“Morale is the greatest single factor in successful wars,” said 34th U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. I would add that morale is the greatest single success factor in any stressful situation, whether it be war, civil unrest, financial collapse, earthquake, snowstorm, serious illness, or job loss. The means for keeping morale high is different depending on the person in question. For adults, that may mean stockpiling tea, coffee, or brownie mix. For children, though, it often means continuing to recognize the celebrations of happier times.
To that end, I keep a “prize box” in our basement. Throughout the year, I fill it with small gifts and good deals I find. These are not the “big” presents my children write on their wish lists, but instead, amusements they may like costing under $10. Don’t misunderstand: I am not advocating buying “Made in China” junk toys you could find in any Happy Meal. I am talking about items of quality that bring a small “wow” factor to an otherwise potentially dreary time. For instance, if I visit the spring Scholastic 50% Off Book Fair (held at Scholastic warehouses nationwide for teachers and homeschoolers – see their web site for dates and locations), I might put half a dozen books in the box for my children at $2 each. Or, if I find a new-looking title at our library used book sale, I will hide it away for a future birthday, Easter, or Christmas gift.
Some people may find this practice frivolous, and perhaps it is when faced with life or death situations. But few of us have been faced with such a situation as yet. However, when confronting “personal disasters,” stockpiled gifts and other goodies can make a big difference in attitude.
For example, in November 2008, when my husband’s company unexpectedly told employees it may be forced to liquidate at the end of the year unless it received a huge infusion of cash, my “prize box” provided Christmas gifts for my children. Without it, we would have had to forego gifts that year. It was unconscionable to buy toys or books when we would possibly not be able to buy groceries or make our mortgage payments in six months. While going without Christmas or birthday gifts is a hard daily reality for many, it is a difficult conversation for a parent to have with an eight-year-old child, and one that I was relieved to avoid. My prize box was the difference between happy children and disappointed ones, and thus, between happy parents and discouraged ones.
Stocking The Prize Box
What should an individual put in a prize box? Aside from LED headlamps or flashlights (big hits with kids), I recommend stockpiling prize box items that require no batteries or electricity in case your celebration comes at a time when the power is out and batteries are required for more practical items. I try to select items that have “double duty,” meaning they would thrill my children in everyday times and also be useful in emergency situations. I have pre-purchased:
– Books (Newberry Award winners [like Hatchet] are good bets. Include a variety of picture books and chapter books, even if your children are not old enough to read them by themselves. Read-alouds are powerful bonding tools and can ease a child’s stress considerably.)
– Yarn (Your daughter can knit, right?)
– Sewing patterns for doll clothes or costumes (Your son can sew his own Civil War re-enactor jacket or Roman soldier tunic! My son sewed his own red tunic that has been used for everything from dress-up to drama productions.)
– Fabric or small fabric squares (My daughter makes these into doll sleeping bags, but they could also be used for quilts or regular clothes.)
– Swiss Army knives (Salvation Army stores and garage sales sometimes sell these cheaply.)
– Colored duct tape (Girls nowadays are using them to make fashionable purses, but duct tape has a million uses.)
– Colored gauze bandages (Teenage girls are using them as hair decorations, but they also make good gift ribbons or good — gasp! — bandages, of course.)
– Camping gear (Consider a campfire popcorn popper. It’s like Jiffy-Pop, only better. Or, consider some flint and steel.)
– Fishing gear such as tackle boxes, lures, hooks, and fillet knives (These are big hits with teenage boys.)
– Small musical instruments, such as recorders, penny-whistles, jaw harps, or harmonicas. (Caution: these can be annoying if parents are noise-sensitive. Whistles are good for signaling in the woods.)
– Craft kits (Use those 50 percent off coupons from Jo-Ann’s or Michael’s. Consider home-made beeswax candles, soap-making, or moccasin-making kits.)
– Chalk for concrete or a mini-slate (Pioneer children often did their lessons on slates to save paper, which was expensive. You can obtain a wooden mini-slate for $5 at Handwriting Without Tears: http://shopping.hwtears.com/product/SLT/products-by-type )
– Crayons, colored pencils, fun regular graphite pencils with holiday designs, and drawing pads (These are often on sale for under 50 cents during back-to-school sales beginning in July. Even if your child already owns these, every kid loves brand new crayons!)
