“I’m bored,” my seven-year-old barked at me, as I flipped eggs one sunny Saturday. I stomped in from the kitchen and pointed the spatula. ”You are never to say that again. You have a room full of toys and books and a park nearby and a pool. Figure it out.”
Are my exquisite sons stricken with a sense of entitlement?
I grew up with a single school-teacher mom. We lived modestly, yet I always had a bike and a baseball team. I even went to sleep-away camp. Still, I felt embarrassed that we resided, literally, “on the wrong side of the tracks.” I’d ask my hardworking dad when we were going to join the country club to which a number of my friends’ families belonged. My children live much higher on the hog today. I know that’s the American Dream. But I struggle with it because, though my boys are good souls, silly and kind, I witness, at times, a glaring lack of appreciation for their good fortune.
I joke that my parenting mantra is “not to f*&k my kids up too much.”
While my wife and I appear to be succeeding at that dubious metric, I believe we can do better in making our boys understand that their first-world comfort is solely based on their dumb luck combined with our hard work (and dumb luck). They appear to have certain expectations based on where and how we live, with soccer camp, X-Box, sushi dinners and family trips abroad being standard operating procedure.
In a wonderful article in The Guardian, titled, Why Depriving Your Kids of Toys is a Great Idea, Madeleine Somerville writes, “It’s time to rethink deprivation as a parenting strategy. Living with less, it turns out, means more. More money in our savings account, more space on our shelves, and best of all, more communication, imagination and concentration from our kids.”
Somerville is not suggesting we remove toys from your kids’ lives, but that we throttle back on providing every creature comfort available to us. She writes, “My five siblings and I grew up in a cruel wasteland of deprivation that included whole-wheat cereals, secondhand clothing and shared rooms. To add insult to injury, we didn’t even have a TV to distract us from our hardship.” I asked a friend, whose three kids are about to graduate from medical schools and masters programs, how he made such solid citizens. “Just love them,” he told me. “Love them hard.” I agree love is primary, but there’s obviously more to it.
Somerville continues, “In a study designed to identify and prevent addictive patterns in adults, two German researchers somehow convinced a nursery school to remove all toys from the classroom for three months. Remarkably, the scenario didn’t devolve into Lord of the Flies acted out in miniature. Instead, teachers reported that while on the first day the children seemed bewildered and confused, by the end of the third month they were engaged in wildly imaginative play, able to concentrate better and communicate more effectively.”
New neighbors, with two kids the same ages as ours, recently relocated from Europe to the home directly across from us. Within minutes of their arrival, both their children were on bikes riding up and down our street. In the days that followed, we’d answer our doorbell to two toothless smiles, inviting, in charming Dutch accents, our sons out to kick a soccer ball. They even hung a rope swing in the Poinciana tree in their front yard.
“Our kids just got a normal childhood,” I said to Jodi, in all seriousness. No playdates, no schedules, no trendy toys. Just children being with their pals in the front yard, making and appreciating their own entertainment.
At the beach recently, I watched my sons dig a hole in the sand at the water’s edge, burrowing into the wet muck with bare hands. An hour passed, and while each focused intently on the widening hole and incoming tide, my heart filled with the purity of their satisfaction. Conversely, when they display a lack of respect and appreciation for their privilege, I’m not just mortified at my own failings, I fear for them when forced to swim in the turbulent waters of adulthood.
Just because we may have the means to give our kids the world, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.