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Am I a Bad Mom for Not Buying My Kids Toys?

Since leaving my full-time job and becoming a stay-at-home mother to Colin, age six, and Claire, age three, there has been a lot of stuff on my mind. And by stuff, I mean cool stuff. Or more specifically, cool stuff I do not have but I wish I did.

I don’t think I’m alone, either. While recently visiting my son’s friend from preschool, Colin paused from playing with his buddy’s action figures and politely waited for my attention. Looking up at me with his big, brown eyes, he said, “Mommy, why don’t I have cool toys like all of my friends?”

He said this in front of his friend’s parents, and though I wouldn’t say I was embarrassed by my son’s question, I felt the need to immediately defend our family’s “no cool toy” policy. I pointed out to Colin (or perhaps more to the other kid’s parents listening to my argument) that in lieu of magic balls and squeaky, squishy, slime-filled gadgets endorsed by Nickelodeon, he’s blessed to be able to seek hours of entertainment with cardboard boxes, sheets, and good old-fashioned storytelling. My argument was met with praise from the listening parents, who went on and on about how kids today are so spoiled and how lucky Colin is to possess such advanced imaginative abilities.

Still, Colin looked more interested in the Toys “R” Us display in the corner of his friend’s family room.

The parents continued, “Our child is constantly bringing home new toys from relatives, and these items are surely distracting him from learning to ride his bike.”

Colin, an excellent bike rider, announced to the room that he had been without training wheels for two years. And just like that, my little wheelie popper felt better about himself, and I gave myself an imaginary round of applause for being such a good mother and encouraging cardboard hut making.

Except that, well … I like stuff too. I want stuff. And many times, I don’t want to paint windows on a big cardboard box. I would prefer the permanence of a little wooden playhouse in the backyard that not only has custom windows, but also an attached sandbox, picnic table, bounce house, swing set, and roller coaster. Oh, to think of how happy my kids would be with all that stuff!

But here I am, holding the paintbrush by the cardboard box. I’m exaggerating about wanting Peewee’s Playhouse in my backyard, but since being home with my kids, I realize that as far as play-date competition goes, my house certainly lacks curb appeal. I say this feeling a little ashamed, knowing there are plenty of kids who don’t have half of what my children do. I also have to remember that I chose to leave the workforce, as opposed to many who are forced to work against their will during the current recession. I try to be grateful, but I admit, I sometimes ache for a big and flashy playroom for my kids (and while I’m daydreaming, a custom-built bar for me). I find myself feeling sad, thinking that my house offers little “wow” factor for incoming playmates.

And then there is a part of me that is fine with this, even slightly proud. My husband, Jeff, the moral voice of reason in my household (who also ruins all my materialistic fun), made it known very early in Colin’s life that any toy with lights, buttons, and whistles requiring at least two packs of batteries was practically invented by Satan.

These toys don’t enrage me like they infuriate Jeff, but I do understand his appreciation for the skill-building nature of plain old blocks, balls, and books. Still, as classic as these toys may be, sometimes they just seem, well, old. And so my family gratefully accepts invitations to play with other kids’ stuff, swim in other kids’ pools, and drink other kids’ juice boxes. Because the hard truth of the matter is that I’m a stay-at-home parent. I can’t buy the stuff. I can’t buy the pool. And while I can buy juice boxes : have you seen how many of those things kids can drink in a day?

When I considered stay-at-home motherhood, I certainly feared the possible sadness of not being able to spend money. When one loses an income, it is a sacrifice, and though most of the time I accept it, sometimes I get sad. I miss buying without having to think much about it. Even more displeasing, I find myself growing jealous of others with the beautiful swing set – proof that they earn paychecks. I try to console myself by thinking that maybe they’re jealous of my family’s long conversations or our numerous song-and-dance routines that make me laugh until I cry. But it doesn’t always help. I still want the swing set.

Driving home from that preschool friend’s house, I looked at my son.

“You know, Colin,” I said, “I know you like your friends’ toys, but I want you to remember how lucky you are to have so many people in your life who love you and play with you. You will remember these people and your experiences with them when you get older – not some flashy Batman toy.”

Then Colin and I talked about his grandpa who had built a “tree house” that Colin adored, despite its lopsidedness and instability. We talked about his great uncle spending hours with Colin in a lake, with nothing to entertain them except their swimming skills and each other. Colin nodded proudly as we came up with more examples of all the great times he’s had during his first summer not in daycare.

And then … he held my hand.

My six-year-old, who once wouldn’t hug me goodbye before I left for work, was now laughing with me, holding my hand! The kid I thought had outgrown my affection, who was too cool for his mom at the ripe old age of six … this kid, my baby boy, was holding my hand.

And it dawned on me. I may not be paying for much stuff anymore, but what I am able to do is pay attention. Colin knows I am listening to him. He knows I understand him better than I ever have. He knows I am there for him. Colin’s hand in mine, I realized there is no paycheck in the world that could make me happier than the way I felt in that moment. And that is good stuff.

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