By Sherry Huang
August 06, 2014
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Boy reading under tent fort made of sheets

When my brother and I were kids, there was nothing more fun than pulling all the sofa cushions onto the floor, stacking them, and covering them with sheets to build a fort. Hours upon hours spent in our forts, with flashlights, crayons, and toys. In the summer, there was a corner of our backyard that became our outdoor fort – hollowed out bushes, with a leafy camouflage cover, gave us shade and secrecy with our friends. So, it was natural for my mom to get sucked in by a special magazine ad...

Of course, all these years later neither my mom nor I remember if the ad was in the Ladies' Home Journal or Reader's Digest or in one of the kid magazines she saw in the doctor's office or on the back of a cereal box. This was back in the day when "truth in advertising" wasn't a well- established concept yet.  In fact, it was in the day when cigarettes were still promoted as healthy. The ad was for a log cabin fort. For one dollar, and maybe some box tops required as well, kids could enjoy a realistic Old West fort of their own. The picture, my mom remembers, was of happy kids playing inside a richly colored and textured log cabin fort. And, best of all, there was "minimal assembly required!"

Money was tough to come by for us as kids. My dad sold fruits and vegetables on a truck (a peddler, as he was known then) and my mom was at home with us trying to balance the family budget on the meager profits from selling bananas and onions. A dollar, with my mom's frugality, could buy a shirt for school, or on Month-End sale days, a pair of dress pants from the clearance rack. She struggled mightily over investing a whole dollar on a log cabin fort, no matter how realistic it was. But, she knew we really did love forts, and she loved seeing us happy in our forts. So she sent in the dollar, and eagerly waited, never spilling a word about the surprise she anticipated in the mail.

When the package with the name of the fort company came, my mom immediately knew there was a problem. The envelope was standard issue manila, no thicker or larger than one might ship an issue of Ladies' Home Journal. With trepidation and remorse, mom opened the envelope to find a plastic tablecloth, the size of a card table, with log shapes imprinted on the outside. The "minimal assembly required" referred to the hole that the satisfied customer was supposed to cut along the perforated line to create the door. And then all one had to do was set up a card table, spread the tablecloth, and voila, a fort worthy of...nothing other than a plastic covered card table ready for a game of canasta or poker.  Mom was devastated. But...

She set up a card table, covered it with the plastic fort, and with trepidation called us into the living room for a big surprise. Our unabashed, utter delight at the log cabin fort is something she remains grateful for to this day. When you are 7 years old and 3 years old, your taste in forts isn't very sophisticated. And to us this was a real fort, not a bunch of sofa cushions! We ran for our flashlights, our crayons, and our toys. Let the fun begin!

As parents ourselves now, we are very lucky that our kids appreciate the little things, and have modest tastes and realistic expectations. My book No Regrets Parenting is about keeping things simple. And sweet. It's about forts in the living room -- and being grateful for what we have rather than wishing we had more.

Plus: What's your parenting style? Take our quiz to find out!

Dr. Harley A. Rotbart

Dr. Harley A. Rotbart is Professor and Vice Chairman Emeritus of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Children's Hospital Colorado. He is the author of four books for parents and families, including No Regrets Parenting and 940 Saturdays. He is also a Parents advisor and a contributor to The New York Times Motherlode blog. Visit his blog at and follow him on Facebook and Twitter (@NoRegretsParent).

Image: Boy reading in a fort made of sheets via Shutterstock