I mentioned in a previous post that I have the best conversations with my son at bedtime. After the lights are turned off and his little brain is unwinding and re-playing and all the thoughts he had in his head during the day, sorting out his questions and observations, we lay in bed together listening to the monotonous noise of the air purifier cleaning the air, and every so often he’ll make a statement or ask a question that provides a little window into his heart. Sometimes his questions make me giggle; other times they make me think.
A while ago he asked me, “Mommy, why do we have so much stuff?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is it because we have lots of money so whenever we want something, we just go buy it?”
“We can’t just go buy everything we want, honey.”
“No. We don’t have money to do that. We have to pick and choose and figure out what we really need.”
He seemed satisfied with my answer, but the conversation bothered me. I don’t know what bugged me more—his assumption or my own inadequate answer to his question.
How many times have I had to deal with a distraught little boy, furious because he couldn’t get a trinket that he said he needed, a comment which I always refute with, “You don’t need it. You want it. There is a difference between those two things.”
I’ve learned so many valuable lessons since becoming a parent, but one of the most important is that my children are a reflection of myself. I see my own habits in their language and behavior. Sometimes it’s flattering. Other times, to be honest, it’s quite the opposite. So when my son asked me his completely innocent question and shared his genuine assumption, when I sat down to think about it, I couldn’t help but to see all the ways my own behavior guided him to his theory.
When we left Korea we gave away a lot of things. A lot. And yet, we had movers come and pack up 109 boxes of things we needed to take with us. We went almost four months without the contents of those boxes. It begs the question—how much did we really need the items inside?
I remember shopping in the store when I was little and understanding that I was not able to get whatever I wanted. I understood that the only time we got new toys was during Christmas. I remember doing odd jobs around the house for a quarter each and working together with my sister, pooling our money to buy a Barbie doll that we both wanted.
But now, I tote my children to beautiful beaches in Guam and find myself infuriated when my son would rather go back to the hotel and play with my iPad. I want to grab him by the shoulders and tell him, “Don’t you realize I used to dream about seeing things like this?” I give them swimming and soccer lessons because I want them to have opportunities that I never had. I buy them things that they don’t even ask for, but then expect them to recognize it’s a privilege to get them.
I want to offer them all the opportunities I can, but at the same time, I want them to learn how to go without and to learn the value of a struggle to achieve a goal. It’s a paradox that I haven’t figured out how to balance yet—how do you teach children to deal with disappointment when you so badly want to protect them from pain?
Perhaps the most important question I asked myself after our conversation is whether or not he is learning what we really do need in life. My family doesn’t worry about where our next meal will come from or whether we have a roof over our heads. But does my son understand that not everyone has the luxury of not worrying about these things? Does he understand that what makes us happy in life isn’t our excess of material possessions—all the stuff we gather and then store and then haul from house to house (or in my case from country to country).
When we left Korea, we packed up our home in 109 boxes, but the ten years of life we had there wasn’t in the boxes. The boxes said nothing of the joy we have in Christ. The boxes couldn’t hold the friendships and service we left behind. I went to Korea as a single person and was leaving with a husband I love more than words can describe and two children that continually help me to understand the vast capabilities of human emotion and devotion. What I most treasured was all the stuff that couldn’t be packed into boxes.
But how can I teach that to my children? How do I know they are getting it when receiving the boxes from our shipment and finding their toys again conjured more emotion, excitement, and gratitude than any boxes that can be put together for needy children at Christmas?
When kids never learn to go without material wealth, can they learn the most important lesson—that in the end, it’s not our stuff that matters. It’s love and health and friends and service and everything that can’t be packed into boxes. When we lack in those things, that’s when we really are deprived.