For our daughter, starting fifth grade came with a lot of new and exciting opportunities. She got to pick her first elective: choir. She gets to start middle school team sports, meaning we no longer have to drag her to practices but we’re finding ourselves traveling all over the Houston area and adding more games to our family’s schedule. The work is more challenging and increasingly fulfilling her desire for more knowledge.
And she got to decorate her locker at the beginning of the year.
While she was definitely looking forward to choir and playing sports with her school friends, she started obsessing over what she was going to do to decorate her locker the moment we returned from our family summer vacation.
I completely understood the excitement. I was moving across the hall into a new classroom and I couldn’t wait to start decorating my own space, again. But my kids have the misfortune of having a teacher mother who has seen all sorts of behavioral patterns from students over the year. After years of watching high school students decorate and then throw away mounds of waste at the end of the year, I wasn’t ready to jump on board with the whole “buy all the things to make the locker pretty” bandwagon.
Our daughter dragged me to Target and picked out her dream decor and I discovered just how much things had changed since I bought my first locker accessories 25 years ago. Did you know that stores now sell beaded curtains to put just inside a locker door so that you have to pull aside beads every time you want to put something in or take something out? Neither did I, until I was forced to look at the expansive display.
I gave her a budget and she realized that she didn’t have nearly enough to buy everything that she wanted because she wanted it all: The magnets, the shelf, the mirror and pencil holder, and the piece de resistance: magnetic wallpaper to stick to the back of the locker.
“Mom, didn’t you decorate your locker when you were my age?”
“Well I didn’t get my first locker until I was in high school, but sure. Of course, I had to pay for all of it.”
“Yep, are you sure you need all of those things?”
“Well everyone else is getting all sorts of stuff to decorate. Their moms are buying everything.”
I slowly talked her away from the $30 magnetic wallpaper when I pointed out that no one was really going to see it and it was not just a waste of money, but a waste of ecological resources. When I asked her where it was going to end up when she was done with it, she sheepishly looked back at me and said, “A landfill.”
Apparently I had appealed to her sense of ecological justice. She could be satisfied with the other items which she could actually find use for.
As parents we want our kids to have everything we can possibly give them. When we can’t afford “all the things” or even “most of the things,” it can be emotionally crushing. We know that our kids are loved and we are doing our best to take care of their every need, but parents also have a strong desire to make sure that our kids have it better than we had it, even if that isn’t feasible. And while this often comes out in the way we sign our kids up for every activity under the sun, we also see this when we walk into our kids’ bedrooms and playrooms.
It doesn’t stop after childhood, either. One of the customs that I found most jarring when we moved from the Midwest to Texas is the tradition of “mums and garters” for Homecoming. My first year here I was shocked by the number of my students who came in with full body-sized monstrosities of school color ribbons and trinkets, a sign of just how much their significant other (or more likely their significant other’s mother) liked them. These mum and garters can cost upwards of $300 dollars and serve as a constant distraction for an entire day as students struggle underneath the extra weight and bulk, often draping them over a spare spot in the classroom for the duration of a period of learning.
A couple years ago the school I teach at decided to suggest our students to forgo the purchase of mums and garters (or at least significantly downsize) and encourage them to donate towards our yearly Costa Rica house building project. While people gladly started donating to the building of a home, this was the first year that I saw a significant decrease in the size and number of mums and garters that were floating around our hallways. It was a refreshing change of pace. There were several who held on tightly to the tradition, but the students almost seemed as relieved as us teachers that they didn’t have to deal with the extra annoyance for an entire school day.
I’m not saying that as parents we need to strip our children of the joy of marking an academic transition or completely ignore social traditions. And it can be really hard to feel like you’re the only one who isn’t caving to the pressure, especially when you remember how much it hurt to feel left out when it was you all those years ago (as is far too often the case for me).
I want better for my kids. I want them to find joy in people and experiences. I want to unburden our family from the clutter that is currently driving me crazy as I walk around our house. I want them to see financial blessings as something they can use to help the less fortunate instead of a way to build up their collection of easily broken and lost toys.
I want to teach my children that people matter more than businesses, that experiences matter more material possessions, that memories matter more than the trinkets that accompany them. I don’t want a desire for stuff to drive our kids’ every thought and decision and it’s admittedly one of my biggest parenting struggles right now: how do I teach them to want less stuff when they live in a world where value is defined by how much stuff they have?
It’s idealistic and I often have to swallow my own desires, reminding myself that I need to be an example for my children and my students. If I want them to change the way they see the material world, I need to watch what and how I buy too.
And maybe writing about it will be enough to hold me accountable too, at least a little bit.