Part II. Original intro: You’ve read the books, you’ve scoured the internet, you’ve done all you can to ensure junior’s well-being for every contingency imaginable, from floods and famine to jellyfish stings. Almost there… keep the following arsenal on-hand to solidify your status as the family superhero.
Needle Nosed Pliers and Small Screwdrivers
No doubt, you’ve collected an impressive array of tools throughout your pre-dad lifetime, most of them showcasing torque, cutting ability and output. While you’ll still use these for glory projects like building that tree house, your day-to-day crisis moments will be better served by these two instruments of finesse -- instruments that are as readily available at JoAnn Fabrics as they are at Home Depot.
Function: Almost exclusively for battery replacement and toy repair. And that activity alone ensures that you’ll be reaching for one or the other at least twice a week (Hey Gerber, here’s a marketing tip: send new parents a set of precision screwdrivers with your logo on the case. Appreciation drives loyalty). Because the toys I played with back in the day never required jeweler gauge tools to unscrew the battery port cover (in fact, I remember taping most of my battery ports shut because those plastic tabs on the cover were usually the first thing to break), I would never have anticipated this need, and I’m sure many new parents don’t either. Once a toy is powered up, you can count on breakage. Not a malfunction, but actual child-perpetrated breakage. A significant percentage of child-on-toy violence takes the form of excessive torque on limbs, joints, axles, springs and other essential small moving parts. Fortunately, a high percentage of these breaks involve something simply becoming slightly warped or popping out of place. Needle nosed pliers (the smaller the better) do what your elephant fingers could never accomplish. Squeeze a clamp here, bend a clip there, pop a tiny ball joint, position a tab in a slot, secure something while you administer superglue -- the applications are endless.
Location: In a desk drawer. Storing them in a toolbox is mean. They’ll be made fun of.
A strategically located staging area for toy repairs is a vital element to your child’s mental and emotional well being. Make sure to choose an area that’s not readily accessible by your kid. An area they cannot see is better. I use one of the high shelves in my home office – the same shelf on which I keep the stapler, Sharpies and other things that my son could get really creative with (in the negative sense of the word).
Function: Kind of like an ICU for toys. Superglue works, but it still needs ample drying time. Once a toy is repaired, place it in your staging area so that it can heal undisturbed. The beauty of a staging area is that it is out of sight. Which means out of mind, which in turn means you minimize the “can I play with it now? How about now? It looks dry to me Dad!” But more importantly, out of sight means that if this toy needs to be taken off life support, you can pull the plug covertly and unceremoniously. Try throwing away a truck with a missing wheel in broad daylight, with witnesses. Impossible. Right now I'm treating a decapitated Alligator Gibbet (I hate/love Crocs – but that’s for another posting) in my staging area. My first attempt at reattachment was unsuccessful. The prognosis is not good. Tomorrow is garbage day. Marcus is asleep… I’ll be right back.
Location: Anywhere, as long as it is out of reach and out of sight. You must be disciplined when you use a staging area. Administer immediate care to toys that can be repaired; discard those that are beyond hope. Staging areas tend to get really backed up because men hate to admit they can’t fix something. Yes, I am generalizing based upon a sample size of “me” but I am sure I speak for all of us on this one.
File Folder Labeled “Instructions”
Not all toy repairs require tools. Most just require instructions. But therein lies the problem. When do we ever keep instructions? I’ll tell you: the moment we spend 3 days building that Lego Star Destroyer and we trip over the dog while bringing it to our bedroom because the kid will surely break it if left alone with it.
Function: Maintaining your sanity. Especially the week after Christmas – after your son has created hybrids of all seven Bionicle robots and “mash-ups” of ExoForce and Star Wars Lego vehicles, and wants them all reset to their original form. If you can take the time to file all instructions for every toy that requires more than 3 steps, I guarantee you that 8 out of 10 trips to that file cabinet will be to retrieve that folder.
Location: Wherever you keep the stash of essential documents you'd take with you in the unlikely event of a flood or fire.
New $3 Toys
Whenever you notice a clearance sale for small toys, buy a few. It doesn’t matter if they are random (Snakes on a Plane action figures), gender inappropriate for your child (Polly Pocket in my case) or pointless (capsules that expand into… sponge animals! Rocks that dissolve into… sponge animals!). If they’re cheap, just buy them.
Function: The obvious functionality of a stockpile of random small toys is for spur-of-the-moment gifts. Last minute birthday parties, holiday gifts for kids you never thought you’d see, but somehow were "in the neighborhood" on December 18. However, the survival benefit of the “$3 toy” is its ability to buy you 20-60 minutes of peace. It’s the “break glass in case of emergency” item in your arsenal. Unexpected traffic, a painfully long line at the bank, a doctor’s waiting room, any trip to the DMV. In most cases, your kid will probably pull through with an impromptu game or engaging conversation, but when the antsy bug strikes and you’re in no position to lose your place in line or take him out for a change of scenery, you have the antidote. Presentation is key with this tool. Turn to your child and make the “realization look” – that expression associated with suddenly remembering something important. The priceless part of this exchange is that junior will mirror your expression in anticipation, as if he also remembers that cool thing that just popped into your head (take a mental picture of it when it happens; you'll revisit it often). You then say “heeey, I forgot, I have a surprise for you.” I’m 35 years old, and this phrase still stops me dead in my tracks. Imagine the effect it has on a child. If your child was doing something undesirable, then make this surprise contingent upon his immediate cessation of that activity (reach into your backpack and give the toy a shake to allay any suspicion of a bluff). Pull out the random toy and you’ll likely be done with whatever you need to do before the excitement of this new distraction wears off. To ensure maximum efficacy, use this tool sparingly.
Location: Keep the main stash wherever you keep wrapping paper, keep one in the glove compartment and one in your backpack (real men don’t carry diaper bags, at least when the wife’s not around).
One of the keys to Busy Dad survival is having free hands. If I’m carrying my boy, he’s riding on my shoulders (he’s mastered balancing on them without my needing to hold his ankles); if I’m carrying necessities, I’m wearing a backpack; if I’m carrying small objects, they are in my pockets. You never know when you have to punch out a prospective kidnapper, right? Ironically, the only thing I can’t do “hands-free” is talk on the cell phone. I don’t know why I have such an aversion to it. Maybe I feel too self-important on a headset. Back to our discussion about pockets… Cargo shorts aren’t just for shirtless blond boys with nice obliques. They’re actually aptly named garments when you apply them to your dad responsibilities.
Function: It’s quite amazing what you can carry around in a single pair of cargo shorts. I’ve gone hours at a time hardly noticing that I was transporting one apple, a bottle of water, 3 bionicles, a cell phone, a wad of Dave and Buster's tickets, a Starbucks croissant, a keyring and my wallet. When your kid outgrows diapers, a good pair of cargo shorts can pretty much carry everything you need for the day: a sippy cup/sport bottle, a travel sized wipes dispenser, 3-5 toys, a baggie of snacks and an extra t-shirt or underwear for emergencies (the kid's, not your own). The first time you go out without a backpack is truly a liberating experience. I do highly recommend a belt, though. Those built-in drawstring ties were not designed for heavy hauling, so your pants fall anyway while the drawstring concentrates the full weight of your cargo into the knot, which digs into the soft spot on your underbelly. Evolution has taught every creature who has anything resembling an underbelly to protect it at all costs. The belt keeps you evolutionarily compliant.
Location: On your pants. Jackets with lots of pockets are also useful, but out here in Southern CA, I can't say I have too many occasions when I can wear one.