Today I quipped on Facebook about how hard it is to change my daughter’s bed sheets because of all her stuffed animals. Apparently that resonated with a lot of you, because it was one of those me-too threads. And that made me remember this piece I wrote five years ago for a regular column I was doing at the time. Tess is now 10, and while she’s not immune to consumerism (we’re in major discussion over an iPod Touch at the moment), she has come a long way since then. And I don’t think that’s just because she’s older. I also was sort of pleasantly surprised to realize that, a little more than two years after I wrote this, we decided to make a major move and downsizing that greatly reduced the stuff in our lives. (There were even more stuffed animals before!)
Now, that piece…
The birthday cake would be chocolate and we’d try to work princesses into the party theme, but on the matter of presents I asked my daughter, who was turning 5, to consider something radical. “What would you think if your friends brought gifts for the animals at the shelter instead of for you?”
“But Mama, it’s my birthday, and on my birthday my friends bring presents for me.”
I had tried the animal-shelter idea last year, too, but she was only 3 going on 4, so I didn’t push it. I figured the consumer gene was still safely in development. She loves animals, I told myself. She’ll come around.
When she wouldn’t budge this year, though, I was frustrated. Had we raised one of those kids? Were we destined to a life of excess and entitlement?
But wait, I reasoned: I like presents, too. I like stuff. We all like stuff. There’s an eye-opening little Web film that shows just how much we all like our stuff. And I wasn’t morally or ecologically bankrupt.
But I was part of the problem. When my daughter received her first baby doll from grandparents on her first Christmas, just days after her first birthday, it unleashed a nascent maternal instinct in a little girl who couldn’t even walk yet. Smitten, my husband and I indulged her. She loved each new doll as much as the last. If she asked for a new one, we bought it.
When it came time for a big-girl bed, we chose a loft model because the playhouse underneath could contain all the baby dolls and their belongings. I’ve never counted the dolls (or the plush animals that put the “stuff” in stuffed), but I’m certain I’d be mortified if I did.
At garage sales we collected games, books, building sets, wooden puzzles. All the “right” toys. Anything we bought new I researched carefully, choosing enriching over entertaining. When grandparents asked for gift ideas, we steered them toward art supplies and away from flashing, beeping plastic things (not that they always listened).
We did everything we could to raise a thinking, compassionate, appreciative child, explaining purchases and involving her in donations to charities and toy drives. Yet somewhere along the way she became one of those screaming kids in the toy aisles at Target.
Desperate, we started saying no. We told her she already had enough (fill in the blank). We told her that every trip to a store was not an occasion to buy a toy or even a coloring book. But mostly we appealed to her budding environmental activism. We talked about waste and pollution, reminded her how fun it is to reuse (or buy used) and recycle (or donate), and showed her pictures of landfills (an admittedly difficult concept for a child who intends to keep every single toy forever).
It’s been rough. In the gift shop at that very same animal shelter I’d wanted her birthday guests to support, she clutched a stuffed rabbit and wailed, “But I love it so much.” I said no, and the saleswoman shot me daggers as I stood my ground. Later, in the car, my daughter offered a simple solution to her tantrum: “But, Mama, I would have stopped if you’d bought it for me.”
True, when my daughter swoons over a new doll or declares heartfelt love for yet another stuffed creature, it makes me happy. Consumption is most certainly food for the soul. I’d never underestimate how passionately stuff can feed our ideas about tradition, pleasure, identity and comfort. Yet breathe deep and step back and it feels anything but comfortable.
One little stuffed rabbit, especially one that a 5-year-old loves so much, isn’t going to melt the polar ice caps. But getting a handle on the little things might make way for a lifestyle change that actually does make an environmental difference. Saying no to the rabbit might pave the way for less stuff down the road. After that, who knows.
Shortly after the gift shop incident, my daughter was making her list for Santa and contemplating a new baby doll. She mused out loud, anticipating an addition to the community of dolls under her bed. Then she paused. “Mama, I think I might have enough baby dolls.” It’s a start.
For the record: I did eventually persuade Tess to have a birthday party with animal-shelter donations instead of gifts. But it was back to gifts after that. Life is always a work in progress.