I actually did it. For once I followed through on a threat. I’ve battled my children for years — no, decades — over the condition of their bedrooms. When the eldest two were teens, I all but conceded the fight. Their dark, damp rooms devolved into giant petri dishes, emanating mysteriously mingled odors. Clothes covered the floor, and dishes littered every surface; drinking glasses half-full and film-covered, cereal bowls congealed with the remnants of sugary milk, plates smeared with dried-on leftovers. Trash and treasures alike were shoved into nooks or carelessly strewn about, unprotected, revealing a laissez-faire attitude toward expensive teenaged paraphernalia: Game Boys, skateboards, headphones, stacks of loose CDs. The horrific messes frustrated me, but my kids taking everything for granted, that disheartened me. The situation resolved — when they moved out.
I can’t wait that long with the second batch. I’m old and basically one apoplectic fit away from a heart attack. I vowed things would be different and set out with two basic tactics: 1) Stay on top of it; get organized and maintain order, and 2) Teach them to be respectful; expect responsibility and reward compliance.
I organized the play room with color-coded tubs on corresponding shelves. I arranged drawers, cabinets and cubbies. I used LABELS. “A place for everything and everything in its place,” I intoned, and for whole hours at a time their rooms looked like a Pottery Barn catalog — such a sweet sensation! But there was no way I could keep up the relentless policing and cajoling and reinforcing. Even with control issues, I was no match for the destructive force of my children. When I let down, even a little, it all went to hell in a hand basket; the little monsters annihilated my beautifully orchestrated design. Their energy was tornadic — toys, games, books and dolls were flung everywhere. And all those tiny pieces — broken crayons, Barbie shoes, key chains, pennies, paper clips, empty wrappers from Halloween candy and crunched-up chips smuggled in and hidden under the bed. The wreckage sent me into my own tailspin.
Prolonging the inevitable, I’d shut the door and walk away. I did not want to see it. Eventually I’d muster the strength and supervise the restoration of order by the demolition crew themselves. And by “supervise” I mean losing patience with their lackluster, apathetic efforts and cleaning it all up myself as they stood by, repentant and cowed into silence by my ranting.
“Look at all this stuff! It’s too much. Seriously, if you girls cannot change, you are destined to become hoarders. You’ll live alone!”
This cycle has repeated itself ten-thousand times, but the last time was different. I was different. I had enough.
“That’s IT. I am DONE! I’m NEVER doing this again. The next time you leave your things all over your room, they will BE. GONE. I MEAN it. I’ll come in here with GARBAGE bags!”
They didn’t believe me, but it was no idle threat; I followed through. Well, Steven did. My husband seemed to think I’d back-pedal, so he waited until I was at work to do the deed. I came home to 12 heavy-duty black bags sitting in the garage where I park my car. And an empty play room. Epic in scale, their messes flat wore me out, but it was what those messes said about my kids that truly bothered me. It said they don’t appreciate what they have, that they are used to getting what they want; they’ve certainly gotten anything they’ve ever needed. And they don’t value it or the hard work and money it took to purchase their luxuries. As a parent, it’s a hard truth to face: having more than enough has not made them grateful, it’s made them greedy. And I’m to blame.
When we were in high school, my brother, sister and I lived with our single mother in a double-wide trailer. Parked on farmland in southeastern Idaho, we hunkered down for subzero winters and dug ourselves out of snow that began in October and stayed until April. To fight off the brutal cold, we fed a wood stove throughout the night and burrowed into heated waterbeds. My brother and I drove our one car to school after we dropped off our mom at work. Our clothes came from K-Mart, our furniture from thrift stores and when we worked potato harvest, our wages went to the household rather than in our pockets. I got good at pretending I wasn’t hungry on Friday nights at McDonald’s with my friends.
When I became a mother, I wanted my children to have what I didn’t, but in filling that void, maybe I denied them the opportunity to develop something I did have, in spades: a work ethic and sense of responsibility, an appreciation for material things and what it takes to earn them. Gratitude. Perspective. In hindsight, while they were tough, those experiences made me who I am today.
At Christmas, especially, when the anticipation of presents dominate my young daughters’ thoughts, when the reason for the season is buried under retail consumerism and drowned out by advertisements of aisles and aisles of bright, shiny treats, I grapple with how to adjust their attitudes. I long for them to recognize their bounty and share it freely with those in need. At heart, they’re not selfish. Sydney is so sensitive to other people’s feelings and generous. She has literally tried to give people the shirt off her back — or the iPod in her hand. And Haley, who has a special love for little ones, latches on to anything about sick kids. She filled out a donation slip for St. Jude Children’s Hospital and tucked $15 of her own money inside, asking me to mail it for her. My girls are kind and compassionate; they just need a chance to express it. And I need to lead the way.
Where to start? The world is full of hunger and pain and loss — the need so great. What could we do that would make a difference? The answer is simple: Whatever you can give, give. Whatever you can do, do. Mother Teresa said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”
In Columbia, you don’t have to look far to find ways to give. Organizations such as The Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri, Rainbow House, Coyote Hill, True North and Harvest House are among many worthy causes working tirelessly to serve humanity. Technology makes it possible to impact lives globally as well as locally. One mom I know coordinates an annual packing party for Operation Christmas Child, sponsored by Samaritan’s Purse, an international relief organization. This year, I took the girls. On a Friday night, we gathered to fill shoeboxes with school supplies and hygiene items, socks and hats and flashlights. And toys, of course: dolls, trucks and stuffed animals; things that will surely become prized possessions rather than yet another plaything to be taken for granted. Packing the boxes full, Sydney and Haley topped them off with handwritten letters and their school pictures to add a personal touch and sent them winging their way around the world to be received by children who might not have access to clean water or health care, let alone presents on Christmas Day.
By giving their hearts, my girls realized it’s not about the stuff, and in fact, excessive stuff gets in the way. Material things are not what bring us happiness. Connection, service, love: These are the gifts I want to give my daughters, and the knowledge that they can make a difference themselves, right here at home and across the universe.
So far, it’s sticking. Greed is giving way to benevolence. We’ll keep it up, finding opportunities to reach out. It is far better to give than receive, and they know that now.
The bags containing evidence of their overabundance sat in the garage for a few weeks, giving them plenty of time to think and allowing them to discern what they cherish, what they appreciate and what they can let go of. And in the process, they learned how good it feels to have, not too much, but enough.