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Mass Consumerism is totally freaking me out today…

18 February 2006

Today we threw a party for Eli’s fifth birthday, and invited about 20 kids from his school and the local community to join us at Round Table Pizza for a few hours of mayhem, mischief, pizza, plastic balls and sugar overload (by the way, my apologies to those I didn’t invite and that are our usual suspects — it was fast and loose this year, and with as crazy as we’ve been over here, we’re lucky it came off at all.) While I fully expected there to be presents purchased and brought to the party for my wily little dude, I think it never quite sunk in that he’d be getting on average a gift FOR EVERY CHILD invited, plus grandparents, etc. So, at the end of the party we’re left with a pile of gifts that would rival Christmas/Hannukah/Bridal Shower and after the fifth load to the car, I entered an altered state of consciousness.

OH MY GOD, It’s all coming home with us!

Okay, now don’t get me wrong — I really love to buy gifts for my kids, and to see them play with and enjoy gifts that they’ve received. My parents were struggling when I was a kid, and therefore I only got a few gifts a year, and I loved and cherished the crap out of each and every one. When I got something, it was usually something I wanted a whole lot, and when I got it, I played with it until it wore out. Okay, well that’s extreme — I’m sure I also got stuff I threw in the corner and never played with, but all in all, it was pretty much quality over quantity. But I’m looking over this pile of gifts, and I’m seeing stuff that I never knew even existed — that I know Eli never knew even existed, and wouldn’t have known to ask for it at all before it arrived on the pile o’ pleasure. Eli took I think maybe 3 gifts out of their packages today, and there are like 17-20 left to go. This cannot be healthy to have so much toys all at once, and it’s not like this kid is starved for toys. If you’ve seen his room, you know what I mean. What I really worry about is the debasement of material acquisitions and the devaluing of the gifting act. And it’s not like this stuff is cheap, either. $10 here, $20 there, some stuff I know was $40… if Eli had gotten cash value for these gifts, he’d be rolling in over $400 easily. Frankly, I’m not even sure where all of this stuff is going to fit. His room is at capacity, and the common space is pretty close to that as well. We JUST did a big toy purge for Christmas/Hannukah, and I’m thinking we may need to do yet another one.

So how do you guard against the massive toy influx? I certainly don’t want to discourage toy purchase altogether, but how do you moderate for your kid in a world that requires guests at a party to bring gifts out of courtesy? I’m all for driving the economy and all, but I just don’t want my kid to look at possessions as essentially disposable and meaningless (at least not in a non-buddhist way.) I have my ideas, actually. Eli has a 529 open, and I’m about ready to open one for Isaac, as soon as the paperwork goes through. I think I’m going to just start including the account number on all invites and say ‘if you’d like to make a contribution to Eli’s future, instead of his consumeristic present, please give $20 toward his college education’, or something of the sort. Plus, I think you can give up to $11k in gifts to any individual tax-free, so it’s good for everyone. The other thing I think is pretty good, that Julie mentioned tonight, was something she’s seen done with older kids: having guests participate to a charity of Eli’s choosing, instead of purchasing gifts. That seems like a great way to further foster the giving spirit we’re trying to instill in Eli right now.

And just to catch myself in my own hypocrisy, tonight Eli brought with him to his grandparents one of his gifts — a double gift, actually, of two mega-blocks dragons (dude, these things ROCK!)(Irascor and Ferrerius). Eli allowed his favorite older cousin, Jonah, to open and play with one of the dragons, and he spontaneously offered to let Jonah have and keep one of the dragons. This had to be one of the most selfless acts I’ve seen from a five-year-old, and I was totally blown away and… torn… about this. On one hand, wow, my son is totally generous and non-attached to his toys enough to give his cousin one of his BRAND NEW DRAGONS. On the other hand, is he just garnering favor with his elder cousin, and did he REALLY want to give this gift way. Also, did he really grok that it was going to be GONE FOREVER? Besides, *HE* had been given this gift, not Jonah, so shouldn’t ELI keep it? What if the friend came over to play and said, ‘hey, let’s play with those dragons!’, and Eli responded ‘I gave one away to my cousin’ — what does that say about his respect for the gift-giving process to that friend? Also… these are damned cool dragons. I fully expect to plunk them down in the middle of a gaming mat sometime in the future to my unsuspecting players (sorry guys :)). So… I suggested that perhaps the dragon could be Jonah’s whenever he came over to play, but that Eli keep it. As it turned out, Jonah lost interest pretty quickly because after Jonah proclaimed his was better and as they smashed the dragons together, the dragon Jonah got was breaking apart quicker than Eli’s dragon, and therefore was inferior and not as strong. This Jonah lower on the dragon pecking order, so he proclaimed them ‘stupid and boring’. Ah, the politics of boys.

But, after this encounter, I felt myself feeling a little hollow. Perhaps I should have allowed Eli to go ahead and give his cousin the gift full-out. He’s got LIKE TWENTY OTHER TOYS TO PLAY WITH at home. Truth be told, he could give away half the stack, and still be sitting pretty. I feel like I did Eli a disservice by not allowing him to give the dragon away, like he intended. Was my reticence an artifact of my own greed? Did *I* want the dragons? Man, you can never get this shit right as a parent. Deep inside, there is a child that is crying because his parents tell him there isn’t enough money to buy that toy he wants. Now that there’s enough money, that child feels the guilt of possession.

So yeah, there’s a pile of toys in my living room that will soon get unpackaged and integrated into the gestalt. Over half of them will get forgotten, and the other half will be broken, lost, or otherwise damaged and devalued in the act of intense play. The little guy inside of me who envies the feeding frenzy is just gonna have to learn to get over it, and the wary parent needs to be able to make sure the message gets through all the chum in the water. One thing’s for certain, I feel totally uncomfortable right now looking at all these toys, and I’m gonna have to get over that for myself. Then, I’m going to figure out a way to allow my values to be reflected in the process.

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