Tasks For Toys

From my "Back Talk" column in December's Houston Family Magazine. I suppose it's mildly cruel for me to use Christmas in bending the children to my will. Does anyone else have their own version of this or am I alone here? ...cricket noise.

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Tasks For Toys

I don’t think there’s anything out of the ordinary in saying that I like Christmas. It would be a different story entirely if I added that this also included competing in several rounds of “That’s My Spot!” driving through the mall parking lot or using a roll of “Joy to the World”—themed wrapping paper to fend off some ‘roid-raged old lady trying to steal the store’s last set of nativity figurines from my shopping cart. Trust me, I dread these and all such other contentious, holiday season scenarios. Plus, it feels rather disconcerting having to superglue ceramic baby Jesus’ arm back on before placing him in the manger.

That aside, my heart warms like a chestnut roasting on a open fire when I hear Christmas carols playing on the radio or witness the surprised expression on my kids’ faces as they unwrap that special gift they had claimed they would absolutely die without, but that I had told them Santa Clause gave to a good little boy in Pakistan who knew how to keep his room clean.

“Boys don’t play with dolls,” my stepdaughter Avery said, calling my bluff when I had threatened her with this earlier.

“Oh really, ” I countered. “Guess what? The kids in Pakistan only have gender-neutral toys like sticks and rocks to play with; so, I don’t think the boy really cares. I think he’ll just be happy to have a toy.”

Avery still remained skeptical, but not enough that she was willing to risk losing a toy to some poor kid halfway around the world, and she commenced to cleaning.

Exchanges such as this take place throughout the entire year with a slight rise in frequency at the start of October followed by a predictable spike beginning the minute Thanksgiving dinner plates need to be cleared from the table. And it’s a universal phenomenon amongst the children; simply switch out the child, the chore, and the requested gift—kind of like naming the suspect in the board game, Clue. Miss Avery. In the messy room. Without a baby doll.

I believe that leveraging Christmas with the children, constitutes effective parenting, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I use it often. In fact, like many practically minded people, I once used to roll my eyes at the sight of red bows and silver bells hanging in department stores when outside, the leaves hadn’t yet turned orange and fallen to the ground. Now, I welcome it. The earlier the better, I say. Do you know how much work gets done around our house all because of the four-month lead time created by greedy companies sucking the spirit right out of Christmas through premature marketing campaigns?

Sometimes, if I think the kids’ motivations are waning, I’ll take them to Toys ‘R’ Us for an hour on a Saturday morning. “Here,” I say, handing them each a notepad. “I want you go through the entire store and make your Christmas list. There’s only nine weeks left, and we’ve gotta get this done.” Once they’re done we head straight home, and the kids, buoyed by a renewed sense of purpose, spend the remainder of the weekend preparing the house for a white-glove inspection.

Should anyone bring up that we already ran through this exercise last month, I plan on telling them that I got an email from an elf at the Children’s Gift Requisition Department saying the original lists were destroyed in a warehouse fire, and we should send new ones. Then I’ll add, “Better hurry. Miss the deadline you’ll be put on the “standby list.” Those are the kids who get stuck with the leftover toys from last Christmas.” I’m sure I could sell it.

If anyone thinks I’m being cruel, then I’d like to point out that I grew up in stable, traditional family where this “tasks-for-toys” methodology was employed on a regular basis, and I am not suffering from any psychological scars as a result. My parents were judicious in using the holidays to bend us their will. My father was particularly adept at milking the situation for everything he could right up until my sisters and I tore into our first gift.

Every Christmas morning, we would burst into our parents’ room at o-dark thirty, and every time our dad would pose a series of questions prerequisite to opening presents. To my sisters and I, this was excruciating, but we figured out that by knocking out what equated to Dad’s version of the pre-launch checklist for the space shuttle Atlantis, before waking him, we could reduce the agony.

“Did you make coffee?” Dad would start off with, to which we would reply, “Check."

“Is their a fire going in the furnace?”


“Christmas music on?”


“Film in camera?”


“Tools for toys requiring assembly?”

“Check.” My sisters and I would glance back and forth at each other, grinning over the possibility that we were batting a thousand, but then our father would throw us a curveball by adding a new item not previously on his list.




Our heads would drop. Bacon!?

Then my sisters and I would trudge towards the kitchen as Dad reminded us to easy on the syrup. “Try not to drown my pancakes like last time.”

“Come on! We’re just kids, not short-order cooks from Denny’s” we’d grumble to ourselves.

Back then I’d prepare Dad’s coffee, deliberating whether or not to spit in it. Now, however, I consider him an artist as I slide underneath my covers while my own kids shuffle out of the bedroom. I have to say, though, children do catch on quick. Mine are already up to bacon. What will I tack on next year?

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