My husband and I try very hard not to spoil our kids. We rarely indulge them in unexpected new toys or goodies. No, sir. Christmas and birthdays, that's it. When they do receive a gift from us, you can be sure it's a well-thought-out, practical toy, with many educational values. No junk for our kids, by golly.
Why, then, does my house look as if the Toy Fairy made an emergency crash landing and stayed for a few weeks? My kitchen drawers ooze Fisher Price people. My sofa cushions sprout loose helmets for little soldiers with movable joints. Tiny clothes for tiny dolls with not-so-tiny figures fill my daughter's dresser. (Her own clothes are under the bed where they belong, she assures me.)
In short, we have bought tons of toys, most of them, to our credit, educational. We have building blocks for spatial dexterity, ball games for hand-eye coordination and a marble maze to demonstrate cause and effect. We have stuffed animals and puppets for emotional growth. We have dress-up clothes for acting out. And we have lots of books -- books about science to bring their minds alive, and a book bidding goodnight to the moon to put their minds at rest.
So, our kids are happily building, learning and sharing their toys, right?
Wrong. They are in the backyard, digging a hole. Not in the sandbox we spent countless hours building, mind you, but right out there in the grass. They are not using the cute little shovels I bought for them at the beach last summer. That would be too easy. They must use their bare hands. They are looking for clues, you see, to explain the mystery of How the Branch Fell out of the Tree in the Corner of the Yard Where No One Ever Goes. A shovel might destroy some important evidence, so they are up to their elbows in mud, happily digging holes and collecting clues that look an awful lot like common rocks to me.
Watching their game, I thank heaven one more time that I talked my husband out of the very expensive child-size steam shovel he wanted to buy last Christmas. I wish we'd been as strong about the miniature soda shop. I should have known better than to even look twice at a box gaily advertising "more than 50 pieces inside!" Instead, I bought it.
Maybe this year I'll be more firm. Last year, however, I fell victim to an old ploy that I myself perfected as a child. When your parents ask what you want for Christmas, you tell them there is only one thing in the whole world that will make you happy. This one thing has got to be good. A new board game doesn't cut it. It must be big. It must be significant. It must be expensive and hard to find, a true test of your parents' love.
This is how, at the age of 10, I got a funny little oven that baked fruit-flavored goop into bug-shaped candy. This is how, in high school, I got my first stereo. And this is how, at I'm-old-enough-to-know-better, I got my miniature soda shop.
It took my kids several months and a lot of this is the only toy that will make me happy exercises, but they finally wore me down. When my daughter was 3, she learned to parrot everything her big brother said. She couldn't have cared less about ice cream shops for dolls, but she did care very much about Mark's view of the universe. So if he told her she was dying for a soda shop, then die she did.
In every store she entered, whether it sold toys or not, Cathy flopped down in the aisles and swore through her sobs that she would never move again if she didn't get her ice cream shop.
My husband and I stood firm. "Santa doesn't bring ice cream shops to 3-year-olds," we shrugged. Sorry -- not our fault.
But as Christmas approached, Cathy had been around the block a few times and wasn't falling for the same old lines. And the world according to Mark was more important than ever.
"Cathy," Mark squealed four times a day, "there's your ice cream shop on TV! Can you hardly wait till Christmas when Santa brings you one?"
"Oh, Mommy, Mommy, look what Santa's going to bring me!" my little parrot cried, jumping up and down on one foot and clapping her hands.
"Ooooooh, Caaaathy," I whined, "I don't think you reeeaaally want thaaaat."
"Yes I do, Mommy," Cathy insisted. "Markie says I do. Markie says Santa is going to bring me one. I can't wait!"
Well, what would you do? We debated for weeks. Would she really care on Christmas morning if she found a steam shovel under the tree instead of an ice cream shop? Maybe. Maybe not. But would you have risked your 3-year-old's Christmas smiles in the interest of a developmental toy? Neither did we.
We got the soda fountain. Mark was thrilled. Cathy was passingly interested, dutifully grateful and uncannily aware of the fact that Santa will bring you just about anything you ask for if you know how to ask.
I learned something, too. This year, I will be the first to plant the seeds of the "wants" in their fertile little minds. All I need do is convince them that they want what I want them to want, and they'll want it. Simple.
So the seeds I plant will be for educational toys, things they'll play with over and over, toys they'll find new uses for every day, that improve hand-eye coordination while stimulating social interaction and encouraging physical exercise.
The seeds I plant will be for the perfect toys -- a handful of common little rocks for Mark, and a few sticks from the Tree in the Corner of the Yard Where No One Ever Goes for Cathy. They'll love them.