The Magazine

Nothing for Me, Thanks

David Skinner, Scrooge.

Dec 3, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 12 • By DAVID SKINNER
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This year for Christmas, get me nothing. A lot of it.

After moving house recently and boxing up all our possessions, I've concluded that we have too much stuff. So while there are gifts I should like to receive--a nice bottle of wine always hits the spot--what I most want this holiday season is less of everything.

This goes double for my children. "Nothing" doesn't begin to describe what I would like them to receive. If I were writing my daughter's letter to Santa, it would go something like:

Dear Santa,

Due to the proliferation of cheap consumer goods out of China, the price of factory toys is artificially low right now. As a result I have already in my possession many more toys than I can ever play with, and they are taking up a huge amount of space in my parents' house. This year, when you come down the chimney, instead of leaving me a nice dollhouse or a new educational game that whistles annoyingly when I correctly identify a letter, please take away a few of the toys I already have and deliver them to someone else or, if all the other kids also seem to have too much stuff, just throw mine in the garbage or recycling.Thanks.

Say hello to Mrs. Claus and Rudolph,

Madeline, 4

My two children have many times the quantity of toys I remember from growing up in a house with six children. In the movie Heartburn, Jeff Daniels's character complains that his diminished sense of color comes from having grown up with a box of 8 crayons. If only he'd had one of those nicer sets of 32 or 64 crayons, everything might have been different. Well, if a larger volume of art supplies really leads to a keener sense of shade, light, and color, then the scribbled drawings on my refrigerator must be masterpieces.

What drive me nuts, though, are the toys that mimic adult things. If my wife Cynthia has her way, our daughter will receive for Christmas this year her third kitchen set. The first one was a humble wooden kitchen that was so tiny, with rounded edges and painted-on burners, that, more than anything, it looked like a story-book drawing of a kitchen. It has since been augmented and replaced by far more sophisticated pots, pans, oven, and so on. I say replaced, but what I really mean is that the old toys are simply buried in bins, corners, boxes, and bookshelves behind the new, better toys. Anyway, the new kitchen my wife wants to buy her for Christmas looks like we could make Thanksgiving dinner in it. It has this great stovetop and oven range, refrigerator, sink, and more appliances than my own kitchen.

My wife and I obviously have some disagreements to work through. I think a child's natural desire for possessions should be tempered by a sense of limits. She thinks I'm insane.

In fact she just entered the room where I'm working and, knowing what I am writing about, demanded to read the work-in-progress. After rolling her eyes and shaking her head in disbelief, she accused me yet again of knowing absolutely nothing about what it's like out there, how many toys other parents buy for their children, and how, in fact, our home is a study in toy austerity. "Have you been to McKenzie's house? It's like a doll emporium. And of course she has this huge elaborate kitchen. You're lucky I'm so restrained."

Children do like to play at what they see adults do. But the line must be drawn somewhere. I know, for instance, it must be drawn before your offspring comes to own an item like the one I just spied in a Lillian Vernon catalog that came in the mail. This 40-piece toy set includes a fabric visor, headset, and a walkie-talkie for playing cashier at a fast-food drive-through. Call me a snob, but imagining that they are working the drive-through is just not what children should be doing at play time. It may be far more realistic than the games of Royal Family we play--I'm always the king, my daughter always the princess--but what's the point of pretending to be something ordinary, something common? Play time is for imagining the extraordinary.

Tomorrow, while my wife's out, I think my daughter and I will play Royal Family again, and we will talk about how much the queen appreciates her husband's wisdom. "Why just the other day," I'll intone, "Her Highness was saying how measured and sober was the king's opinion on the royal children's toys."

DAVID SKINNER