When toys take over

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(If I were to own only one toy, it should be a small stroller. It doubles as shopping cart and lawn mower. Kids love to push stuff.)

One of the interesting aspects of being a parent is watching how everyone handles the toy situation. And I do mean situation. At day’s end, our house typically looks like it has withstood a small natural disaster. And this natural disaster strikes every single day. I’m all in favor of having the kids help clean up at the end of the day, but that only happens once or twice a week. Usually I realize too late that we have forgotten to clean up.

Some of the parents I know have bins of toys in every room, while others have all of the toys tucked into bedrooms and playrooms so that you might enter their home without recognizing that kids live there. We have a designated playroom, and the best part of the playroom is the door, which I can close. But I want our kids to feel comfortable playing in every room of our house, with the exception of our office and the master bedroom.

I love seeing how children innovate with toys, how Eleanor will use the pieces from our Clue board game in her dollhouse. That sounds ominous now that I’ve typed it. My point is that my kids rarely use toys the way I expect them to, and I think allowing the toys to roam fosters creativity. Still, at day’s end, I want a clean family room where I can relax. Everything goes into the playroom. We close the door.

A while back, we started boxing up some of the toys and keeping them in closets. Every couple of months, we rotate toys, and then our old toys feel new again. Plus, we don’t have to pick up every toy we own every night.

We own a lot of toys. I am the only person in our house who has a problem with this. We buy our children few toys, but between birthday parties, holidays, and school events, new goodies arrive in our house nearly every week. And I understand that people give these gifts as a symbol of affection. I like to spoil my kids, too. That’s why it is so hard to tell people that we really don’t need these things. Our kids do seem to treasure every sheet of stickers and plastic ring that they receive, at least for the first five minutes. When I ask Eleanor to be involved in the toy giveaway process, it is as though we are Democrat and Republican trying to get a bill through Congress.

Thus I rely on executive orders. Actually, I have a holding area for toys that I want to get rid of, a place for them to wait while I see whether Eleanor remembers. (“The Velveteen Rabbit” is flashing through my head. Am I a terrible person?) After a few weeks, I donate or trash each item. But Eleanor always remembers. Sometimes she will ask for a toy that I gave away six months ago. Days of theatrics ensue.

So why not let all of the toys pile up? Because then we have to spend even more time searching for favorite toys that have been lost in the mess. Also, I like having closet space for things like clothes.

I hate the feeling that stuff interferes with family relationships, that I have arguments with my child over toys and that I have to spend a significant portion of my time managing our possessions. I know that our children would be just as happy with less, that I would be as happy with less. I want our energy to be focused on relationships and doing things we like.

I understand that the kids will grow out of the toy phase, that someday I will cry as I give away the alphabet puzzle and the doctor’s kit. The toy worry seems frivolous in the face of the ticking clock. But I can’t help thinking that with toys, as with so much in life, simpler is better.

Grounding the helicopter

School starts in three weeks, and parents in our neighborhood have been speculating about the lineup of teachers since the day school let out. Who is switching grades? Who is leaving? Who do you want your child to get?

I was attuned to these conversations last summer because Eleanor was just starting school. I wanted all of the details, and I got them. The night of the open house arrived, and we went across the street to learn who Eleanor would have as a teacher. Parents gathered around the lists of classes posted in the school hallway, their children squeezed beneath them. Some parents whooped. Others looked confused or dejected. The energy was frenetic. We could have been attending the NFL draft.

Eleanor had not received one of the coveted teachers. As we walked into her kindergarten classroom, I felt disappointed, and I didn’t even know this teacher.

When I had registered Eleanor for school, there was a place on the form to write about her personality and learning style. In theory, this helps the school place a child with a teacher who will be a good fit. In reality, the school has more than 700 students, so the system isn’t that precise. Parents are not allowed to request teachers. I wondered whether a different description might have landed her with one of the other teachers. I had no control over this system, and still I felt like a failure.

I had nine months to form my own opinion of her teacher, and while this wasn’t the teacher I would have chosen, Eleanor did fine. Perhaps it was a good experience to have early on, to see that a less-than-stellar teacher doesn’t ruin my daughter’s life chances. Sometimes it feels as though we are all preparing our children for Harvard. How many of us went to Ivy League schools? Somehow we are getting by just fine.

A few weeks ago, I read this post on the Design Mom blog, and it resonated. I am trying to steer clear of the obsessing over teachers and school. My child is not going to have the best teacher every year, and she will be okay. Every child deserves an equal chance at having a great teacher. And really, children who have parents with a lot of time and resources will suffer the least from a mediocre teacher. The foundation of an education happens at home.

So I am trying to make my perfectionistic self relax, to begin this school year with optimism. And I am smiling when I find Eleanor outside our bedroom each morning reading “Calvin and Hobbes.” She is doing okay.

