Last week I took Leo, my eight-month-old son, on a play date and we decided to give his friend Cameron’s Exersaucer a trial run. Watching that huge smile as he pedaled his feet and banged on the plastic piano keys, I felt a not unfamiliar pang of guilt.
Leo doesn’t have an Exersaucer. Or a Jumperoo. He doesn’t have portable spoons and snack jars or a Peapod tent for napping on the road. He doesn’t even have a nursery. He sleeps in a crib an arm’s length from my bed and his changing table consists of a hand towel spread across the foot of that same bed.
Partly by choice and partly by necessity, I’m raising my son in a very minimalist style. I’m a single mother, temporarily residing in an apartment in my parents’ basement. We don’t have much space or money, so he doesn’t have much stuff. I’m also a firm believer in doing all I can to fight the “you are what you own” messages that flood our kids the second they walk out the front door.
In part I’m proud to invest him with non-materialistic values. But at times I feel guilty too. I’m not entirely convinced that never having a slate of developmental toys, a library full of books or a fancy birthday party won’t actually hurt him in some way. What if in my efforts to pare down, I neglect to provide Leo with some crucial item that really would make him a happier, more successful, more well-rounded kid?
When I browse through the Pottery Barn Kids catalogue or spot a Bugaboo on the street, I feel pretty confident. Leo will turn out just fine without those things. But the border between want and need isn’t always so clear. Earlier this summer, Leo and I took a trip to the East Coast and stayed for a couple of weeks with friends, intellectuals who share my minimalist parenting philosophy. Toys hadn’t consumed their apartment, but it did contain stack upon teetering stack of children’s books in four languages.
“We don’t spend on clothes or toys,” my friend explained. “But we do buy books. We’re language people, and we feel like that’s a critical part of education.”
Again the wash of guilt. I’m a language person too. Will reading Leo the same ten board books we inherited from a friend somehow stymie him intellectually? My friends’ two-year-old daughter is indeed breathtakingly precocious, bilingual and already working on language number three. I came home from that trip twenty dollars poorer for having invested in a pair of French children’s books that so far Leo’s only tried to eat.
More often than I’d like to admit, my reluctance to spend money on my child leaves me feeling embarrassed and a little ashamed. I don’t want to become one of those “no” parents – no TV, no sugar, no spontaneous trips to the zoo. Nor do I want Leo’s memory of childhood to be defined by what he didn’t have or do. And always swirling out there is the inference, real or imagined, that if I don’t buy Leo this or that toy or piece of equipment or learning experience, I’m a bad parent. When a close friend with two older daughters sends me Craigslist postings for used toys, is it pure helpfulness or is it undergirded by a message that I’m not adequately nurturing my child? I know I’ve covered the basics: food, clothing, diapers and a place to lay his head. But beyond that, what do kids really need to make them centered and successful?
Right now Leo is pretty happy banging measuring spoons and sucking his toes. He seems just as precocious and delightful as his more advantaged peers, even his friend Sonya, who has a computerized pet dog that takes photos. It’s the parents, not the babies, who are caught up in a flurry of swimming lessons, baby joggers and Mozart for Children CDs.
But as he gets older, I know the questions will get trickier. I grew up an only child in a comfortably middle class family. I didn’t have it as good as the girl down the street with a miniature car she drove up and down her driveway, but there were always plenty of presents under the Christmas tree and games in the game cupboard. My best friend was the youngest of four and I still remember the searing jealousy she couldn’t manage to suppress as I got skating lessons and new clothes while she was stuck with hand-me-downs. Will Leo experience that same kind of resentment toward kids who have more? How will he cope with the sense of being on the outside looking in?
Will Leo experience resentment toward kids who have more?I suppose this balancing of wants versus needs marks a line he and I will always walk together. I will give him all that I can. But in my mind, providing for your child means, first and foremost, imbuing him with a sense of compassion, tolerance, trust in and pleasure with the world around him. I suppose eventually reality will do its damnedest to show him different. But for as long as possible I plan to preserve in him the belief that love really is all you need.