I spend 20 minutes a night putting my son’s toys away. At least half of that time is devoted to organizing his trains. He loves trains. He has many different kinds, because everyone knows that he loves them and gets them for him whenever they can. He loves them all, but there is a certain set that he loves more than the others. My son is obsessed with Thomas the Train and his friends. He’s only 3, but his level of involvement with the characters is astounding. He knows everything about the Island of Sodor — who does what when, why, and with whom.
When I sit with him while he plays, I like to ask about the trains. Sometimes he ignores me, but often he’ll tell me their names and what they’re doing. I am marveled by his retention of information. I often wonder how he can remember all of this, but then I remember, you can remember everything if it’s something you really love. And just how did I remember that? Well, I had done it before, but with a vastly different subject: boy bands. As a teenager I was just as obsessed with boy bands as he is with Thomas. My obsession was definitely more expensive, so I can’t really complain about his thing, right?
For my son, it started with the show, and then he found many of the films and longer features on his tablet. Then came the toys. He couldn’t go into a toy store without wanting to stop to see if they have any trains. He calls Toys”R”Us the “Thomas store” and refuses go into any other section. He has his favorite characters (Gordon and Henry) but knows the name and duties of probably 90% of the characters. For me, it started with the Backstreet Boys. They were a gateway, and as each new group came out, I would just add them to the bunch. I knew their stats the way my son knows his trains, name, birthday, and things like their favorite colors and where they fit into the hierarchy of the group.
While my son’s favorite characters are supporting characters, my favorite boy-bander was Justin Timberlake, the poster boy for the movement. It is easy to compare the other members of all the other boy bands to the dozens of other types of trains. There are steam trains, diesel engines, and narrow gauge engines. The “Steam Team” aka the main characters of the story would be like NSYNC because they work well separately and also together and everyone knows who they are. The Backstreet Boys are like the streamlined engines; they think they are the best, but they only serve a very certain purpose and cater to a very specific group. The Skarloey trains are 98 Degrees, because they’re managed by another controller. The Diesels are like the New Kids on the Block, long forgotten, but then resurrected. Yes, I’ve really given this a lot of thought.
The biggest similarity between my son’s obsession with Thomas and Friends and my obsession with boy bands is definitely the financial output. The merchandising of boys bands was insane; the CDs, the magazines, the T-shirts, the games, DVDs, etc. Let’s not forget the concert tickets. I saw most of the groups at least once (I saw NSYNC three times!), and on average each concert ticket was about $100. We went to at least two or three concerts a year which equated to over $800 in concert tickets alone. I estimate that my parents spent several thousand dollars over the years. We haven’t gotten quite that far yet with the trains, but we’re only about a year in. I’ve definitely spent a few hundred bucks already, mainly on trains but also on T-shirts, pajamas, and shoes. My son refuses to wear anything but the same pair of Thomas sneakers. He’s currently on his third pair. I even had to get him a pair of Thomas snowboots because he was freaking out about not being able to wear his Thomas shoes during the New York City winter.
I have been lucky because we have family members who know of his obsession and will help feed it so the financial burden isn’t always on me. His grandparents will send trains, and other family members give us gift cards to stores where we can buy more. This Christmas, I spent my entire gift budget on trains because that’s all he wanted. I find personal victory in finding clearance sales for items he doesn’t already have — like the $60 I just dropped down for over $200 worth of highly coveted merchandise making me the best mom ever for at least a week. I spend a lot of time online searching for hard to find characters much like I used to comb the stacks of CDs in the import section of the Virgin Megastore as a teen.
Every time I buy another train, I have a newfound respect for my parents. I was their only child and so I often got everything I wanted. They would often tease me about spending more time on schoolwork, but they were secretly happy that I had a hobby that kept me out of trouble, no matter how expensive it was. People may say that I overindulge my son, but if you sat with him and watched him play for an hour (he’s too bossy to let you really play with him) you would see how much he enjoys it, how much he learns. The trains have brought out his creative side; he mimics the scenarios he sees on the show, but then he creates all kinds of alternate scenarios for them as well. And as a mom who used to be a creative kid, it doesn’t get better than that.