Liz and I are blessed to be able to provide for our children. Our kids have shelter from the elements and food to sustain them. I have lived in places that have taught me to never, ever take that for granted.
That being said….
I am obsessed with maintaining this tip-of-a-pyramid balancing act of providing for my kids without them becoming spoiled. Nobody wants spoiled kids, right? So the metric I use (imperfect as it may be) is the number of toys Finn and Lucy have. I would be strolling through Target with the kids and they would leap onto the cart and point as if they had spotted the white whale, their vibrating finger revealing something that they needed, please Dad! I won’t ask for anything else if I just get that!
And I, the Good Parent, would give them a self-satisfied smile and say something pithy, like “We can’t get that, honey. But! Good news! …I love you!”
I say that so much that they now mouth the words along with me, eyes rolling. They hadn’t really expected me to say yes, after all, and to their credit they would almost always drop it immediately. In that moment I would swell with pride that I had once again parried the Demon of Entitlement and poured still more Concrete of Righteousness in the moral foundation of my children.
Then, yesterday came. Yesterday I realized that I had failed wildly in this regard. That moment came when, while walking through our playroom, I tripped over an object I literally didn’t know we owned. That object was what you see in the photo above.
It’s a hamburger phone.
I don’t know where it came from.
You can see that the cord is severed, so it isn’t even a functioning hamburger phone. Not that I’d likely use it anyway, what with the prevalence of mobile technology. It also would not be comfortable to hold for long conversations. (BTW, that black label on it says “Hamburger phone.” Yeah, dude…We know.)
My point is that if there’s a hamburger phone in the playroom that I didn’t know about, then the kids probably have too much stuff.
But I had to reexamine one of the Big Questions for Parents: How can I know how much to give my kids? Where is the line between spoiled and deprived? What’s okay to give them and what’s not?
When Liz and I lived in New York City with our newborn son Finn, this question answered itself because there was no space for anything anyway. If I came home with an extra bunch of bananas I better eat them before I got in the door because otherwise we’d be trying squeezing past them all week. In NYC you’re forced to make choices. Our son’s tiny nursery had space for either A.) a few toys for Finn or B.) Finn.
Connecticut is different. We have a big playroom in a finished basement. It can fit tons of stuff. (True story: I once accidentally set up an outdoor trampoline down there that I was never able to fit up the steps and so it’s still there and will be until the ice caps melt and it floats up. But that’s for another time.) But with more space comes more responsibility. I am forced to actually be a parent around this Stuff Issue, and Liz and I have to make decisions as to what’s best for our kids.
Now, I’m going to confess something here.
You know how every good parent says they want the best for their kids? Well, I’m not sure I actually want that. (I’m cringing reading that sentence.) But just hear me out for a second, and know that I love my kids more than my own life.
I just mean that I’ve gone through times in my life where I’ve been poor. And I’ve gone through times when I lived in inner-city neighborhoods that were flat-out dangerous. I’ve also gone through periods when I’ve had money. Those times of poverty were hard in the moment, but lemme tell you something – I had life by the throat. I don’t mean that in a corny way, either. I was dead broke in my early years out of college, living alone in Prague in the mid-90’s, and I can still remember the smallest victories in those times, when necessities like warm meals felt like achingly wonderful luxuries. I remember my days in high school being afraid every day when I walked to school through the worst neighborhoods in Jersey City, and the daily tsunami of joy when I made it home without getting attacked or shoved to the ground or intimidated.
I’m not saying I want any of that for my kids. I want the opposite. I would do anything in the world to protect them from it.
But I also want them to be alive. Really alive, where they have to struggle and learn and grow. I want them to know what it feels like to earn those small victories. But to know that feeling, they have to go through a period of being without. They have to experience life as a have-not.
I want them to know – to know it deep in their hearts – that they don’t need stuff to make them happy. They need to know that they are loved by their parents and loved by God and that’s what they carry with them as the walk out the door every morning.
But I still can’t bring myself to throw away that stupid hamburger phone.
Because here’s what I have to remember as I am pretending to be a good father: I have to remember that I am clinging to stuff, too. Even stupid stuff. And before I start taking toys away from my kids to prove this point that they-have-enough-when-they-have-God or other truisms that I spout to my children, I better take stock of what I am holding on to that I refuse to let go, and what things I am pointing at in life and telling God that I need that! Please! I won’t ask for anything else if I just get that!
So I need to stop asking myself if I’m giving my kids too much or too little and start asking what my kids are seeing in their father.
I think once I figure that out, the hamburger phone isn’t going to seem like such a big deal anymore.