Friday, November 20, 2009

Black Friday

Big Boy is in a playgroup.  Friday mornings find us piling into the car, driving across town, and spilling out - leaky sippy cup, travel mug of now lukewarm coffee, exploding diaper bag, and all - into the homes of his friends.  In these homes, as in ours, there is a room (at least one) dedicated to the accroutrement of childhood.  Piles upon piles of toys.  An orgy of toys.  Riding toys, climbing toys, small toys, large toys.  Plastic toys in every possible color not found in nature.  A Toys "R" Us gone supernova in a basement.

Sometimes at playgroup, when I'm alone in my head, I watch the toddlers at play and think about my own childhood.  I remember playing in the woods behind my parents' house.  Shooting baskets in our front driveway.  Riding my bike up and down the short hill of our cul de sac.  Building forts out of sleeping bags and a threadbare La-Z-Boy recliner.  Setting up domino rallies.  Doing puzzles.  Playing Twister, Sorry, and The Game of Life.  Reading.

I don't have memories of toys.

We had toys, probably more of them than my parents appreciated stepping on barefoot when making their way through our family room, but their specific contours don't resolve when I look backward.
And I find myself wondering: How did we get to the point where we came to believe that our children need so many things?

I will not pretend that my own house does not suffer from an overabundance of electronic trinkets and colorful trifles.  It does.  I have not held the line against the onslaught of items.  But Big Boy, like most kids I know, is more discerning than we parents.  He spends plenty of time with his beloved Thomas train set, his miniature kitchen, and his Duplo blocks.  But his favorite playthings also include a box with a handle (his "suitcase"), a paper towel roll (his "telescope"), and a Q-tip ("I'm cleaning for you, Mommy").  Yesterday he occupied himself for twenty minutes "mowing the lawn" with a long-handled shoe horn.

Children make the extraordinary out of the ordinary (with all due credit to Heather and her wonderful title for her even wonder-fuller blog).  But it's wrong, I think, to expect them to make the extraordinary when the ordinary is preprocessed, prefabricated, and prepackaged.  When the imagination is preprovided.

A reminder to myself this morning, as I look out my window and across the pond, at the first of the season's Christmas wreaths, its lights twinkling in the still dark of the dawn.

What does our tendency to overindulge our children say about us?  What are we really trying to buy?


  1. Oh Kristen,
    Once again you put into more articulate prose the things I think about all the time!
    I share your general reflections on my own childhood, which I think was awfully more outdoors than that of my children, as well as less structured and less full of plastic and batteries.
    I try so hard, to the point where I worry about overcorrection, NOT to indulge, overprogram, overstimulate my children. But that is in itself a buying-in to the system, isn't it, just by acknowledging it?
    I don't have answers, but am very grateful (as always) for your thoughtful questions, this morning and all mornings.

  2. Another gem here. My favorite bit is the question with which you close: "What are we trying to buy?" What a profound and humbling inquiry. What void are we trying to fill? What are we trying to compensate for? What scares me is the thought that all of these things, this stuff, are not only deeply unnecessary, but potentially harmful in the sense that they are scattering focus and attention and distracting our little creatures from so many other things, and good things.

    I wrote a post back in April about the outbreak of Affluenza. Take a look if you have a moment (ha) -

    Thanks for making me think. And ask.

  3. Affluenza? That's brilliant!

    I struggle with this all the time. I hate the abundance of crap toys in my house. How do they get there and why do I have a million things underfoot that are missing parts? My kids destroy everything.

    Even worse? Miss D. told me this morning that she only wants ONE thing for Christmas...a hamster.

  4. Well said. This is the perfect time of year to ask why we overindulge, the holidays are here. Santa is the king of overindulgence. Every year my husband and I scale it back. Our kids need NOTHING. They prefer playing outside with sticks and buddies. The $1 cheesy plastic toy gun is more fun that the $25 Nerf one that's broken. They can do without all that other stuff as long as we don't pile it on them for birthdays and holidays and just because days.

    We have toys too. We are trying to move away from having more. For my son's birthday he wanted MORE LEGOS because 8 billion is not enough to build anything anymore. I steered him toward Lego day camp. He asked for birthday money and used it to pay for camp. Met some new friends there too. He was happy and I was happy.

    It's a challenge every day to avoid excess don't you think? Not just for kids but for grown-ups too. Good to think about as I make my Christmas list of gifts to buy.

  5. Yes, pots and pans. Forts in the backyard. Creations out of construction paper and scotch tape. Dress up with my grandma's scarves. Writing stories, telling stories, acting out stories. Legos and Twister and a doll.

    All the rest... why?

    And twister is a great metaphor for everything in life...

  6. For me so much of this need to buy new stuff stems from my fear of how to fill the hours in this house as the winter nears and we can no longer head outside when things get crazy. One of my primary maternal roles these days is that of entertainer/role player, and lately I just can't keep it up for an entire afternoon, much less an entire winter. I often feel bad about that (when is it OK to just say no to being your child's play mate?), so maybe if S just had the perfect toy that would fully engage her and lessen her need for intense interpersonal interaction I wouldn't feel quite so bad. But that toy doesn't exist, does it?
    (Hi Kristen. It's Sarah. I am without an online profile so I'll be 'anonymous' for now)

  7. Um. I have no place to say this but will say it anyway. Tell your friend Sarah, aka Anonymous, that it is totally OK to say NO to being your child's play mate? When? Now. Right when they ask. When you get bored. When you have something you need to do. When you have something better to do.

    We are adults.
    They are kids.
    It is our world.
    They live in it.
    In their world.
    We happily visit.
    The visiting makes our world that much brighter.

    That's not harsh, is it? It's not meant to be harsh. Not at all.

    On stuff, "affluenza," plastic and batteries and THINGEDNESS. I hate it all. And preprogrammed imaginations? You hit the nail on the head and I am guilty, I think. Very. And it saddens me. Go read Becca's post at Drama For Mama about telling her daughter stories. THAT is a way to build imagination. When we have the time and the energy we can do that! When we don't we can give them a long-handled shoe horn. (OMG I was laughing right OUT LOUD at that. LOVE IT.)

  8. Great post, Kristen, I worry about this a lot. When I think back to my childhood, I think parents were much more tuned into the philosophy of "If your kid does what she's supposed to, then you are a good parent. Now, I think the expectations for good parenting are much higher, and parents are busier. So maybe "affluenza" comes from the guilt of not being able to live up to higher expectations? Of course I'm not going by personal experience here.... :)

  9. I loved this post. What I remember from my childhood is playing outside. Climbing the rocks in my backyard. Finding "forts" within the rocks. Collecting caterpillars. Collecting mica from the rocks. Riding my bike. Today, I try so hard to have my kids find fun in the simple things. I bring them outside for scavenger hunts. Draw with chalk on the driveway. Make forts out of cushions. But still... my basement is primary color hell. So. Much. Stuff. Stuff that I bought to bring a quick smile to their faces. Stuff that a grandma bought to win them over. Toys that reward them for things they should have done in the first place. Toys that have been played with only once.

    It's hard to find the energy to entertain with "life" instead of things. Especially when everywhere we look are more reasons to buy into these "things".

    Thanks again for such a thought provoking post!


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