"That's going in the basement."My wife nodded, expecting I would say exactly that once the front door closed and our relative was safely out of earshot. What stood before us was a particularly exceptional combination of ugly and useless. Describing it in full detail risks familial fallout. Let's just say it's a children's chair that isn't conducive to... well... sitting. Assuming the apparatus was designed for a human, the space where the child's back would be is occupied by a protruding appendage. Voila! An unsittable seat.
Our son, Nicholas, turns one this March. As a modern, middle-class baby, his life is surrounded by stuff. This isn't inherently bad: babies have specific needs and are growing and learning at accelerated rates. Crib, dresser, rocker, car seat, stroller, walker, jumper, eating seat, playpen... Necessary stuff. Good stuff.
And stuff, being stuff, begets more stuff: Nicholas' big things have their own little things. Trays, buckles, locks, bumpers, cushions. Literal bells and whistles. Stuff happens.
Then there are toys. Plush toys to soothe, singing toys to educate, whirring and flashing toys to distract, rubber toys to teethe. Each has its place, along with more 12-to-18-month-old outfits than Nicholas can possibly wear before he is no longer 12 to 18 months.
I'm not complaining (yet). These myriad, disparate items have a commonality: they all bring value to my son's life. They have a purpose.
That brings me back to our seatless seat – and to my basement.
Our basement is the resting place of a broad spectrum of banished playthings. The least deserving of damnation are the merely redundant: the fourth toy truck, the sixth teddy bear. The most egregious are the superfluously enormous heaps of mystifyingly-purposed plastic and, of course, the aforementioned scoliosis-inducing chair.
In between are a host of items that Nicholas either can't use yet or won't use ever, the latter failing to pass my wife and my ever-evolving usefulness appraisals.
We're not minimalists. We're just feeling a bit... stuffed. To justify absorbing more into our – and our son's – lives, we need to be reasonably convinced that this new item serves a purpose, meets a need, has a use. Otherwise, it's just stuff for stuff's sake.
More isn't more… it's just more headache. An excess of stuff makes parenting – challenging to begin with – exponentially and unnecessarily more complicated. It also sets a bad example for our children: materialism is little more than acted-upon selfishness.
My wife and I refuse to cram crap into Nicholas' life just because doing so has become the societal standard. Each of us has a healthy cynicism toward our consumerist culture; to us, separating that mindset from our parenting would be both irresponsible and hypocritical.
What results is a parenting style that, from the outside, can appear bluntly oppositional, even snobbishly elitist. Sometimes principles birth perception problems.
The pitfalls of this approach are many. For one, we consistently risk offending family members or friends who, upon stopping by, might find their well-intending gift relegated to basement purgatory. We're a physical faux pas waiting to happen.
The more important potential problem, of course, is with Nicholas himself. Keeping his still-impressive total of possessions to a reasonable collection is tough enough now – and he’s not even walking, let alone wanting.
In the coming days of play dates and preschool, Nicholas will start to realize that his stuff is less plentiful than that of many peers. His generous allotment of belongings will seem stingy compared with his playmates' possessions. Advertisements on TV, at movie theaters and on the Internet will only exacerbate his covetousness.
This will, we know, lead to conflict. My wife and I are setting ourselves up for a heavy dose of toddler tantrums and envy-fueled middle-school mall meltdowns. Nicholas' first three words might as well be, "But why not?"
At the risk of sounding completely naïve, our running response will stress the value of accruing experiences over the unfulfilling compilation of gratuitous possessions. We’d rather see Nicholas enriched and enlightened by life than taunted and tainted by stuff.
Note the word gratuitous. Baseball glove? Absolutely. Violin? Play your heart out. But a Han Solo bookbag when he already has a Darth Vader one? No. That need is already met. We want Nicholas to learn the value of purposeful possession.
We don’t, of course, expect this principle to satiate the burning desires of a five-year-old. However, through repeated communication and consistent parental example, we are hopeful that, over time, this crucial concept will become not only acceptable but attractive.
Sound crazy? Far nuttier ideas have been sold to children. A few years ago, 10-year-olds were spending months weaving Cra-Z-Looms. Oh, the fun of de facto factory work! “Mom, Dad – let’s play sweatshop!”
If my wife and I have our druthers – and we won’t have anywhere near all of them satisfied, we realize – Nicholas will place more value in learning than Legos, extracurricular activities than extraneous objects, traveling to new places rather than collecting new stuff.
We will teach him to do more loving of his opportunity-filled life than lusting after the unreachable goalposts of “more.” Nicholas will want for nothing but, we hope, not want everything.
I now know there are steps I can take to change how I think, to find the true me again. That is why I am going to take better care of myself this year. In fact, that’s the only resolution I care to make. For both my own health, and as an important example to my kids, this year, I'm resolving to practice a kindness that starts from within.