– A white board and wipe-off board pens in a variety of colors (Costco has a great selection. These can be used for homeschooling, too, if necessary.)
– Hair ribbons, clips, and bows (Think durable, but attractive.)
– Scented soap, lotion, and hand sanitizer (Bath & Body Works sells 1 oz. pocket sized hand sanitizer for $1.50 each. That may sound expensive for such a small amount, but preteen girls like the colors and scents and they can ward off influenza or other potentially dangerous viruses. They are also small enough to carry on airplanes without sparking the TSA’s wrath.)
– Playing cards (A book of card games might be a good addition, too. Cards can also be used to build card houses.)
– Herb window box garden or sprouts garden (Did you know that sprouts can be a very useful part of your food stockpiling strategy? They mature in three to five days and can grow indoors during winter. They contain lots of nutritious enzymes, vitamins, and minerals. You can buy a fancy Kid Sprout Kit for $17.76 , but I bought a Burpee one at Home Depot for my daughter for $8 and I saw an herb garden online for $4.99.)
– Travel sized board games, such as chess (Be sure to include a game that your entire family can play together at the same time and not just two-person games.)
– Small LED lanterns (Some have kid-friendly designs like Hello Kitty.)
– Hard candies (Look for individually-wrapped pieces in bags so that candies are easy to divvy up and do not stick together.)
– Chocolate (Chocolate does not store well long-term as it turns white and chalky, but I have bought high-quality chocolate and rotated it every six months to a year; this is not hard! Yum! This is also a good barter item.)
– Cake mix and frosting or raw ingredients like cocoa to make cakes (Remember to store an egg-substitute for a binder to replace raw eggs if you do not have your own chickens.)
– IF I already have a good supply of non-electronic items, I have occasionally purchased DVDs or CDs, when the price is low enough ($5). (We have battery-operated CD and DVD players.) But, of course I would not keep these as my sole prize box items.
If the hard times have already hit your household and you have not yet stocked your prize box, look around your home for items you can “re-purpose” for celebration’s sake. For instance, for her birthday, I gave my daughter gold earrings that were mine as a child. These heirlooms have added meaning and didn’t cost me anything more than cleaning them. Dig out old streamers, extra balloons, vinyl window clings, or other decorations and use them all at once for impact. Cut some flowers from your garden or the lilac bush in the vacant lot, put in a vase, and wrap with a (pre-used) bow. This works great for teenage girls (and moms!).
During our “lean” Easter, I divided candy into twice as many plastic eggs than I usually use. Even though I had less candy than in previous years, I was able to make a huge impression on the kids by making it look like more (impressions are everything). The hunt lasted longer and the kids didn’t notice that each egg contained less. The lesson here is to spend more time on presentation. Wrap gifts carefully and beautifully!
During our “lean” Christmas, I knitted the kids hats. I bartered extra hats with my neighbor for a dress for my daughter and a matching dress for her doll. My neighbor knows how to sew and had the fabric already, but she cannot knit. Her husband worked for the same company, so we were in the same boat for trying to create a holiday celebration from nothing and she was receptive to my proposal. (Be sure to ask far in advance of the celebration to give the other person time to make the gift.)
Also, I made an extra effort to unpack and use all of our Christmas lights and decorations. We don’t own a lot of decorations, but there are always a handful that end up staying in the boxes because I don’t have time to unpack them or find places for them. That year, I used extra lights on the banister railing, even the ones that were “half out.” I mixed them with another strand that was “half out” so that no one was the wiser. It looked especially festive. I used greens cut from an evergreen tree on the window sills. I also made a special effort to focus on the non-commercial aspects of the holiday, spending extra time with the children playing board games and reading Bible stories and other uplifting tales aloud. (The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson is hilarious and part of our annual tradition).
My children knew that Daddy may not have a job after the New Year, so they had low expectations for Christmas gifts and festivities. (We had adjusted their expectations accordingly with gentle, but honest, conversations throughout the season.) On Christmas Day, after all of the prize box gifts were opened (wrapped with re-used gift bags, of course), my children announced that it was “The best Christmas ever.” That really warmed my heart, especially when, otherwise, the world seemed to be weighing on my shoulders.
Granted, one should not stock a prize box at the expense of being able to stockpile food or other necessities. But, if your beans, bullets, and Band-Aids stash is looking good, you may want to consider stockpiling some niceties that will keep your troops happy.