When I was a little bit older than Henry is now, I desperately wanted a new bike. I had the exact one I wanted all picked out, too. As a kid that existed before the internet (SOMEONE GET ME MY CANE), I would pour over the weekly fliers that would arrive with the Sunday paper. I found the perfect bike at Children’s Palace (remember that store?), in the perfect shade of 1980s mauve. It was called the Desert Rose by Huffy and it was a beauty. I pined and pined for that bike and I can remember bringing the ad to my dad’s desk repeatedly to show him the picture. I loved that bike with my whole being.
One Sunday, while on the drive home after church, we took a detour and pulled into the parking lot of Children’s Palace. My parents surprised me with the news that we were there to buy THE BIKE! I was simply beside myself. It was pretty much the best day of my young life.
I have a dozen or so memories like the Desert Rose acquisition; a brand new Barbie I was allowed to pick out from the second story toy section of a hardware store in Ohio; a new sleeping bag received at Christmas; a special ring for my seventeenth birthday that I picked out with my parents at JCPenney (still have it).
I have distinct memories of receiving specific presents because it did not happen with frequency. We received gifts on our birthdays and on Christmas. There were certainly treats in between but they were the exception, not the norm and were often purchased with a little of our own money from allowances or babysitting tossed in. I realize the eighties were quite a bit less lucrative than the Clinton era that followed so I’m sure cost and budget played a big part in my parents’ ability to purchase items for us, however, when we received something new, it was a big deal.
When we were moving from Richmond this past spring, I waited until the kids were occupied elsewhere and tore through their playroom in an effort to cull the toy herd. I was determined to not have to move a dozen boxes full of nothing but toys to our new (smaller) house, some of which had barely been used. I collected quite a haul and it filled the trunk of our sedan to the brim. When I pulled up to the donation site and a volunteer approached to help me unload the bags of toys, I WAS ACTUALLY EMBARRASSED. Embarrassed that we owned this much stuff for our kids. That THIS was the reject pile. That we had ten times this amount at home. I actually think I mumbled some kind of explanation about how we’d had most of this stuff for so long and the majority of it had been gifts. Like, volunteer-guy at the church thrift store was going to judge my consumerism so I must offer an excuse.
Somehow, the home where I am raising my children is a deep departure from the home of my childhood where new items were a true treat.
When Henry was younger and Charlie just an infant, I used to be able to blame our toy volume on other people. We received an inordinate amount of gifts from very generous friends, neighbors and family members in the early years of parenting. I could pretty much point to any item in our play area and tell you that it was a gift or a hand-me-down or purchased at a deep discount for a special celebration. This, somehow, made the ever-growing pile of plastic noisemakers in our family room more palatable. They were gifts.
Then, slowly, with each passing year and the arrival of an additional child, the percentage of presents coming from outside the family shifted and we found ourselves buying many, many more things for our kids almost as a matter of course whenever we left the house. A trip to Target would result in a round of Matchbox cars. A visit to the sporting goods store for sneakers and everyone comes home with fishing poles. A vacation to the beach means new presents for the car ride. A weekend in Gettysburg and, thanks to an expertly stocked gift shop, the boys are staging their own full-scale Civil War reenactment.
None of this is inherently bad, I guess. My kids certainly don’t think it’s bad. It’s just that it never ends.
But, I don’t like it. I don’t like how they ask if wherever it is we’re going has toys to look at. I don’t like how their toy budget is bumping my decorating budget off the spreadsheet. I don’t like removing 75 twist ties to free a toy tractor from its packaging. I don’t like managing all of their STUFF. I don’t like how they expect presents when family members arrive for a visit. And, I really don’t like seeing them treat their belongings with disregard because they have SO MUCH.
My intentions come from a good place. It isn’t my intention to spoil my kids. Whenever I purchase something for them, it’s because I know it’s something they would truly enjoy. Bob is the same way, too. Our intentions come from the deepest recesses of our hearts that want to see our kids happy.
However, I think it’s time we acknowledge that WE’RE THE PROBLEM. And, I know this because when I went to IKEA with the kids on a whim last week (because there is one week before school starts and I am OUT OF IDEAS), I somehow ended up with a pop-up castle in the middle of my living room that I will stare at with resentment for the next month before collapsing and stashing it in the basement. We also brought home an assortment of animal finger puppets that have already been forgotten and discarded throughout every room in the house with the mouse puppet, in particular, scaring the crap out of me every time I spy it out of the corner of my eye.
Point is, we’re doing this to ourselves. Since we give and buy and provide treats for our children with regularity, they have come to expect those treats. We are fully responsible for the culture of gimme, gimme, gimme that we have created in this house. The expectation that frequent new things are standard operating procedure.
I’m honestly not sure how to course correct on this one. Every time I make some blanket pronouncement like, “No more new things until Christmas!” Henry will bring home a Scholastic flier from school and I can’t say no to books, right? What am I, a monster? So, we’ll buy books and then there will be a fun trip to Target where we discover they’ve put Lego sets on sale and all of a sudden, Bob shows up at the house with a John Deere bicycle for Charlie that is literally too big for him. My big pronouncements never work and my house always ends up looking like this:
Bob and I have talked about setting up a chore chart when school begins where the boys, especially, can earn a modest allowance for completing tasks around the house. They can decide what to do with their money as it is earned and if they decide to buy toys with it and not flowers for their very deserving mother, I promise not to hold a grudge. I think if they understand the value of money a little bit more, then hopefully the idea of judicious choices will follow? I’m not really sure here. I’m just guessing. These are unchartered waters for our family.
I’ll let you know how this shakes out.
As an aside, I find it ironic that the same people that instilled a sense of moderation and careful consideration in me as a child – my parents – have turned out to be the worst offenders in the buying stuff for my kids arena. They are always, always bringing or buying things for my children. Always. The last time they showed up at our home, they brought light sabers with them that the boys demolished in under thirty minutes, leaving tiny puff pieces of styrofoam all over everything. Grandparents, man.