Sharing Values, Keeping Toys: Holding Back on Giving Too Much

When I was seven, my dad took me to the Mystical Attic of Toys. That wasn’t its actual name – that was what I called it. It was probably known more along the lines of “The Storage Room Above the Gym,” because that’s what it was – it was a giant open space above the gym of the school where my dad worked briefly as the Headmaster. The toys were part of an annual auction at Christmas that raised money for the school and provided toys to needy children; they spent the remainder of the year under lock and key.

At the age of seven I still believed in Santa Claus, and I felt the Mystical Attic of Toys would probably be the closest I ever got to Santa’s workshop. I don’t remember the exact nature of my father’s business in the attic, but I do recall how he hesitated to let me come with him.

“You can’t touch anything,” he said as he undid the padlock.

I swooned at the sight. It was stacked floor to ceiling with every imaginable kind of toy – Barbies and Lite-Brites and Hot Wheels and Legos and board games galore! I immediately went to grab a toy machine gun and felt my dad’s hand grab the back of my shirt.

“Show some restraint,” he commanded. “You’ve got plenty of stuff. Think of all the kids that don’t even have socks.” When my dad wanted to stress how good I had it, he always reminded me that I had socks, as though the possession of that apparel indicated the line between poverty and being middle class.

I was unreasonably pissed. It was just the two of us, and it seemed cruel to thrust me into the Xanadu of a seven-year-old’s wildest dreams, only to keep me from relishing it. I took a good long look around. One day, I promised myself, I will have more toys than I can ever possibly play with.

As with most dreams in my life, that one was deferred until I was well past the point of caring, because now that I am thirty-five, my house has become a palace of toys. The amount of playthings around me is so overwhelmingly ridiculous as to call back visions of the Mystical Attic of Toys and make me consider whether or not I am living in an O. Henry story dripping with perfect irony.

The irony, of course, is that I purchased none of these things. They were bought mainly by grandparents, and a great many of them by my parents specifically – the same people who often denied me materialistic pleasures and encouraged me to go out into the woods and “find a stick to play with.”

But it is not simply my parents. I am a victim of the modern world, as many of us are. While this is my first marriage, it is my wife’s second, and our oldest child, Gavyn, is from that pairing. Also, Patrice’s parents are divorced. A month after we were married, Patrice became pregnant with identical twin girls. Hence, at any one time, there are three sets of grandparents buying for three children, with Gavyn picking up a bonus set for himself, plus an absent biological father who alleviates his guilt the way many absent fathers do: by sending boxes full of elaborately useless stuff.

And that, as every parent knows, is the cruel truth about the imagination of children – they’re fine with the box. Parents are the people who feel ashamed to have their children seen wearing a pan on their head and waving a stick. This dawned on me when my son turned five – friends and family showed up, arms loaded with gifts as though they were paying a visit to the newborn Messiah. He tore through the gifts like a fruit fly inspecting a dessert buffet, then he and his friends ran around the house with the empty gift bags on their heads, running into walls and laughing hysterically.

That night I took all of his gifts into the basement and put them in storage as an experiment. He never missed them.

Shortly after the twins were born, I set up a 529 savings plan for all three children. I’d been quietly depositing a portion of my meager earnings from writing in the accounts each month, and with the understanding that my children were on the verge of becoming spoiled with Happy Meal toys and so much Hannah Montana merchandise that it would make a sultan weep, I turned to the various grandparents for help.

I wrote a letter – an eloquent epistle that called upon my professional skills of linguistic persuasion. I presented the case that my children could each break one toy per week and it would be years before they ran out. I reminded the grandparents that an education and future financial stability was the best gift one could give (this coming from a man who took out a student loan in graduate school to pay for phone sex and an antique pool table). I closed by reminding them that toys would be abandoned some day, but precious memories with their grandparents would endure forever.

It was supposed to be overcooked sentimentalism – grandparents usually tend to fall for that sort of business, and I felt quite successful after a week passed without the arrival of new dolls or any Matchbox cars. Two weeks after my letter, my dad showed up with a swingset in the back of his pickup truck.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s put this baby together.”

As I angrily bolted pieces of the swingset in place, I ranted at my dad.

“What’s wrong with you? How can you ignore the wishes of Patrice and me? You’re ruining these kids. They’re not going to value anything.”

My dad methodically examined the assembly instructions for the swingset; he compared the size of two screws, then looked at me:

“My job was to make sure you turned out okay. That wasn’t easy work. It’s not easy to walk that line between love and discipline. But I think I did all right, and I’m retired these days, so all I have to worry about is loving my grandchildren. The hard work is on you now. But I like to think I taught you a few things.”

I stood inside a few hours later, sweaty and beat, looking out the window at my mom and dad pushing the children on the swings, listening to the improvised symphony of their shared laughter, and I considered what it was that my dad had taught me. Even I was surprised at how much merchandise the grandparents were responsible for bringing into my home.

I don’t recall ever going without something I needed. I remember plenty of gifts at Christmas and on birthdays, but only in a few instances do I precisely remember what it was that was given to me. I suspected that the case might be the same for my kids.

For the next several months, as those unwanted gifts kept rolling in, I would either intercept the gifts and reroute them to storage, or I would remove two old toys as one new one came in. I have admit even I was surprised at how much merchandise the various grandparents were responsible for bringing into my home. Stacked up in the basement, it gave the impression that I was a failed, low-level gang member, responsible for the great Wal-Mart Toy Aisle Heist of ’07.

By the time enough stuff had piled up, the twins were still too young to comprehend what was going on, and so I took my son downstairs and showed him what had amassed in the basement. His eyes lit up the way I imagine mine must have when my dad took me to the Mystical Attic of Toys.

“Oh my gosh! Look at all this! Is this all mine?”

“A lot of it,” I said.

“Where are we going to put it all?”

“How would you feel if we just gave this all away to some kids who don’t have any toys?”

Gavyn approached the stash of goods with all the reverence of an archaeologist stumbling upon a temple from a lost civilization, and removed a small water gun.

“Can I keep just this?” he asked.

I swept him up in my arms.

“Oh, my sweet boy!” I replied. “You can have anything you want.”

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