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Simply Smashing

Why kids love to smash toys

One afternoon, my son Ethan and his friend Quinn, both 4, were engaged in their favorite pastime: breaking Hot Wheels into smithereens on our driveway. I watched as Ethan hurled a tiny Chevy onto the concrete with enough force to destroy it. "Lost a wheel," Ethan chuckled. "No more roof!" crowed Quinn.

They examined the wreckage with the concentration of jewelers looking for imperfections in a diamond. Then Quinn reached for a doomed Mustang. As he picked up a rock and began pulverizing it, Ethan whooped with delight. Soon the blacktop was littered with little chassis and fenders. I did a guilty calculus and concluded that a few dollars of plastic was worth the chance to drink my tea in peace.

Yes, the driveway was a scene of vulgar First World excess. Yet I harbored hope that the boys might actually be learning something — or at least working out something primal. You always hear about geniuses who spent their childhoods taking apart transistor radios. Could this be a crude precursor? Or was it more Lord of the Flies, and a short leap from this youthful "exploration" to putting a baseball bat through our car's windshield?

Ethan had also been known to unscrew all our kitchen drawer pulls, tear his dinner napkin into confetti-size bits, and denude a hosta leaf by leaf. Once, I was pleased to see him heading out to our backyard rocking horse — only to discover later that he had spent his playtime removing Trigger's springs, leaving the metal steed prostrate on the ground. Why all this destruction? "I like to see how the pieces come apart," he said. As the first day of kindergarten approached, I worried that while his classmates sat peacefully at circle time, Ethan would be in the bathroom unscrewing the spigots from the sinks in a self-guided engineering tutorial.

I tried trailing after him, repeating a chorus of "No!"s and "Gentle with your things!" that never seemed to have the proper civilizing effect. I dutifully explained that "if you smash your car, it won't be fun to play with again." The logic was lost on a 4-year-old caught up in the adrenaline of the moment.

Nevertheless, I truly believed Ethan's urge to deconstruct was inspired by curiosity, not malice. He usually went about these acts with cheerful concentration. And when he showed me the pulpy inner core of his felt-tip marker, he looked proud, not guilty. He was otherwise very sweet (mostly) with his sister and buddies.

Should I enroll him in a military kindergarten, I wondered, or simply revise my approach? Digging out my childhood development books and surfing the Internet, I was vaguely reassured. Preschoolers are fascinated with testing their own power, I read, and destroying things would seem a dramatic demonstration of it. Some research suggests that boys may be more stimulated than girls by action and motion, which smashing provides in abundance. I also stumbled on blog postings of men recalling the toys of their youth; Hot Wheels bashing in particular seems to have been a time-honored tradition among boys who appear to have grown up into solid citizens.

A few days later Ethan begged, "Can we please go to the demolition derby tonight?" Perched on wooden bleachers, we watched raptly as one rusty junker accordioned another. "Cool!" whispered Ethan, awed into relative quiet. I had an insight: It's a natural human impulse to want to watch things get pulverized.

So maybe I couldn't completely squelch Ethan's desire to smash things, and maybe I shouldn't try. But I could help him find outlets for his sometimes inconvenient curiosity that were less worrisome to me, and less destructive to our household. The next time I made cookies, I let him break the eggs — it took all his concentration to get only the non-crunchy parts in the bowl. On a walk, I offered a milkweed to rip apart, a shell to crush on a rock.

I still let Ethan smash his Hot Wheels — in one designated area. We've stopped replacing the cars, however, and Ethan's once massive collection is starting to dwindle. When the stash gets low enough, I hope Ethan will be able to see more clearly the long-term effects of his joyful smashing.

There are lapses, of course, but I am happy to report that our household possessions are, generally, in less danger. Part of this I attribute to Ethan simply outgrowing some of his little-kid impulsiveness. Meanwhile, we are starting to glimpse the positive side of his passion: When a spring-action bank broke recently — by accident! — Ethan figured out how to fix it and handed it back to me, beaming.

Why Kids Smash Stuff

It starts quite young:Think of a toddler's glee when he makes his block tower come crashing down. Marilyn Benoit, M.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center, sees this kind of take-apart play as an opportunity for "incredible learning and creativity" — building visual and spatial skills and figuring out how the world works. "To understand how things fit together," she says, "kids first have to pull them apart."

It's up to parents to set limits and channel this interest in positive ways.

If a child is purposely destroying valued or forbidden objects — Mom's cell phone or a sister's favorite doll — it could be a sign of anger or frustration that needs to be addressed.

Disassembly Required

Here are a few items your child may enjoy breaking to bits — and you won't miss.

  • Clay:Build a creation, then pound to flatness or tear into chunks.
  • Ice cubes: One by one or by the bagful, they shatter like glass, without the danger. Save a couple for your cocktail at the demo derby.
  • Old magazines (not this one) and newspapers: Shredding makes a satisfying sound.
  • Box of rocks:Put a geode (10 for $10, kaplantoys.com) into the end of a sock, gently whack it with a hammer, and check out the crystals inside.

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