Giving Experience

One of the major perks of being a Momma (and a parent in general) is being able to make things up as you go along. Sometimes this ends in sheer awesomeness, like your kitchen table being covered with a layer of whipped cream almost as thick as the layer that covers your very happy, very hyper children.

Other times, the awesomeness is more along the lines of establishing your own family traditions. I’m a huge sucker for that kind of thing (ask my parents, who had to deal with me pestering them over every major/minor holiday not being exactly the same as the year before) and our little fam already has a list as long as my arm of traditions. My newest favorite is “Jammie Parties” — all five of us in our pajamas, making a treat, then watching a movie together all cuddled up in a huge pile of blankets. Often a blanket fort, come to that.

Then there are the times when you get to change things up because you’ve thought about it long and hard, and you really just think it will be best for your family. In some ways, it scares the heck out of me when I depart from how I grew up. It seems like such a grown-up thing to do, but when I look in the mirror I still see a kid, making things up as she goes along.

Side note: I still remember the day when I realized that adults don’t know much more than kids, they’re just better at bluffing their way through stuff. It was a terrifying moment, and cleared up a lot of the mystery about why politicians behave the way they do. They’re apparently just as clueless as the rest of us.

Point being, making up a funny story to get my kids in bed seems a lot less important than trying something new with parenting, but that’s where we are right now. Here’s the scoop: I’ve spent a lot of time (and I mean a LOT of time) cleaning up, and helping my kids clean up, mounds and mounds of toys. I frankly don’t know where they all came from. I don’t remember buying the majority of them. In fact, I think they’re like unmatched socks: They multiply if left unattended.

I’m tired of it. And not just in the “If I trip over one more small plastic thing I’m going to scream!” kind of way.  Toys are well and good. I’m particularly fond of the ones that encourage group play (their play kitchen is a good example) or help develop imagination (Ladybug loves dress-up, and both girls are starting to play-act with dolls). Blocks are good for spatial ability, crayons are good for hand-eye coordination and artistic growth. But let’s face it, most toys are sheerly there to entertain the kids and keep them out of my hair.

I know, I know. I sound like a scary tiger mother, talking like every moment of my children’s lives has to be productive. That’s not my point — kids should be kids, but every moment of their lives is productive, whether I like it or not. It’s productive in the way that children are absorbing information about their world, life, and themselves in every second of every day. They mimic what they see, they are formed by what they do. When StrawBee sits down with paper and markers, I don’t say to her, “Oh, I’m so glad to see you practicing your artistic abilities!”, I say “Thank you for playing nicely.” But the fact is inescapable: She’s learning about drawing.

This realization has made me take a long, hard look at the way my children spend their time. We already expose them only to educational TV, encourage them to play outside, feed them healthy foods, and do all those other things parents think they ought to do — up to and including making sure they have “good” birthdays and holidays by buying them new toys.

We save up all year for Christmas, and in previous years have used the money to buy numerous small, inexpensive toys in an attempt to make our children happy. They love opening presents, they love new stuff (at least for the first day or so), so what could go wrong?

Well… a lot. They start having so much stuff that they don’t value what they have. They learn that if they break something, it’s okay; just wait for the next holiday and you’ll have more! They learn to just accumulate whatever stuff catches their attention, rather than thinking carefully and choosing to invest their precious spending money on things that will last or will have some kind of positive impact on their lives.

As I’ve said, though, they don’t need new toys. The toys are perfectly capable of increasing in number all on their own.

So then, what do you do?

Stop giving toys.

But then what do you give them?

Experiences.

DB and I have made a goal to stop looking at gift giving from the perspective of “What toys can we buy to reach the quota?” and to start looking at it instead as “What experience can we give them that will reach them in a positive way?”

Next month for StrawBee’s birthday, we’re not buying her any toys in the traditional sense. Instead, we’re going to use that money to take her to do something new (ice skating, for example) that we think she will enjoy. There will be a couple of packages for her to open (because, let’s face it, opening things is just sheer pleasure in itself and no one, least of all a two year old, should be deprived of that!), but they’ll be carefully selected to be things we know she’ll use more than once.

When Christmas rolls around, the kids can expect probably one toy each from us. They can expect the opportunity to give many of their “things” to children who have so much less than them. After that, they can expect that the rest of the Christmas money will go to “experience.”  A new fish tank, for example, that they can learn to take care of. Maybe a train ride. Possibly a new puppy to train and love. Perhaps some swimming lessons, even if it’s just one or two.  Even a trip to a museum or fair. A chance to try something new, different, and hands-on that will stay with them because they’ve learned a new skill.

Our children aren’t remotely sure who they are and what they like yet. Not because they’re children, really, but because they haven’t had a chance to try that many things yet. What better gift, then, than to gift them the opportunity to try many things so they can decide where their interests lie? What better opportunity than education and experience? What better lesson than that the most exciting, most “fun” you can have in life is to explore something new?

I know our children will ask for toys still, but I have confidence that soon they’ll be asking to try things, or re-do previous experiences, instead.

Maybe I’m wrong. I’m just making this up. I’ve made mistakes before.

All I know for sure is that while I could never recite to you all the toys I’ve received through the years, I remember the things we did. I remember the feeling of rising up in a hot air balloon until the hills dropped far, far away. I cherish the feeling of being special when my dad took me to riding lessons. I often relive my mother’s encouragement as she took the time to read my writing — she was my first fan. I hold on to the activities we did as a family, that brought us together, taught us to be confident in the love we had for each other.

I’m making it up but … dare I say it? … this time, at least, I think I’m right.

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About Carolynn the Dyer

If I've learned one thing by having three children in four years, it's that babies are not, in fact, the best birth control. ... Okay, just kidding. I've really learned that laughter is the only way to survive the wilds of parenthood, and life in general. Also, that it is indeed possible to do dishes, parent, and carry on a conversation at the same time. If that sounds like fun, or just impossible, then come join me on my blog--and join me in the jungle.
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