Mika and Macy's closets are filled to the brim with toys. There is the strata of toys from Christmas 2007, then a layer from the birthday intake of 2008. Followed by Easter gifts from 2008, then some toys I couldn't say "no" to at a garage sale because they were so inexpensive, a layer of second-hand toys from a friend who cleaned out her closet...and on and on it continues building upward until the present. In between the larger toys, like sediment that fills the cracks between ancient artifacts, are tons of tiny toys (stickers, pencil erasers, balls and jacks, yo-yos, Polly Pockets, and fast-food prizes), acquired from Christmas stockings, stuffed Easter eggs, goody bags from birthday parties, and who knows where else.
So, it comes as no surprise to me that children in the United States represent 4% of the world's population, but have 40% of the world's toys. The question is: are my children really better off with all the stuff? Do they need these things to keep them entertained? Is this what a quality childhood is all about?
Dolly Parton, in her autobiography, paints a picture of an impoverished, but happy childhood, filled with family and fun, but almost no store-bought toys. Dolly's father had to scratch out a living as a farmer and feed his twelve children, all of who shared a one room house. The necessities of life took all the resources of the family, so the kids were on their own as far as entertaining themselves. Dolly explains that she and her siblings learned to be creative in their play. A few delightful antidotes:
"(Mom) once made me a doll out of a corncob. She made it a little dress out of corn shucks and used corn silk for her hair. Daddy got the poker hot in the fire and used the tip to burn two black eyes into the corncob. I thought she was beautiful, and I named her Tiny Tasseltop."
"Another thing we loved to do was to catch June bugs and tie them to a string. I'm sure it was more fun for us than the poor weighted-down June bugs, but we had a ball flying what we called our "lectric kites." You tried to get a real good fat June bug with a lot of lifting power. Sometimes you could just fantasize about him being able to lift you right off the ground to where you could soar up among the clouds and look down at the trees and the fields. That kind of blissful thought would sometimes come to a sudden halt when your June bug would sacrifice his leg in the name of freedom and buzz off across the pasture."
"The most fun for us kids were the poke berries that grew on the stem of the plant. They are dark purple, and when you mash them, the juice is like dye. We used to paint our skin with poke berries so that it looked like we were wearing bracelets or wristwatches. Sometimes we would paint what we called "Jesus sandals" onto our feet. We would dress us in gunnysacks for robes and carry tobacco stakes as our walking sticks and go gallivantin' all over the countryside pretending we were the disciples, or at least some kind of biblical types. We felt real holy, but somehow our kinship with Jesus was lost on Mama when we came home with those awful purple stains on us."
My own mother grew up grew up the daughter of a refinery worker in a little West Texas town. They had few games and toys, and Nintendo, Game Cube, and Wii had not been invented. So what did she and her brother do? They took the family bird dog and a lunch bag, and headed down to the creek for a day of fishing, hide-and-seek, skipping rocks, and daydreaming while they gazed at the billowy clouds in the sky.
I survey the literally hundreds of toys that entertain my children so they can be kept safely confined within the walls of our home to avoid the remotest possibility of being snatched by a stranger. Are they "richer" or "poorer" than their grandmother, who was free to enjoy nature and simple pleasures (without hovering parents) while she wiled away summer days at the little creek near their home?
What is the answer to the over-abundance of toys that seems to permeate most American households? I have no idea. Since the girls are back in school, I will excavate their closets and toy boxes. A lot of the things they have not played with in a while will "disappear" (they'll be placed on the front porch under cover of night and picked up by the Salvation Army before they are discovered by the girls). We cut down on the number of Christmas gifts Mika and Macy received from us last year and plan to cut back even more in 2010. However, these temporary fixes are just a drop in the bucket, and there seems to be a constant inflow of toys and such, no matter what we do.
Honestly, I'd like to get rid of ALL the toys and start from scratch, maybe even make some of our own, like Dolly and her siblings did. However, to banish the beloved junk (er, I mean toys) would definitely earn me the Worst Mother of the Year award from my children and perhaps even trigger a visit from Child Protective Services. So, until I find a better solution, I'll continue to trip over, pick up, sort, and beg my children to put their toys where they belong.
Thousands of years from now, when future archaeologists are actually digging up our home, what are they going to make of the many toys that occupied nearly every cranny of our living space? Will they wonder why we spent so much time and money on plastic junk instead of going outside to play with rocks, leaves, dirt, acorns, and sticks?
Oh, what I would give for my children to have a carefree day at a bubbling creek, being watched over by our dogs, enjoying fresh air, and playing with all the bountiful "toys" found in nature!