I was sitting on my "Dad recliner" a couple days ago when, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a fast-approaching creature of glitter and hair. It was my five-year-old, Aimee. She approached me, arm raised in my direction, clutching something in her marker-covered sticky fingers. Experience had taught me there was a 50/50 chance that whatever she was holding had a heartbeat. As she opened her Cheetos-stained fingers to present her offering, I instinctively recoiled and braced for what might be a panicked creature captured from the yard. Luckily, what she was holding turned out to be a toy necklace she'd received this past Christmas.
(I know, it's kind of a let-down. If I was reading this story I would want to hear about a grown man climbing over the back of a recliner to get away from whatever angry creature his daughter had tried to "show" him. Bear with me. I assure you, it gets interesting.)
The toy necklace my daughter presented to me is a replica of a princess amulet from a cartoon that is currently popular in our household. Not that it's an important part of the story, but the amulet gives its wearer the magic ability to talk to animals or fly or something. Again, that's not the important part. What is important is that the designers of the toy version of the amulet spent an extra three cents to install a small, purple LED that causes the amulet to light up when you press a small, purple button. The crazy thing about light-up toys is that they run on batteries and, since we haven't figured out how to create amulet-sized nuclear reactors, the small, purple LED eventually drained the life out of even the best bunny-mascotted batteries.
Such was the reason that my young offspring presented her amulet at my Throne of Dad. The batteries were dead.
I have four kids. Each of those kids has at least one birthday during the year. We also celebrate the customary gift-giving holidays like Christmas, Easter, and Corn Dog Day. (It's a real holiday. 3rd Saturday in March. Look it up.) If I were to multiply the number of kids I have by the number of gift-giving holidays there are, I would come up with approximately 846 battery-operated toys that are currently scattered throughout my house. It's unreasonable to think that I'm going to replace the batteries on approximately 846 toys every six months to a year. It's unreasonable on the basis of preserving both my money and my sanity.
Being the experienced parental figure that I am, I've perfected a technique to appropriately handle this situation. This technique may have been imitated, but never duplicated. Since I like you, I'm going to tell you how it works.
Take the toy from the child. Bring it up to your eye level and examine it, as if you're Indiana Jones examining an ancient artifact. At this point, you should try to show some genuine concern. Not too much, though. Kids are good at picking up on feigned sincerity. I've found that cocking an eyebrow, grabbing my chin, and letting out a concerned "hmmmmmmm" while examining the toy seems to be the perfect balance of concern and contemplation.
After 20 or 30 seconds of examining the toy, quietly let out a defeated sigh accompanied by a "tsk tsk tsk." When your kid looks up at you tell them, in the same manner that a doctor delivers bad news to a family, that you tried your best. When they ask what's wrong, present the toy back to your kid and, with genuine concern still on your face, inform them of the tragic news....that they don't make that type of battery anymore. As this may be a difficult time for your child, you should familiarize yourself with the stages of toy grief. Denial, anger, hunger, boredom, snack time, cartoons, can we watch a movie, I want some snacks, stop hitting your sister, what was I even sad about in the first place, toy what toy.
This was my go-to strategy for toys with dead batteries. It had worked for all of my kids and their dumb, noise-making toys. My technique worked so well that I secretly cut notches in my bed post every time I successfully navigated the perils of having to purchase new batteries for dumb, noise-making toys. Okay, I don't really do that because a) I'm not actually that mean and b) it's a really nice bed post. Also c) my wife would punch me in the face if I started carving up the furniture.
However, I have used the no-longer-producing-those-batteries routine before. I planned on using it for the purple amulet, but when she handed me the amulet and I saw the hopeful look in her eyes, a thought struck me. It wasn't one of those quiet thoughts that you brush off and pay no attention to. This was a booming voice and a kick in the ass. When my little girl handed me that plastic, purple necklace I remembered something I had read, the importance of which I didn't understand until that moment.
While perusing Facebook one day, I came across a picture of an old couple with a message underneath it. The words read, "A reporter asked the couple 'How did you manage to stay together for 65 years?' The woman replied, 'We were born in a time when if something was broken you fixed it, you didn't throw it away."
I don't know why this plastic necklace made me think of that picture. In that moment, those words resonated with me in a way that not only reflected on my parenting, but also on the expectations I was setting for my kids for the rest of their lives. What does it say about us as a culture when we can treat so many things as disposable and temporary? We, as parents, were teaching our kids that once something is no longer useful or in the same condition as when they first experienced it, it no longer carries the same value that it once did. By no means am I trying to sound self-righteous or judgmental. After all, this realization came as a result of something that had become commonplace in our house.
I've heard plenty of conversations about the sanctity of marriage and the unbelievable divorce rate. I know it's kind of a stretch to go from children's' toys to matrimony, but aren't we setting up the foundation of our children's personalities at this young age? Aren't we supposed to instill in them the notion that because something is broken, it doesn't mean it can't be fixed? Aren't we supposed to teach them to be thankful for every gift they are lucky and special enough to receive? Yet we treat those same gifts as broken and devalued at the first sign of deterioration.
Like most things in parenting, the solution isn't black and white. I decided to try something different. I could see that this toy was special to my child. It wasn't just special in that moment and then forgotten the next. This small, plastic amulet was something she was truly thankful for. What would it speak to her if I treated it as just another toy? What customs and tendencies would she develop as a result of me diminishing and detracting something that she held so dear?
So I made her a promise, I would replace the batteries on the toys that she truly cherished. It was more than that. I would show her the value of the gifts she received. I would show her that sometimes it takes work to get something back to the way it used to be. I would show her the renewed joy that can be experienced from restoring something once thought broken to its former glory. When she found that she no longer needed or lost interest in a once-cherished toy, I would make sure she knows that it still has value, especially to those who want for the things we take for granted.
Buy the batteries. Fix the toys. As a parent, your actions and your inactions speak louder to your kids than words ever will.