There's a line between giving your kids the childhood you never had and raising spoiled brats, and I'm afraid to know what side my 3-year-old twins are currently standing on.
Growing up with a single mom, we never went hungry and there were always presents under the Christmas tree, but there were certain luxuries my classmates had that I was always jealous of. Things like not having any spare change to buy an ice cream with a little wooden-stick spoon after lunch (remember when having ice cream in school every day was OK?), having to skip a class field trip or not having the pocket money to buy anything from the book fair were tiny things in the grand scheme of life, but childhood embarrassments loom large, even in the psyche of an adult.
Eventually, my mom married my awesome stepdad, and we moved from an apartment to a house, where we were happily middle class. We had an above-ground pool that made me very popular, but actual vacations that required air travel or shopping at American Eagle like my girlfriends was still strictly out of the budget. And when cell phones became the cool new toy, the only way I could have one was to get a job and pay for it myself.
Despite the fact that I didn't have everything my little heart desired, I turned out pretty awesome. I met an equally awesome dude, and thanks to our educations and a bit of luck, we now have a comfortable financial situation. I always knew I didn't want my kids to grow up knowing when the bills were due and how tight the family budget was, the way I had. But I took the idea of not wanting my kids to worry about money a bit too far, because since they've been born I've been on a mission to give my children everything I never had, and now I'm afraid they're spoiled because of it.
It started out as a way to please my inner child. I loved books growing up, but read them so quickly that my mom felt buying them for me was a poor investment, and her job hours meant getting to the library was practically impossible. I may be the only person on the planet who can say they read the entire Baby-Sitters Club series in 40-minute increments while standing in the book aisle of the grocery store each week while their mother shopped. So naturally my kids had a bookcase stuffed full of books before they were even born.
Our house has a dedicated playroom, so I went a little overboard with toys too. My cousins had a playroom full of toys I coveted, so when the boys show an interest in a certain cartoon character or play set, I always want to make them happy by getting it for them — regardless of how many other toys they already have. I use the fact that there are two of them to play with the toy and therefore it will get twice the use to justify the cost. This is how you end up with an indoor bounce house.
I loved our family drives to the ocean, but Saturday mornings in front of the television seeing commercials for Disney World and those autograph books my friends would show off every August when school came back into session made me yearn to take my own kids to the most magical place on earth one day. Now, at the ripe old age of 3, they've already flown to Florida eight times, with several more trips planned over the next couple years. Though in my defense we took excellent advantage of the free-until-3 pricing rule.
I wouldn't care so much about spending money on vacations, toys and books if my children appreciated them, since we work hard for our money and should be entitled to do what we want with it; but even with my rose-tinted mommy glasses on, I have to admit my boys are far less grateful for the things they have than I'd like. Toys get tossed across the room for fun or used as stepping stools. Trying to get them to help me pick up is a constant struggle. Books have been bitten, torn or desecrated with crayons to the point where their collection is a fraction of its original size. And while they are still excited at the idea of going on vacation again, I'm waiting for the day when I say, "Who wants to go see Mickey?" and get a half-hearted shrug in return.
I know some of this is just the fallout that comes with raising 3-year-olds. But there's a part of me that fears my kids will grow up feeling entitled and spoiled and won't appreciate just how lucky they are.
There's a small aquarium near my hometown that I always loved visiting when I was younger, so in an effort to cut down on the needless toys this year I bought the boys an annual pass to the aquarium for their birthday. Going to see the seals and fish was a rare and exciting treat for me as a child, but my own boys have been there so often that the last time we went they raced through the entire exhibit and were back at the door asking for lunch less than an hour later. I want them to experience all of the things I loved growing up and then some, but I don't know how to give them those opportunities without making them feel like life must always be constantly entertaining and full of new surprises.
They're not ordering me to buy them things quite yet, but we are at the point where they ask for a treat each time we go to the grocery store or pout when I won't steer them to the toy aisle at Target. I feel like we're teetering on a balance beam, and if I don't handle the situation very carefully, we could topple over into the land of Veruca Salt — and they'll constantly demand more and more.
I'm working on reminding myself that I didn't need material things to have a happy childhood, and neither do they. I hope as they get older I can explain to them that not everyone is as fortunate as we are and encourage them to donate toys and clothes in an effort to breed understanding and awareness of how the world really works. I'm telling myself that it's better to take the money I would spend on toys and put it into their college funds. And I will... right after I order these adorable Jedi costumes with matching light sabers.
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