When Grace Hopper, the trailblazing computer scientist and U.S. Navy rear admiral, was 7, she tried to figure out how her alarm clock worked by taking it apart. Still unsure after the thing was in pieces, she broke down another clock and then another. She eventually wrecked seven alarm clocks by the time her mother noticed what she was doing.
My son’s timepiece of choice is battery-operated wall clocks. I often find their metal entrails artfully scattered on the living-room floor, evoking the occult rock arrangements in “The Blair Witch Project.”
But if he ever attains the bona fides of Grace Hopper, he will have other childhood origin stories to choose from. There’s the time he disassembled our apartment’s doorbell, leaving behind a peephole in the door that he argued should be left intact, “for the fresh air.” Recently, when I was speaking on an evening Zoom panel, I cut out midsentence when he attempted to reroute the Internet connection using Magna-Tiles.
And he’s only 4.
My son explores his world by dismantling it. Hand him a child-size screwdriver and he can remove several light switch plates and begin unburdening a door of its hinges before you have time to reconsider your options. One morning after I’d grabbed a quick shower, I entered his bedroom to find he had removed the mattress from his bunk bed and propped it against a wall in order to examine how the bed was constructed. (The mattress weighed more than he did at the time.)
I sometimes feel as though I live with Mr. Fixit from my son’s beloved Richard Scarry books, ready to smash a helpful hammer into any available lighting fixture. While the mess and stress can be exasperating, it’s more often hilarious. Currently, part of our apartment is taped over with supermarket circulars and garbage bags, as my son believes that these upholsteries offer enhanced sound insulation for the benefit of our cooped-up neighbors.
I’ve consulted all the relevant child-development texts about how to encourage yet contain my budding infrastructure guru, and I’ve assembled a reliable script: eliminate dangers; facilitate his passions; set firm limits for how much chaos I can stand. (Sometimes, the chaos can be strangely beautiful, as when he murdered a toner cartridge by printing endless black squares in an apparent homage to Kazimir Malevich’s suprematist period.)
But the pandemic, which now accounts for one-quarter of his life, has shifted what my boundaries might have been otherwise.
My son has been more fortunate than many of his peers: His preschool has managed to stay open for much of the Covid-19 crisis, and he enjoys the company of a (mostly) indulgent older sister and a (mostly) attentive single parent who can work from home. But still: no indoor play dates, no library, no swim or gymnastics classes, no visits to his grandparents’ house.
To a greater extent than I would have thought possible a year ago, what stokes his imagination is contained within our apartment’s 900 square feet. Maybe it’s my responsibility as his parent to let him do a little renovation. After all, who else is going to see the results, and how else am I going to grab a shower?
In a time of enforced isolation, my son’s chatty fixation on how things work also means that he takes up a bit more space in other people’s imaginations than he might otherwise. As his mother, this pleases me. Friends and relatives send him little just-because gifts, like kid-size tool kits and old fire alarms; a former colleague recently mailed him a vintage subway map.
Current colleagues aim their laptops toward their smoke detectors whenever he joins a Zoom call, respectfully acknowledging that the fire safety inspector has logged on.
I find it bracing how his curiosity lays bare my lack of it — I’m chastened by how stumped I can be by a 4-year-old’s questions about how we source the gas that cooks our food, what forces make our radiator pipes go clank in the night, how the Q train tunnel ever got dug or the basic properties of the glittering metropolis he calls “Electric City.” Everything that surrounds him is an alarm clock, and he has to know how it works. My son doesn’t accept the world merely for its surfaces. Really, why should anyone?
Jessica Winter, an editor at The New Yorker, is the author of the new novel “The Fourth Child.”