Why is my toddler so obsessed with garbage trucks?
The other day my 10-year-old asked me why his 20-month-old younger brother is obsessed with garbage trucks. I told him that he and my other two kids had been exactly the same. One of his first words was “Dump!” But I realized I had no idea - any suggestions?
-JC, Ann Arbor
Your son had a very good question. And you’ve both observed accurately that toddlers all seem to adore garbage trucks and often the people who drive them!
Toddlers are so busy putting ideas together in their minds, seeing what goes with what, and figuring it all out. They are going through the fastest period of growth in their lives. But, just like the rest of us, they have their priorities.
For toddlers the really important things are what goes into their bodies and what comes out, where things belong, and where their important people are. So we’re thinking about food and poop, boxes and drawers and shelves and containers, and when people go away and come back.
Your little guy (and his big brothers and sisters before him) is trying to figure out what is permanent and what disappears. This is very important, since he depends on knowing that you and his daddy and the rest of his family will be there again. But what happens to the trash, and the broken broom handle, and the old newspapers? He likes to know that it all goes somewhere, even if it doesn’t come back. He keeps checking every week to get the difference clear in his mind - the trash goes in the truck and goes to the dump, and it doesn’t come back, but Mommy and Daddy go to work in the car and they come back every day. Whew - that’s a relief!
Then there’s the way the bites of food go into his mouth and disappear to the inside of his body. Do you know the toys where they bang a ball into a hole and then watch it go down a track and come out at the bottom? Toddlers’ fascination with those toys comes from their body sense that what goes in eventually comes out. They like to play it over and over again, and then all over again, so that they can master the process. It’s part of their wondering about their body products.
Toddlers are trying to understand how they can make something inside their bodies, push it out and get praised for it, but then their parents throw it away. They feel like it’s precious, so the rest of the trash seems pretty valuable too. It takes a long time to figure out how to tell the difference between what’s valuable to keep and what isn’t. Even your 10-year-old probably has “treasures” that a grownup wouldn’t value, but he cares a lot about his old plastic pinwheel from the county fair, or the rocks he picked up in the woods.
Just as toddlers are fascinated with how their bodies work, they often love machines. Many little ones know very well how to use the remote, dial their parents’ cell phones, and press the buttons on the car keys. The garbage truck is a great big, loud machine. It has moving parts that go up and down and it seems big and strong. The trash collectors are big and strong too, able to drive those trucks and make the grinders work. Kids want to be like the grownups and those guys control even machines even bigger than they are.
So your toddler has good reasons to be fascinated with the garbage trucks. My kids even learned the days of the week so they could anticipate when it was garbage day and be sure to be outside in time to see the truck come. Telling the story of the trash, how it goes in the bin, then gets picked up into the truck, then grind, grind, grind and zoom-zoom to the dump, where it all gets emptied out, so the truck can come back next week - what a nice way to learn about sequencing, what goes where, and how the world is organized!
Kerry Kelly Novick is a local child, adolescent and adult psychoanalyst, affiliated with the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute and the Michigan Psychoanalytic Council, and is a founder of Allen Creek Preschool. You can reach her through