My best travel advice

Greg and I think of ourselves as adept travelers. We pack light enough that we don’t have to check bags. We can quickly navigate airports with the carseats and stroller. We know better than to take a 20-ounce bottle of Gatorade through security, something that still seems to trip up the average person.

After having Eleanor, I spent a lot of time reading tips about traveling with children. Always, the authors talked about how rewarding it was to see the world through a child’s eyes. I just needed to pack a lot of snacks and a few new toys for the airplane, and everything would be fine. Travel with children was definitely worth the hassles, the writers reassured me.

Here is the real secret to happy traveling: Set your expectations low.

Despite all of the travel experience Greg and I have accrued, we inevitably hit snags. Last week, we visited our families in Illinois. Greg’s parents dropped us off at O’Hare on Saturday morning for our return flight home. We had printed our tickets ahead of time. All of our luggage was carry-on. Our flight was on time. Smooth sailing.

We neared the front of the security line, and Greg turned to me and said that he couldn’t find his driver’s license. He patted his back pockets and front pockets. He checked his wallet and the diaper bag. For the first time ever, I prayed for the security line to move more slowly.

“Could you have dropped it in your parents’ car?” I asked.

No, he told me. He had pulled it out of his wallet when we got into the security line. I crouched and scanned the floor. There were dozens of people and bags behind us. It was useless. We had reached the front of the line. I always think of Greg and I as a team. I have done a lot of stupid things, and he has stuck by me. But at that moment, I wondered whether I could dissociate from him and get on the plane with the kids.

Greg told the TSA agent at the front of the line that he couldn’t find his ID, and our whole family stepped aside to let those behind us go. We were those people now, the people who don’t know how to travel. Greg looked both sheepish and mildly happy. I knew that he was mortified, but I have never seen him look so pleasantly dazed. The TSA agent glared at him. She called out to everyone in line to check the floor around them. And then Greg patted the pocket in the front of his shirt and found his license. He showed it to the agent.

“I’m going to slap you,” she growled. Greg continued with his sheepish, mildly happy face. “I’m going to slap you,” the agent said again, in case Greg had missed it.

We were allowed to go through. After our walk through the metal detector, Greg was selected for a random security check that I am certain was not random. I had collected all of our bags, and one of the security agents came to ask me which bag was Greg’s. She walked away with Greg and the bag. I waited with the kids. After about five minutes of waiting, I began to wonder if they were going to hold him until we missed our flight.

I walked with the kids in the direction that Greg had gone. He was in a room, one of those rooms with the opaque glass and a deadbolt on the door. I began to scheme. I could knock on the door and pretend that I was violently ill, that Greg needed to take the kids. Two minutes of Henry, and they would shoo us onto that plane (See? We really are a team!).

Just then, Greg emerged from the room, and we found our gate. We parked our bags and made bathroom visits. A man sat down across from us and unfolded “The Wall Street Journal.” He took a sip from his bottle of Diet Coke, put the cap on and set it on the seat. The bottle tipped onto the floor. The cap wasn’t fully on, and a fountain of shaken Diet Coke sprayed from the bottle. Greg and I flung bags sideways, and then Greg grabbed oblivious Henry. Meanwhile, the man was just looking up from his newspaper to notice what had happened. We had found one of the few people in the country who loves newspapers more than I do.

All of our bags had been sprinkled. Henry’s sneakers had taken the brunt of it. I’m usually comfortable with flying, but I was starting to wonder whether we should board our plane.

We got onto the plane, and shortly after take-off, I pulled out the peanut butter sandwiches I had packed for lunch. Eleanor had requested a peanut butter and honey sandwich, and I had even cut off the crust, something I never do. She looked at it and declared that she wanted jelly, not honey. Greg found one of the sandwiches with jelly, and we swapped. Now she wrinkled her nose at the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. We do not kowtow to whining. Like most parents, though, we will do almost anything to appease our children on a plane. Greg pulled out the honey sandwich again. In the handoff, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich flopped to the floor.

Part of the reason the sandwich wound up on the floor is that Henry was fidgeting in my lap. Henry is our 28-pound lap child. That might not sound like much weight. Try to imagine someone handing you a 28-pound wild boar and asking you to keep it in your lap for three hours on a plane. That’s what we had.

Henry received his sandwich, and the destruction began. He squeezed chunks of the sandwich in his fists, peanut butter and jelly oozing everywhere. My leg felt warm. If you are a parent, you know what this means. I lifted him and noted a diaper leak. I gave thanks. It was only pee. And that’s the sort of mindset you need to fly with your children. You need to give thanks for the pee on your jeans because you know that far worse things could be on your jeans.

Henry got changed, and I persevered in my dirty jeans. In the end, we made it home only slightly worse for the wear. Our flight was even on time. What luck!