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Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Currencies of Childhood

Who remembers the allure of the "puffy sticker"? The exchange value of the the "googly-eyed sticker"? The ultimate trade power of the "puffy googly-eyed sticker"?

For a couple of years in elementary school, at least in my elementary school, sticker collections were all the rage. You kept your stickers on the peel and press covers of those sticky photo album pages. That way, you could arrange them, unstick them, rearrange them, trade them, rearrange again, trade some more, and so on.

Also, those sheets were just the right size for tucking safely into your Trapper Keeper.

There were complex rules that governed the value of your sticker collection:

* sheer numbers of stickers didn't necessarily make your collection enviable
* duplicates, except of really really fantastic stickers, were a little lame (hence, those sheets you could buy at the Hallmark store, if you chose to spend your allowance on stickers rather than saving it up to buy another Smurf to add to your collection, were not that cool because they contained 20 of the same sticker)
* flat stickers were barely acceptable; puffy stickers were where it was at
* if a sticker was not puffy but was glittery, or changed like a hologram, or had googly eyes, that was great (the word "awesome" had not yet been invented)
* you would have to trade multiples of the more mundane stickers for a single highly desirable sticker
* you and your friends could have better collections if you shared the wealth around without making direct trades: I give you my duplicate puffy mouse sticker today, knowing that this weekend, after your mom takes you to the store like she promised, you will finally be able to buy those googly-eyes clocks, and you'll give me one because they come two to a pack

I remember my parents not getting it. They thought stickers were a stupid waste of money. Not that they ever said those words exactly, but they made their opinions pretty obvious. Stickers were pointless. They did do anything. You couldn't play with them. You couldn't build them into something else. You couldn't display them (unlike a doll collection or a tea cup collection). They didn't further your knowledge of anything or make you more coordinated or strengthen your creativity.

No, stickers just sat there. Sticky. Stuck to an old photo album page, gently wiggling their beady black eyes.

Still, they were all my heart desired for at least one full school year.

* * * Fast-forward thirty years. * * *

My son asks me if he can buy some squishies.

"What are squishies?" I ask, trying to keep the tired out of my voice, dreading the thought that these will be like the $3 Bakugan, of which one must have many, not to play with because the game is far too complex for a five-year-old, but just to look at because they are cool.

"You get them at Pizza Hut," he answers.

This, as you might imagine, did nothing to explain what they were. I assumed they were some kind of Pizza Hut version of a Happy Meal Toy, so I agreed to go to Pizza Hut for dinner one evening. Mistake #1: worst pizza ever. Mistake #2? Squishies are contained in the gumball machines at the front of the store, meaning that one need not eat a single bite of the food in the place in order to procure said magical items of childhood longing.

Yes, it's true.

Squishes are the new puffy googly-eyed stickers:

They are little rubbery animals -- some from land, some from sea -- that have small holes in their bottoms. Ostensibly they are for capping pencils, but every kid at Son's school just carries them around in a little drawstring bag, counting, categorizing, arranging, collecting, trading, and sometimes giving them "for free."

The fifth grade brother of one of Son's best friends has been particularly generous about giving Son squishies "for free." I think he may have felt sorry for the little guy with his pathetically small collection of three squishies. (Oh, he once had more than that, but they are so easy to lose; thankfully, now he has a bag to keep them in.)

They cost 50 cents each in the machines, but they have an economy all their own, in which some are Rare (always pronounced with a capital R), and some are awesome, and some are dull. There are giant ones, but we don't have any.

They can be traded -- sometimes two for one, sometimes even trades, but the key (as with stickers) is that each party always assumes he or she has gotten the upper hand in the deal. "Mama, guess what? I took the pig and I traded it to Noah, and he gave me a puffer fish! Can you believe that?! A pig for a puffer fish! And it's even a Rare!!" Presumably, Noah has gone home to his own Mama and bragged that he has the only pig in school, while looking vaguely disgustedly at the three more puffer fish he is dying to unload if only someone would offer him the cow.

Husband had to dash out tonight after dinner in the teeth of an impending thunderstorm, driving two children clutching six quarters each to Pizza Hut, so that they could add to their squishie collections as promised. They'd raided their piggy banks and left the house in high anticipation.

Though he was quick to offer to take them in fulfillment of my promise earlier in the day, Husband quietly opined that squishies were a silly waste of money and that the children should learn a preference for spending their hard-earned change on something "better."

He's right, of course. In an abstract sense.

But I couldn't help but remember my childhood sticker infatuation.

It wasn't just about the stickers. It was about the comaraderie. The chance to be center of attention for a moment if I had something really desirable. The ability to come out of my shell of shyness and transact serious trades on equal footing even with the popular kids who had no trouble making friends and telling jokes at which everyone laughed easily.

And so I periodically hand over an extra 50 cents. I let them amass tiny bags fully of silly rubber creatures.

When Son comes home from school, bursting with the news of his latest trade, or the exciting Rare his good friend has, or the one "for free" that some kind older brother offered up, I know that to him, for now, it's all about the squishies. But in the long run, it's about learning to negotiate, learning to intuit notions of popular value, learning to speak up for himself.

It's about building friendships. And that, to me, is worth a lot of spare change.


OHmommy said...

The picture of the Trapper Keeper brought back so many memories.

My kids love to take roadtrips because every rest stop has those little plastic thingys. They are really into silly bandz right now and today are school outlawed them. Too many kids traded and feelings were hurt.

MomZombie said...

It's always something with children. Wacky Packages trading stickers were probably the hottest thing when I was in elementary school. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wacky_Packages.

Marinka said...

I want puffy googly-eyed stickers! Where are they now?!?!

Tracey - Just Another Mommy Blog said...

Very wise Mama. We aren't in the public school ring anymore, so the trends aren't an issue (oh darn). But Pokemon cards were a huge issue in our home for years and years. AND YEARS.

Also, did you ever have a puffy, googly-eyed SMELLY Sticker? I did. Oh yes. The cream of the crop.

ShallowGal said...

You lucky duck with your fancy trapper keeper. My mom wouldn't spring for that, and I had to use the denim covered 3 ring binder instead. Stickers wouldn't even stick to it, they'd just fall off!

I was cleaning out a box from when my mom sold the house, and I found this little teeny tiny box with a rainbow on it. You can't fit anything in it, but it was so prized that I held onto it for 10+ years. Kids are weird.

McMommy said...

TRAPPER KEEPERS!!!!!!! I was a huge fan of my trapper keeper!! In fact, I feel like I could really benefit from using one today, in my current frazzled life. All my important stuff in one, velcro-ed place.

Your post really explains the feeling I have for Silly Bandz. Are they overpriced and ridiculous? Yes. But I don't want to deny my kids the fun memories like I had with my charm necklaces, puffy stickers, etc. They deserve it...they are pretty awesome kids. And when the fad wears off, I will quietly pick up all the Silly Bandz and put them in a box somewhere....so when they are older, I can break them back out and they can have fun "remembering when..."

Ree said...

You're a good Mommy. (Says the girl who moved, for the 14th time, a set of holographic Yu-gi-oh cards for the 18 year old.)

cy said...

that is a great perspective on those squishy toys. i'll have to remember that when my kids start!

(sadly, the 200+ matchbox cars we have do not fall in the "tradeable" category)

Audrey at Barking Mad said...

I'm with Pauline on this one! The picture of the Trapper Keeper brought back so many memories. For instance, annoying my mom (and several teachers) when I'd rip that thing open, or an entire group of us doing that in class to frustrate substitute teachers.


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