My kids are in a playgroup. Friday mornings find us piling into the minivan, driving across town, and spilling out – leaky sippy cups, travel mug of now lukewarm coffee, exploding diaper bag, and all – into the homes of our friends. In these homes, as in ours, there is a room (at least one) dedicated to the accoutrement 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 driveway. Riding my Big Wheel up and then roaring down the short hill of our suburban 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, of course – 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 come 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 my kids, like most kids I know, are often more discerning than the adults charged with their care. They spend plenty of time with their beloved Thomas train set, their miniature kitchen, and their Legos. But their favorite playthings also include a box with a handle (a “suitcase”), a paper towel roll (a “telescope”), and a Q-tip (“I’m cleaning for you, Mommy”). Yesterday my two-year-old occupied himself for twenty minutes “mowing the lawn” with a long-handled shoehorn.
Children have the ability to make the extraordinary out of the ordinary. But it’s wrong, I think, to expect them to make the extraordinary when the ordinary is preprocessed, prefabricated, and prepackaged, and the imagination is pre-provided. Yet I find that I am often the one forgetting this lesson, flipping through the latest toy catalog to hit the mailbox, wondering what shiny bauble I might add to our collection.
As I walked through our local big box store last weekend, I could already see the twinkle of Christmas lights edging out the Halloween costumes. Soon, I suspect, an animatronic Santa Claus will displace the giant inflatable pumpkin at the store’s entrance. And I know myself: When I head back there a month from now and stroll down the toy aisle while listening to a Muzak version of “Silver Bells” being piped in over the loudspeaker, I will be tempted. After all, what harm would it do? A glow-in-the-dark Lightsaber for my oldest. More Legos for my toddler. A plush penguin – so cute! – for my baby girl.
But I hope that I’ll pause before I buy, thinking back for a moment to the sleeping bag fort of my childhood and to my son’s shoehorn lawnmower. I hope that I’ll resist the urge to clutter our lives with more stuff. I hope that I’ll take the time to ask myself what I am really trying to buy when I give my kids things they don’t need, things they haven’t even asked for.