It’s a life lesson we hope our children will learn: having the same things as everyone else does not define you. It’s a hard thing to wrap your head around at 6 years old. It seems a natural desire when my son looks at me with pleading eyes and says, “[my friend] has [certain toy] and I want one too!” How can I blame him for wanting to fit in? Noticing the particular items his peers are deeming important? I mean, aren’t I just as guilty of this in my adult life? She has a really cool bag (I want one of those), you’re going to dinner at the new hip restaurant (I am making a reservation tomorrow). The difference between me and my 6 year old is, as an adult, I am able to distinguish the difference between my worthiness and my things. This is a very grown-up concept to grasp. We attach meaning to certain things and those meanings start to mingle with the way we see ourselves and the way we hope that others will see us because we have certain brands or products. The cohabiting of our things and ourselves becomes convoluted. However, it has taken me the greater part of my adult life to sort this out completely, because I spent a lot of years trying to make up for not having the “cool things” as a kid.
So when my kindergartener steps off the bus asking for a small furry animal to clip from his backpack (because everybody has them!), I am going to say yes. I realize that this is a small request at only $3.50 and I am well aware that these pleads and requests will grow larger in size and cost over the years, but that is something I am just going to have to figure out as I go along. There is a line between giving them everything he wants -which I don’t- and being selective on purchases that are holding more of an emotional and social weight, like trendy toys and t-shirts.
I would love to sit my precious boys down and explain to them why things don’t make you happy or liked or cool or satisfied for very long in life. You know boys, what really matters is connection and meaning and happiness. And I do slip these delightful life lesson morsels in regardless; we do have dialogue about what truly matters. I am investing in the end game, knowing that these talks and tid bits will infiltrate deep into their psyche and once the mental maturity catches up, these truths can become their reality.
What I am trying to help my children avoid is the same self-imposed anguish I slathered on myself for years – especially my school aged years. I think no matter how hard we try as parents there will always be those things that our children will look back on and feel a pang of disappointment. I was very fortunate that my parents could provide so much for me and often they met my requests for things I desired. But there are a few incidents/items I still remember that caused much tension and angst at home and at school for me.
Remember Keds, people? Yes, plain white, lace up sneakers. It seems so silly in retrospect but in middle school when all the pretty, popular girls are bouncing from class to their locker in their Keds, I wanted a piece of that power. I was trotting around in my generic K Mart version of bo-bo’s and feeling very inadequate and noticed for the wrong reasons. My mother was right about a lot of things: your shoes don’t matter – you are smart, you are funny, you are a good friend. My mother is the best person I know and none of this is her fault, it was in my own head. But she was wrong about one: other kids do not notice that you are not wearing Keds. Oooooooooh but they do. They absolutely notice. And they tease. And it hurts. Keds were just the beginning. Don’t get me started on the daydreams of owning Guess jeans, Bongo shorts, a Liz Claiborne purse, Sunflower perfume…anything from Wet Seal. I would do whatever it took, just short of shoplifting, to get my hands on the hottest fashions. Possessing these items did make me feel accepted and connected to my peers, but greater than that, having them provided a sense of relief. What a social weight was lifted when I acquired something “cool.” I learned to attach a lot of my self-worth to the response I was given when I showed up to 1st period with that Liz Claiborne purse (no one had to know they came off the clearance shelf at Ross) and I hung my hat on that acceptance.
I spent far too many years, as Brene Brown says, “hustling for my worthiness.” Trying, very desperately, to prove that I deserved the approval of my classmates. Trying to unpin the “otherness” tag I felt was hanging on my back. I wish I hadn’t cared or worried myself sick over these things. I’ll say it again, my mom was right. Those things are not important, they will not satiate any part of the human spirit and they will never, ever make you anything more than you already are. But it took me almost 30 years to realize I could stop doing this and still have friends that valued me. It took a lot of mental clarity to understand the dynamic of things and the role they play in my life. Accepting that I should buy the things I like, for no other reason that they make me happy, is not a concept I expect my kids to grasp and apply to their life. Not just yet, anyway.
So here is my quandary: do I continue to buy the hottest new toys and clothes in hopes to minimize the social scars or will having the newest and coolest things become what my child expects and become a lifestyle he feels he needs to keep up as an adult? I am not convinced this scenario can avoid some type of negative outcome. My hope is that by limiting the number of sought after items (you may have one [insert name brand] shirt) and reminding them that these things are just that: things. They are not love or peace of mind or happiness, and most of them are going to end up at Goodwill within a few years anyway.
This is an ever-present predicament of life, that the future cannot be predicted. So as I make decisions regarding the overall wellbeing and happiness of my children in the long run, sometimes the best I can do is go with my gut. Today my gut tells me that Minecraft T-shirts and furry backpack clips do not a materialistic monster child make. Down the line, perhaps he will have earn the money to purchase some of the bigger things he can’t live without. We can only take it as it comes.
But for now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to check and see what vintage Guess jeans are selling for on eBay.