Our daughter has the lucky advantage of being the first grandchild and having incredibly generous and thoughtful grandparents, aunties and uncles, and friends who have gifted her everything and more than a toddler could dream. She’s got toys, books, puzzles, stuffed animals, Legos, blocks, dolls, Play-Dough, art supplies galore, musical instruments, a kitchen set, a doll house, balls, a scooter, games, her very own swing-set outside in the backyard, and she’s only 2.5 years old!
Not only does she have more than she needs, she also has more than she can handle. She plays with maybe half of her toys, though she likes to pull 98 percent of them out when friends come over to play. I am nervous that we are setting a precedent and potentially creating a child who will feel super entitled and will want more, and more, and more, and NOW. How do we make sure she appreciates all that she has in the world?
I’ve spent considerable time traveling in the developing world. I’ve seen abject and relative poverty, families living in urban slums, and rural villages without electricity or running water, let alone an excess of clothing, toys, and tchotchkes. I remember the first time I traveled to Uganda and went to see an early childhood center that focused on community based nutritional support for children whose parents had died of AIDS. Afterwards, we went to visit the homes where extended families lived and supported these children, to see their kitchen-gardens. Visiting these basic cement block structures with tin roofs, I met with women who cook over open flames and walk miles to get water, where the clothes they wore were the clothes they had, aside from maybe one more outfit to wear to church.
I had more things in my suitcase for my two weeks of travel than most of these families had in their home. I brought a mosquito net to sleep under and was taking anti-malaria meds as a preventative, while many of these families couldn’t afford either of these potentially life-saving necessities. More recently, I’ve volunteered my time to work with new immigrants in the U.S. who are barely able to pay rent. I struggle with how much I have, compared to how little others are able to subsist on. I try and balance my complex feelings of guilt, power, and privilege by hopefully inspiring others and working towards changing some of the imbalances in the world through service and tzedakah.
But where does that leave me when it comes to my kid and her material possessions? I don’t want to be that mom who always says, “You know there are starving kids in Africa that would be happy to…” but the sad reality is there are, and here, too.
It’s challenging to explain to others that we don’t want or need anything more for Charlotte. We’ve made requests at her birth and her birthday for people to make a donation to their favorite charity in lieu of presents, to limited participation. Instead of giving presents for every birthday, Hanukkah, and anniversary, we’ve been transitioning to doing something special together to celebrate the event with loved ones instead of giving a gift. But I’m still not sure what to do with all the stuff, or how to stem the tide of presents for Charlotte from other people. While we donate lots of her gently used toys and some clothes to Goodwill, I know that while it feels good to donate your old stuff, it really isn’t helping to change the system. Fighting the dominant capitalist paradigm and intentional parenting are quite a struggle.