One Key Lesson From Play-Doh Failure

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A Christmas Eve suggestion became my guiding principle for the first week back to work and school.

“Santa must have dropped it down the chimney.”

My wife came up with that four hours into my Christmas Eve battle with a Play-Doh ice cream truck.

I’m no mechanical engineer but the thing wouldn’t snap together. And – not to brag – but I’ve got some experience putting together toys for Santa on Christmas Eve.

American Girl Doll? Like a Swiss watch. Complicated but precise and everything always fits.

Barbie? Give some credit to Mattel, Inc. A Barbie Dream Home is like a Toyota Highlander, snapping and clicking together with reassuring practicality.

But a Play-Doh truck? It’s like the angriest product designer at IKEA defected to bring that company’s lack of precision to Hasbro’s flimsy children’s toys.

And there I was sitting on the floor in my attic trying to snap and pop the ice cream truck into some semblance of the image on the box. Where was Buddy the Elf when I needed him?

My wife asked, Do you think you’ll get it together?

I don’t know, I said, looking at the Barbie Glam Vacation Home in all of its perfectly assembled glory next to me.

The Christmas cheer was gone.

“I think we say, Santa must have dropped it down the chimney.”

Looking at this sad, sack of a Play-Doh truck it was a plausible explanation. (Now before anyone piles on, I know, I know: Santa’s elves are toy-assembling wizards and they would have pushed and snapped this stupid truck into form. But I’m one middle-aged dad, not an elf with a workshop of co-working elves to float over and help.)

And that’s what we decided to say and went to bed.

Still, I felt guilty. As a father I’d failed. This was only the second time in 14 years of parenting that I’d struggled to assemble a toy. (The first was a motorized car, the dune-buggy racer, that we willed into existence only with the help of a very strong massage-therapist friend.)

Then came Christmas morning.

“This is exactly what I wanted,” my youngest daughter said when she saw the truck by the tree. Then a pause: “What happened to it?”

“Um, Santa must have dropped it down the chimney.”

She shrugged and got to playing with it. And when Play-Doh slid off the severely angled sides she put the containers back and kept on playing.

This monstrosity now sits in our kitchen, and I pass by it everyday.

At first it taunted me.

But this week, as I started the new year with a fresh slate, it inspired me.

It was, to borrow a phrase from the wise and helpful Dr. Becky, good inside.

Every day one or two things on my work list didn’t get done and was moved to the next day.

Instead of getting frustrated, I thought of our youngest daughter. She still played with the truck, she still had fun with the truck, and she didn’t obsess over it’s ill-formed shape.

It was a reassuring lesson for my week – and one I’m going to try to carry into a productive (but not perfect) year.

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