Thursday, December 20, 2007

Material Girl

This past summer we were over at a friend’s house for a play date. We were supposed to be swimming in their backyard pool, but the sky broke apart and rain started pouring down (that’s the last hard rain I remember) before we even had a chance to put on our swimsuits.

To assuage Madeline and her playmate’s disappointment, we let them play in the rain. My friend and I stood in the garage, both with babies in our arms, watching our little girls squeal with absolute joy as they ran through sheets of rain while taking turns holding a pink, Hello Kitty umbrella.

Later that night, Madeline announced during dinner, “Mommy, I want an ‘umbella.’”

Out of all the flashy toys her friend possessed, what Madeline coveted most was a simple kids’ umbrella. I smiled. So my efforts to keep Madeline from turning into a materialistic, “I want an oompa loompa now, Daddy!” child were paying off. Clearly, our no-cable-television-only-educational DVDs-household was well worth it. My Madeline appeared to be impervious to the mass commercialism that started taking a hold of most kids her age. She hadn’t been lured by Barbie’s plastic curves or Disney’s infusion of princesses. Simple pleasures like dancing in the rain with an umbrella still ruled in her life.

Oh, how my mommy pride was swelling.

But one hard lesson I’ve learned in motherhood is to never, ever get too smug. Just when you start to brag, just a little bit, about how Junior started walking at 9 months and everyone is starting to agree that your child is obviously gifted and will surely be reading Tolstoy by age 4 is when your whiz kid shoves his finger up his nose while grinning stupidly. Say your kid’s never thrown a tantrum and she’ll violently hurl herself to the ground and start screaming because you cut her sandwich in quarters when she wanted it halved.

This is the law. Don’t ever question it because your kids will humiliate you. (The only time it’s safe to get self-righteous or to prattle on about your uber kid is in the company of grandparents.)

For weeks, Madeline talked about that “umbella” and when I didn’t immediately go out and buy her one (something I refuse to do when she wants something), she decided to ask Santa for one. More obnoxious mommy pride.

So imagine my dismay when I asked Madeline what she wanted for Christmas one day and she said, “An easel and a dollhouse.”

“What about the umbrella?” I asked, stunned. (Rumor has it Santa already picked out the perfect umbrella for our little girl.)

“Mmmmm… I don’t want an ‘umbella’ anymore.”

Well, a dollhouse and easel aren’t too outrageous. It’s not like she was asking Jolly Old Saint Nick for a plasma television or a diamond tiara. I could deal with this development, but my heart really sank when I returned home with a surprise that left something to be desired in my little girl.

“I have a special treat for you,” I said, showing Madeline a bobbing helium balloon.

“Oh! Thank you!”

She smiled and took the balloon, but then she asked, “Something else, too?”

What? My not-even-3-year-old was no longer happy with just a balloon?

Baby Rae certainly was. She started smiling watching the silvery Mylar globe dance around the room and giggled when I tugged at the blue string and made it gently pop her on the nose. Madeline, meanwhile, was scribbling away in a coloring book.

The balloon was completely forgotten by the next day and had already lost most of its helium. I watched it slowly drift along, looking sad and forlorn, and I felt like my hopes for raising an unspoiled child were just as deflated.

But then I remembered something my mom always used to say. “Things don’t spoil kids. People do.”

I played with Barbies. I grew up watching TV and seeing all those toy commercials. I remember flipping through the Sears catalogue each holiday season and being bedazzled by all of the playthings on its glossy pages. I even got my very own horse when I was 10. But I wasn’t a spoiled brat. My parents taught me there was nothing inherently wrong in having or wanting things, so long as you appreciated what you had and never became too attached to material goods.

Dave and I do the same. We’re very careful and deliberate about the messages we send to our children about what’s important in life – God, family, friends, singing and dancing in the rain – and what’s not – things, things and more things. Still, I can’t expect my children to never hanker after the latest and greatest toy, to not be lured by the magic of Disney, or to occasionally hope that Mommy shows up with something a little more exciting than a balloon (actually, it was later revealed that she took the phrase “special treat” quite literally and was hoping for some candy; Madeline covets chocolate above all toys - even umbrellas). What I can expect of them is to show gratitude and a willingness to share their blessings.

And while Madeline may be hoping Santa brings more than an umbrella, she’s no material girl. In fact, she’s started collecting change in her piggy bank and hasn’t any plans to make a personal purchase.

“What are you going to do with your money?” I asked her the first time we gave her a nickel to put in the bank.

“Give it to God,” she said, quickly adding, “Then go to the Dollar Store and get a gift for Baby Rae and Daddy.”

This time, maybe just maybe, all that mommy pride was justified.

*Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Metro Augusta Parent.

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