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Toy Stories: When Some Assembly Is Required

Tom Bodett

Christmas with children usually means lots of toys under the tree. And sometimes those toys aren't quite ready for the kids straight out of the packaging.

The dreaded words "assembly required" can make any post-Christmas day more stressed than relaxed. We asked some of our listeners and readers to share their most memorable — and panicked — experiences putting together toys, with any advice for minimizing frustration along the way.

Clay Crawford, Pensacola, Fla.

His son was about to turn 3 years old. The gift was a "one of the fancy train tables with all of the trains that link up with magnets and trees, sceneries, ups and downs," Crawford says. He waited until his son was asleep, then employed his father, who had a degree in engineering, to help set up the train set in the bedroom.

The instructions were lacking, Crawford recalls, but after lots of frustration and some DIY modifications they finally put it together. Crawford and his father got ready to move the train table to the Christmas tree in the living room, but there was one big problem: It was too wide to fit through the bedroom door.

"This damn engineering degree has expired," his father said. More changes were needed, this time with a saw and some glue. Thankfully, Crawford's son never noticed.

"It was very funny to my wife, my mother, everyone else involved. It wasn't very funny to us at the moment." Looking back ten years later though, Crawford sees the humor in it. "It will always be a fond memory in spite of the story that goes along with it."

Best of all was his son's reaction the next morning.

"He was absolutely thrilled and it was worth every ounce of blood, sweat and tears that it took to get that thing put under the Christmas tree."

Tom Bodett, Dummerston, Vt.

NPR listeners are no doubt familiar with the voice of Tom Bodett, who is frequently heard on Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me! His kids are older now, but he remembers wooden toys being especially difficult to put together when they were younger.

"The organic-ey wooden toys were the toughest. ... If they needed assembly, the problem with it is that they split and they break because wood is wood and it swells and it shrinks," Bodett says.

"You try to force it and the next thing you know, it splits, and not only are you disappointed but you are public enemy number one. That look on your wife's face."

Bodett has advice for parents of younger children.

If your child is the type who is endlessly curious and wants to help-get rid of them. They'll just get in the way, he says.

"If he insists on helping you, give him the packing to flatten. ... If it comes packed in peanuts, you got it made. It'll take him the rest of the day to get all those up."

And once you take out all the little parts and pieces, put it all together on a table, so it doesn't get mixed up with the Legos and Barbie purses.

Lastly, don't forget tools. "You know how every instruction manual starts off with a list of the tools you need? Go get two of each of those because you're going to lose one of each," he says.

Frances Wiesener, Carrabelle, Fla.

Wiesener says she didn't grow up poor, but it was clear she wasn't wealthy, either. One day when she was about 12 years old, in September or October, her father brought home some bicycles. They were in rough shape, and Weisener's father said his boss asked him to repair the bikes, supposedly to give to the boss's children for Christmas.

"All of us thought that was just such a wonderful thing to do," Weisener says. "We all pitched in. My mother, my father and my sister Emily and I. We sanded it, we painted it, we put new handlegrips on ... both of them. And then I think we put new seats on them.

"It took a couple weeks for us to work on them. They just looked stunning. And Daddy packed them up in his truck and carried them away. And we thought that it's going to be so great for those kids."

Two months went by, and she and her sister forgot about the bikes. But come Christmas, the kids found the same bicycles under the tree.

"I can remember that we cried. That he had kind of tricked us but in such a wonderful way," she says. "That was just one of the most wonderful Christmases in my life."

Wiesener's father got the kids to build their own Christmas gifts, without them even realizing it. But she's glad he did. "It's so much more rewarding than just running down to the store and just picking out a bike."

Laurie March

"It's so easy to be stressed out around the holidays, there's just so many things going on," says March, a remodeler and designer who hosts "The House Counselor" and other shows on HGTV and DIYNetwork.

Her advice? Before anything, take a deep breath, get the materials you need and start fresh. Maybe put on some music you like. Put together a toolkit, with different screwdrivers and wire trimmers.

"Some of the coolest toys have the most aggressive wires and plastic that keep them in place," March says.

Be prepared for some frustration when dealing with anything meant to be a structure.

"A dollhouse, any sort of racetrack, outdoor fort, or play kitchen. These are the kind of things that you're going to be putting in major hours to get them to where your kids can play with them," she says.

Use the time as an opportunity to teach the value of hard work on a project.

"Some things are worth the wait. And in an instant gratification world it really helps to show your kids that it takes time to put something together, but it is worth that wait."

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