Toy Jail

Yesterday I took my daughter’s cardboard Build-A-Bear box and made a jail for their toys. It’s sad, really, that it has come to this. In all fairness, the toys have not done anything to deserve being put in jail. If anything, it should be called a “toy spa,” because those toys have been so abused, neglected, and strewn about that they could use some pampering. Maybe I will put a soft velvet lining in the Build-a-Bear box so they can recline in comfort. That would, however, defeat the psychological purpose of the toy jail, which is to make the kids want to earn the toys back by doing a variety of chores around the house. Because on the outside of the box is a little envelope in which I have placed strips of index cards with different household chores they need to do to release a toy from jail. So, of course the jail has to look sad and unappealing or the kids won’t want to break the toys free.

To be fair, I don’t think the kids want to free the toys anyway. If watching them is any indication, they are perfectly content to let mommy store the toys in jail for all eternity. They just don’t care about their stuff. Well, about most of their stuff. They are inseparable from their lovies (for Boo this is a stuffed lamb named Fluffles; for Critter it is her blanket which is aptly named Blanket) and would recoil in terror should either of those items ever make it into toy jail. Everything else? Feh. Not so much. Take it, leave it . . . they’ll find something else to play with.

I suppose here is where I could go into the litany of “The kids have too much. They take everything for granted. They have no respect because they didn’t earn it. They have no idea how spoiled they are. If I had the toys they had when I was a child, I would have treated them like gold. I barely had a sock and a stick to play with, blah blah blah.” Much of which is, of course, untrue. I had lots of toys. And I treated a lot of them like crap. So much so that when I was about five my mother decided to start threatening me with the arrival of the “toy fairy.”

Ah, yes, the infamous toy fairy. She was the supernatural precursor to the toy jail. She would come in the middle of the night to the houses of children who did not clean up their toys and TAKE EVERYTHING. So, yeah, one morning I woke up, stumbled down to the living room to play with the Little People village I’d set up (and not taken down) the night before, and it was gone. Everything. Gone. Totally gone. Nowhere to be seen. I was stunned. “Where are my toys?” I asked.

“I told you I was going to call the toy fairy,” my mom replied.

“She took my toys?” I asked.

“She took the toys you weren’t taking care of, and she’s going to give them to children who will appreciate them.”

“She’s GIVING AWAY ALL MY TOYS?!!!” I asked. That had not originally been part of the toy fairy profile. I knew she’d come and take them. I didn’t know she was going to redistribute them. When I tell my kids this story they say, “So the toy fairy was a DEMOCRAT?” (And there’s about the most politics you’re ever going to read in this blog, folks).

“Well,” my mom replied, “she’ll give away all your toys unless you call her to let her know that you’re sorry and will take better care of your toys from now on.”

“I can CALL HER?” I asked. Why hadn’t I been told that before? I thought only adults could call in the toy fairy. I didn’t know she could be contacted by children.

“Of course you can call her,” my mother said. “Would you like to?”

Because I was five I didn’t yet know expressions like, “Is the Pope Catholic?” but if I had, I would have said that. Instead I think I just nodded, terrified that I was now going to have to speak to Her. The Toy Fairy. The Maleficent of the plastic world.

My mom picked up a shopping bag with a picture of Santa on it and dialed the rotary phone. Chuck-chuck-chuck-chuck-chuck. Chuck-chuck-chuck-chuck-chuk. Another experience my children will never have. WAITING for the PHONE to DIAL. As it turned out, the number she was dialing was the general office number of the NY Telephone company where my grandmother worked. I had no idea that’s where the bag came from. All I saw was that Santa was on that bag. And all sorts of ideas started going through my head. Santa. The Toy Fairy. In the same place???!!!! It couldn’t be a coincidence. Did HE get his toys from HER? Was HE her redistribution machine? Was she putting the elves out of business? Did Santa not so much make toys as recycle them? My little five-year-old brain started to go down some pretty scary paths. Luckily, my mother finished dialing and someone on the other end of the line picked up.

