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Parenting Imperfect

December 11, 2010

Even if the box is fun, it's not really enough for Christmas

If I were a true pragmatist _ or a cold-hearted Grinch _ I wouldn't buy any gifts for the kids this year.

My goal wouldn't be to make some grand statement about the ramping up of holiday consumerism and/or the trade imbalance with China.

Nor do my kids need to be punished for their behavior during the year, although it's tempting to do so whenever the Boy refuses to get in the car to go to the grocery store.

Instead of being merely philosophical, my reasons for not wanting to give them gifts are purely practical and two-fold.

Fold the first: They already have a lot of toys, most of which never get played with. And, yes, we should go through and weed out the ones that are unloved and donate them to kids who might love them more. We do _ but not frequently enough to keep a fair number of toys from winding up on the floor of the closet, rather in the bins that they belong in.

I strongly suspect that the toys need to be in the middle of the floor because the kids still don't quite believe that objects have permanence.

If you put, say, all of your Polly Pockets in their drawer, they will disappear because you've stopped looking at them.

It could also be that my kids find my continual nagging at them to pick up their own stuff somehow comforting, like the aural equivalent of macaroni and cheese.

It could also merely be that my kids are lazy.

Fold the second: Over the Thanksgiving holiday, my dad came into town. He walked in the door with the usual items, like his luggage, a bottle of wine and some books. He also had a cardboard box _ it used to hold reams of paper _ that was filled with gifts for the kids. They promptly unwrapped said gifts, said their thank yous, then spent the next three days fighting over who would get to sit in the box.

I am not exaggerating. Three. Full. Days.

If the Boy's turn coincided with bedtime, he would go so far as to take the box to bed with him so that he could have an extra 10 hours with it, even if he was unconscious. The Diva pitched fits if she felt her box visitation rights had been impinged upon. This box was both the best gift and the worst gift ever.

It got even better _ if such a thing were possible _ when I dug out a black Sharpie. The two of them decorated that box for hours. They even worked together to figure out what to draw. While it quickly disintegrated into bickering, these glimpses of cooperation had me stunned.

One of them raided my yarn closet (yes, I have one) and pulled out two knitting needles so that they could have magic wands like Harry Potter's. With those, the Sharpie and the box, their play needs were easily sated.

For three days, I knew that one of them would be casually sitting in the box, watching TV, drawing or reading a book, at any moment of any day. The box became another member of the family, even though I did insist that they get out of it long enough to have Thanksgiving dinner. I'm sure I hurt the box's feelings.

Three days in, the box felt the sting of more rejection. The Diva had had enough of it and made no fuss when her brother took it away from her. Five days in, even the Boy had had his fill.

I recycled it last week because I kept tripping on it while dancing around all of the kid detritus on the floor.

It's tempting to simply troll BJ's Wholesale Club for appropriately sized boxes that I can put under the tree on Christmas Day. I'll be sure to get two to cut down on box-related fights. Think of all of the money we'll save! I'd even be willing to spring for some new Sharpies, maybe in a variety of colors.

But there'd be something missing.

Christmas is one of the few holidays where we let practicality slide for a few weeks. We'd have to put a big lighted tree in our living rooms. Deep, deep down we know that you can't really encapsulate all of your love for a person into a gift but you have to try.

And if I gave the kids boxes, it would feel hollow. Even though I know it's impossible, I want, for just one day, to give them tangible symbols of how much they are loved.

Which is why they will be getting a few things for Christmas, even some of the items _ I'm looking at you, Zhu Zhu pets _ are those I rail about the other 364 days of the year.

And, yes, I do this knowing that they'd be content to play with the box.

Adrienne Martini is a freelance writer, instructor at the State University College at Oneonta, mom to Maddy and Cory, wife to Scott, and author of "Sweater Quest," which was published in March. Her columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/ parentingimperfect.

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