The other day, my 4 year old discovered the Toys for Tots bin at our grocery store.
“Mommy! Over here! Over here!”
She almost dove into the thing.
“No honey. Those are not for you. Those are for needy kids.”
She turned and frowned. Then she declared, “But Mommy, we’re needy.”
“Um, we so are not,” I said. “What makes you think we’re needy?”
“Because you’re always saying that we can’t afford stuff!”
I laughed so hard that egg cartons shook off the shelves.
Then I felt distraught, because, in that moment, I realized two things. One, I’d co-opted nearly every phrase my parents had ever spoken when I was a kid—the very phrases I’d sworn I would never ever in a million years say to my own children. “We can’t afford it” had become as comfortable to me as “Because I said so.”
It was a distressing realization indeed.
Two, I’d been lying to my child. Truth be told, we could afford most of the things she asked for. After all, she’s of the age where she loves little plastic things that are made on assembly lines in China. They have names like Preyus and Skyrus (from Bakugan Brawlers), Treeko (from Pokemon) and Optimus Prime (from Transformers). Most are available at Target for somewhere between $6 and $12.
I usually have about that much in my pocket at any given time. So why do I tell her “we can’t afford it,” when we really can?
First, like the rest of the world, we are on a pretty tight budget at the moment. We’re not eating out. We’re on a clothing-shopping freeze, and my husband knows that he will have my blessing to go on another ski trip when hell freezes over.
Second, I firmly believe that my daughter already has too many toys as it is. I’m not quite sure where they all came from, but they seem to have taken over every bit of floor space in our home.
The day she stops whining about “clean up time” is the day I start dolling out money for plastic things from China upon request.
Finally, I would like my daughter to learn the values of sacrifice and generosity, just as I did as a child of the 70s. In case you no longer remember, the country was in pretty dire straights back then, too. My parents could only fill their gas tanks on even or odd days — I no longer remember which. My parents bickered nightly about where Dad might apply for work were he to find he no longer had a job. For instance, during one argument, I vividly remember Mom yelling, “We will move to Newark New Jersey over my dead body.”
Thankfully, Dad’s company decided to keep him around. I’m glad Mom is still here with us.
Anyway, during the 70s, my father kept the heat so low that one could make Popsicles without the use of the freezer. We also kept the lights off most of the time, and I don’t believe my father bought a new pair of underwear or socks during the entire decade.
During those years, new toys only flowed into our home on three very specific occasions: Christmas, birthdays, and when Nana (our maternal grandmother) came to visit.
Did all of this penny pinching and frugality ruin my childhood? Deep emotional scars were certainly inflicted when we were the last family in our neighborhood to get cable, but I was able to heal up and move on once, as an adult, I earned enough money to pay for my own individual psychotherapy sessions.
Other than the cable trauma, I remember the recession years as warm, loving, and happy ones for our family of five. I may not have had the Hungry Hippo game that every single one of my friends had, but I had hot food for dinner every night and parents who loved me.
More important, my parents bequeathed many values during those years. They taught me the value of hard work. I learned about giving back and about generosity. I learned how to sacrifice and do without. Who needs heat where there’s flannel? Who needs cable when there are books? Who needs toys when one can antagonize one’s brothers?
I discovered that happiness has no monetary value. It cannot be found in things, but it can be found in family, friendships, and community.
How do I explain all of that to a 4 year old?
I can’t, so I’m going with the phrase that my parents taught me. “I can’t afford it” works for the 363 days a year that are not her birthday or Christmas.
On Christmas, however, our needy little child will wake to discover that while her parents are strapped for cash, Santa Claus and Grandma are certainly not. She’ll find any number of wrapped pieces of plastic from China under the tree, because Santa and Grandma are both as flush as it gets.
Do you ever say, “I can’t afford it,” when you really can? Do you limit your children’s toys? Leave a comment.
Scientific research proves how Santa delivers gifts to the entire world in just 24 hours.
Consider donating to the Toys for Tots, so truly needy children can have an awesome Christmas. Learn about the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood.
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