*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on August 23, 2019. An image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.

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Some people go to stores like Home Depot for nails. Some for wood. Others, for tips, tricks, and good ideas (or the occasional cool slogan-labeled orange bucket).

I go for paint sticks. The free ones. By the handful. A lot. But I don’t use them to stir paint. Instead, paint stick in hand, I use them to tame my children.

Paint sticks are the Swiss Army knife of parenting. There’s about a hundred ways they can entertain a kid. From simple games to art projects to fort foundations to math practice to toy construction—you name it, the humble paint stick can do it.

They even come in handy with a certain kind of bathroom emergency you won’t find in the New Parent Handbook. (Veteran parents know what I’m talking about.)

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a parent, it’s that well-made plans only get you so far. The hand grenade-like problems that so often roll onto the parent path routinely exceed the plans we’ve got ready-made on the shelf. So we have to improvise. Adapt. Innovate. Maybe it’s the sheer desperation born of the knowledge that there’s no one else to turn to—ultimately, there’s really no backup Mom or stand-in Dad—as a parent, you’re the single point of failure. No retreat, no surrender.

The upside to the dilemma is that having your back against the wall is often a creative posture. As Samuel Johnson’s famously said, when a person knows of impending self-doom, it “concentrates” the mind “wonderfully.” With high stakes and bad options, we forge new ways forward.

That’s probably what motivated U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (of Minnesota) to employ what she called a “Mom move.” When on an airplane without standard cutlery, her solution was to utilize a hair comb to eat a salad. (Alternative forms of flatware, of course, also being staples of the camping and soldiering crowds.)

In our own house, as parents, we’ve had to routinely come up with novel solutions to new problems created by our two resident humans-in-training.

House or hotel doesn’t come with a traditional kids’ room? How about a closet?

When kids get especially sick, and the result is that you’re running low on sheets? Towels will do. (And sleeping bags turn out to be a monumentally terrible option because the cleanup costs in time and money are hugely irritating.)

Concerned about the costs of childhood playthings—as well as the climate? Head to thrift shops for recycled toys! They’re cost-effective, come without packaging so your child can check out the toy before you buy, and when they inevitably grow out of the toy (seemingly within 14 milliseconds), you can simply re-donate it back to the thrift shop so the happiness can continue for the next kid.

Kid asking you to buy ridiculous amounts of stuffed animals when you’re out in public? Ask them to pose for a picture with the toy to send to “Santa’s workshop.” You’ll get out of a jam and they’ll forget soon thereafter. Besides, you can always send those pictures on to family, which provides them ideas for presents at holiday and birthday-time.

Losing track of a special blanky? Cut it into four or eight pieces, restitch into individual mini-blankets, and stash them in several places. This does two things: First, you’re less likely to lose them all if you’ve distributed them well enough, and second, it physically reduces their attachment and minimizes the power of the mental grip the blanket has on them. Over time, they’ll leave it aside.

Not all these ideas panned out all the time (The Fine Print: Past performance is not indicative of future results!). Some, in fact, have failed and even flamed out. Of course, none of them will change the world.

But, in some moments, they changed the little world made up of the space that surrounds our family. And that’s enough for us.

As a parent, it can be good to be so responsible that you’re occasionally driven to desperation. It can bring out the best in you.

Just don’t get between me and those paint sticks. I need them. Trust me.

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