WE'VE BEEN HAVING a lot of trouble W with our 6-year-old these days. He's been watching too much news in the evening and he's starting to get brainwashed. He's been coming downstairs in the mornings for his breakfast and sitting down in front of the television -- all right, I confess, it all started with Captain Kangaroo -- and the next thing I know he's announcing that he wants every tank and plane and boat that shows up in the ads for Christmas. Finally, I got sick of it and told him to make a list. Before I could scrounge up enough money for his school lunch, he appeared with a 99-page report accompanied by glossy pictures cut from the Sears and Penney's catalogues detailing the toy buildup of the other kids in the neighborhood.
He didn't say it in so many words, but you could tell what he was getting at: The other kids had a clear toy superiority over him and unless we shaped up and came through for Christmas he was in danger of getting blown away during the war games. I, of course, thought this was all a lot of toy industry propaganda that had nothing to do with his parity in the neighborhood and had everything to do with his craving for more toys. But he shook the catalogue in my direction and warned me that the catalogue was a factual document and contained more information on the neighborhood toy situation than anything previously put together. These were not hypothetical toys that were listed in the catalogue. They were in the other kids' bedrooms and in their basements. He put his hands on his hips and looked me in the eye, daring me not to believe him.
"Look," I said, "this is a terrible list of toys. All you have on it is tanks and missiles, and soldiers and ships. There is nothing on this list that's constructive, that can improve the quality of your life. No books, no paints, no coloring tools, no records. You are asking me to take your entire toy budget and blow it on weapons of destruction."
"Listen, Mom," he said, "it's your obligation as a parent to provide me with the things that I need to keep our essential equivalence in the neighborhood. If the other kids think that all I'm getting for Christmas is a bunch of sissy stuff that has nothing to do with my military posture, then my days of being able to defend this family from neighborhood aggression are numbered."
"All right," I said with a sigh. "I'm not promising everything, but what do you want?"
"It's not what I want, Mom. It's what I need. We have a window of vulnerability here and it's your obligation to close it, or else." And here he flashed me a menacing look, saying, "The other people in the neighborhood are going to start thinking this family's a second-rate power."
A low blow, that one, I thought. I shook my head in despair. "Okay. What do you need?"
"I need 100 B1 bombers in case Leonid decides to get me involved in a conventional war."
"But last year you said you wanted Stealth bombers. I started investing in those," I protested.
"I need both," he said, thrusting out his jaw.
I got out my calculator. You could tell that as far as defense was concerned, money was no object for him.
"And I need a set of Trident submarines and some new Trident II missiles which will blast his silos all the way to the elementary school. And I need a set of MX missiles in case Leonid tries a nuclear attack."
"His name is Leonard and he's not going to try a nuclear attack," I protested. "He's not suicidal!"
"Maybe not, but you can never be too sure," he answered, grimly.
"Where on earth are you going to put an entire set of MX missiles?" I asked.
"In the living room."
"Not on your life!"
"All right, in the family room then."
"No, everybody uses that room. It's too crowded."
"Okay, put it in the basement."
"That's where the pool table is."
"Get it out. That's a better place than the family room anyway, since it's underground."
"Look, this is ridiculous. If you hide a set of MX missiles in our basement, Leonard is going to get another whole set of warheads and probably clutter up his basement and then you're going to want another set of MX missiles that you'll need to store in some other part of the house and this race between you two could go on until both families go broke! Why can't you act more like grown-ups? The two of you ought to sit down and figure out something else to play besides war games."
"Don't you think that's what I want to do?" he cried out. "Do you think I actually enjoy playing with these toys? Of course I don't. I'd much rather have you spend your money on nicer school lunches, better education, a little cultural outing once in a while, and maybe some day when we have deterrence because of mutually assured destruction in the neighborhood, we can afford them."
He came over to where I was standing, took the 99-page toy catalogue out of my hands, put his arms around me, and looked at me with his most appealing smile. "Please, Mom," he said. "There are lots of things I'd rather spend our money on than an MX set. Don't think of it as a toy, because that's not what it is."
I looked at him skeptically. "What is it, then?"
"It's a bargaining chip."