.

It has occurred to me that the expression on the face of young children giving gifts of the heart, especially at Christmas, is dramatically different from that of adults trying to buy love with expensive CDs or jewelry.

Last Christmas, two children from our neighborhood presented our children with handmade paper Christmas stockings, weighted down with treasures and held together by thousands of staples.

Inside were odd pieces of Christmas candy, favorite toys of old and once-loved figurines. The children were from a broken home and didn’t have much money, but you could tell from their beaming faces that extra helpings of love and thought had been stapled into those childlike versions of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

When does the thought stop counting? It is a question I have asked myself time and time again. I guess it stops counting the moment the rewards for the most precious acts we perform for each other are reduced to their strictly commercial value.

The dollar amount of my son’s presents wouldn’t amount to pennies, but they are worth their weight in gold to me.

So the next time you see someone wearing a crude paper tie or a “cool” five-cent (rub-on) caterpillar tattoo that doesn’t quite fit the mold of respectable adult fashion, don’t bother feeling sorry for him. If you tell him he looks stupid, he’ll just smile and say, “Maybe, but I’ve got a five-year-old son who thinks I’m the best thing since peanut butter, and there isn’t enough money in the U.S. Treasury to make me take it off.”

That’s why I wear a plastic dinosaur.

Dan Schaeffer

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