I heard my mother mumble a bit, then say, “HI! Is this the TOY FAIRY? I have a VERY SAD LITTLE GIRL who wants to SPEAK TO YOU.”

I took the receiver of the phone like it was a snake, and put it to my ear. “Hello?”

“Hello!” said the voice on the other end of the line. I remember it flitting through my head that the voice sounded remarkably like my grandmother’s. It’s a wonder, in a child’s brain, that I could so easily dismiss that similarity because the number had been on a bag with Santa’s picture on it. Seriously. If that phone company bag had a flamingo on it, or the Empire State Building, or a picture of a phone my family would have been so busted! But Santa. I don’t think my mother knew how essential that Santa bag was to the whole charade.

“Hello,” I said again. “Is this the Toy Fairy?”

“Yes,” said the toy-fairy-who-sounded-like-grandma.

“Can I please have my toys back?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” the toy fairy said. “I’m not sure if you really WANT them back.”

“I do! I do! I love them! I want them back!”

“Well, you certainly didn’t seem to value them enough to take care of them.”

“But I do! I do! I just left them out because I’d set up the whole village and was going to play with them again in the morning. I love them! I want them back! Please don’t give them away to the other children!”

“You need to put them away every night. Will you do that?”

“I will! I promise! I will! I’m sorry!” At this point I was probably crying.

“Well then, I’ll bring them back tonight and you’ll have them tomorrow.”

So I lived for a whole day without my toys and the next morning they were back. It was like second Christmas. And I did put my toys away every night after that. Because my parents had totally upped the stakes. Put the toys away or they’re gone. Forever.

It wasn’t toy jail. It was toy armageddon.

For some reason I can’t bring myself to do that to my kids, even though I know how effective it was for me. And that, in the words of Yoda, is why I fail as a parent. I’m not willing to take the hard steps. I am, in essence, a marshmallow. Plus, I just don’t have the kind of determination it would take to get all the toys out of my house in one evening.

As a matter of fact it strikes me as both amusing and telling that my parents were able to take all of my toys away while I slept. I think, to get all the toys out of this house during the nighttime hours, I’d need a bulldozer and a dump truck. And where would I hide them? I’d need a storage pod or something.

Which brings me back to the point that my kids have too much stuff.

I know it’s rationalizing to say that the reason they’re so dismissive of their things is because they have too much. It’s almost like they can’t wrap their minds around how to organize it. But to be honest that’s just giving them far too little credit. They could organize and clean if they wanted to. They just have better things to do–like read, watch tv, play with their friends, and whine about cleaning–than to work to make my house look like a tornado did NOT just whip through it.

So how do you make a person–in this case, a child–do something they have absolutely no desire to do? Do I have to go nuclear and call in the Toy Fairy? Do I have to ultimately take everything away? Do I have to show them that mom is no longer someone to be trifled with? Or will the toy jail work?

I’ll keep you posted.

6 thoughts on “Toy Jail

  1. So let’s see. You’ve got two brilliant, well-behaved, and loving children and you’re describing yourself as a failure as a parent. I’d hate to see your criteria for success.

    You’re doing fine. Keep up the good work.

  2. Diane,
    First of all, I love the idea of toy jail! My threat always involves “If you don’t clean your room, I’m taking a garbage bag in there and putting everything in it that is lying on the floor, I will then give the toys to someone less fortunate”. Yeah ….only works in the moment, and I feel horrible saying it.
    I so enjoy your blog Diane. You keep my attention which is hard to do

  3. I’m impressed that your mom’s ploy worked because ultimately she did not follow through — she gave you another chance, and you must have been a quick learner. While I congratulate her on the plan, a savvy child might respond with.. the Toy Fairy is a pushover! Maybe it’s only my children who think that way 🙂

  4. Heh – currently, we have toy “time-outs” when they get flung across the room (almost invariably at Lexi’s head…). It’s been pretty successful on a per-day basis..but it happens at least once a week. But that’s the attention span of a toddler for you 🙂
    I love your toy-jail idea and might just swipe it! And your blog is one of the few things I always look forward to in my week. Well done!

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