With the American economy going down in flames (unless you happen to be among the wealthiest 1%, in which case you’re doing better than ever), there’s a growing trend toward forming or contributing to charities that donate toys to kids who wouldn’t otherwise get any for Christmas. I’m seeing it everywhere, including among bloggers that I have great respect and admiration for, and I want to make it very clear that this post isn’t meant as an attack on or criticism of their efforts. I think it’s wonderful that they want to make a difference in the lives of struggling families.
And now I want to talk a little bit about my childhood, because before I go any further on the subject of poverty it should be understood that I’m speaking from experience. I’ve had Christmases where there were no presents or tree or turkey. I’ve had Christmases where the only presents were mundane, necessary household items. (One year my present was a hairbrush. It was for the whole family really, since our old one was broken.) And that was just the Christmases — poverty is year-round. I’ve been very hungry, because there was no food in the house and no way of buying any. I’ve lived in tents and campers and in the homes of other people who were willing to take us in for a while. I’ve lived in cheap apartments where sheer numbers lent fearlessness to the cockroach and rodent populations. The rats would chase you. Once, when I was 16, my family lived for two-and-a-half months in a rented U-Haul tent that was set up on a muddy slope in a campground in Missouri — during the rainy season. It rained almost constantly. We did our cooking on a campfire, and my sister, my mother and I worked five jobs between us to help save up for a camper.
I’ve known relative wealth, too. My father came from a family with money, and during the early years of my childhood there were some nice houses. After my parents divorced and my mother remarried, my stepfather occasionally got his act together enough to provide for us. In fact, right before we moved to Missouri to live in the tent, we were making payments on a beautiful two-story house in Southern California with a built-in swimming pool, enough bedrooms for everyone to have their own, and a den with a fireplace, a pool table and a wet bar with its own little refrigerator.
And you know what? I think I was happier in the tent. At least my alcoholic, abusive stepfather didn’t make the move with us, and that was a pretty big improvement right there.
My point is that poverty doesn’t scare me and wealth doesn’t impress me because those years taught me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that money really and truly does not buy happiness. For real. Healthy, loving relationships make for a happy life at any income level. Dysfunctional, toxic relationships cause ongoing stress and misery that no amount of money can cure.
Now, I have to admit that the roller-coaster uncertainty of my life was a chronic symptom of my parents’ poor decision-making skills and various addictions and vices. I don’t want to get too deeply into that, I just want to acknowledge that I’m not talking about a layoff or health crisis derailing an otherwise sound family’s prosperity. But I think that’s beside the point when it comes to these “Toys For Tots” type charities. Because what are we really teaching these kids? That no matter what sort of financial challenges you’re facing, the important thing is that you still get Stuff for Christmas? Please. I didn’t need toys during those hard years of my childhood. In fact, it was not having them that taught me that I didn’t need them. There were many, many things that I did need rather desperately, but none of those things could be tossed into a donation box.
This country is facing a serious economic crisis. And why? Because people wanted Stuff that they couldn’t afford. So they acquired it in one way or another, and eventually the debt caught up with them. And now we are teaching our children that they deserve Stuff — that it is vitally important that they get Stuff — even if their families can’t afford it. SERIOUSLY? THAT’S the lesson we want to impart here??
This would be a very good time for families to reexamine their priorities. I think most kids would much, much rather have parents who focused on the happiness and emotional well-being of their families and demonstrated that life without Stuff is perfectly fine.
I’m not saying that charity is unnecessary. Some families really need blankets or winter coats or, I don’t know, socks without holes in them. Some families really need someone to watch the kids for a few hours so that Mom can have some time to herself before she loses her mind. Some families really need a box of fresh fruits and vegetables now and then because they can’t afford to buy more than bread and milk and eggs. These are good, worthwhile donations that would make a positive difference.
But toys? Nobody needs toys. Heck, I can remember making a “baby doll” out of a bar of soap wrapped up in a washcloth, and a cradle out of a Quaker Oats container cut in half lengthwise. I was resourceful and content with little, and these traits have served me well in life. THAT’S what we should be teaching kids these days. Resourcefulness, contentment, simplicity, making do with what’s on hand. The value of a loving family. How to grow a little fresh food in the backyard, maybe. The importance of living within one’s means. How not to repeat the mistakes that got this country into the situation it’s struggling with now.
And I don’t think you can teach kids those things by giving them toys when the power is about to be shut off because there’s no money to pay the electric bill. All that does is skew their perceptions of what’s important. And don’t talk to me about “protecting” them from reality; there is a valuable lesson to be learned from this crisis and I don’t care how old they are, they’re not too young to learn about priorities and family-focused values.
This is something I feel strongly about, obviously. People’s insatiable hunger for More Stuff rather than true financial stability is destroying the economy, the environment, and everyone’s peace of mind. Isn’t it time we taught our children a new set of values? I think they’ll appreciate that a lot more in the long run than they would an Iron Man action figure or a Repunzel Barbie or whatever.
I hope this holiday season is full of love and joy and togetherness, even if there are no presents under your tree…or even if there is no tree. Those things don’t matter anyway. And the things that do matter won’t cost you a cent.
Happy Love Thursday All, and Merry Christmas.