I'm sad," The Boy says to me, pulling the corners of his mouth down as far as he can in a failed effort to be more convincing in his theatrical sorrow. I am always willing to play along.
"Oh, no, buddy, that's terrible," I say with mock concern, putting down my book and hoisting him onto my lap. "What's making you sad?"
He sighs mightily, gives me a pitiful look and holds out his palms to the sky. "I'm sad yat I don't have a bigger pile of toys besides the big pile of toys yat I already have." This is a direct quote, and it is not the first time he has issued this complaint. I am, it seems, the proud parent of a conspicuous consumer.
The Boy loves to shop. It is his favorite pastime. In fact, one of the very first times he ever put a string of words together into a rudimentary sentence was to say, haltingly and with great effort, "Go … Target … choose … toy." We were so thrilled at his mastery of the English language that we raced out of the house and drove him immediately to Target, where he selected a green race car from the dollar section. Thus began a love affair that has lasted years, filled our house with junk and drained our bank account. And we have no one to blame but ourselves.
One of the reasons that the problem has gotten so out of hand is that my husband is a big kid himself. If he can convince himself that The Boy really wants, say, a semiautomatic Nerf rifle, or a third laser-tag set, or another Star Wars Lego spaceship, then by virtue of communal property, he also gets a new Nerf rifle, laser-tag set and Lego spaceship. Because, you know, The Boy can't play with that stuff alone!
This does mean a lot more stuff finds its way into the playroom than I'd like sometimes, but when I see the two of them dodging Nerf bullets and giggling hysterically, I can hardly get angry. Especially with so many no-fun dads out there in the world. So he spends a little more on toys than a lot of dads — he plays with toys more than a lot of dads, too. And what more could a little boy want than a dad who loves to play with toys?
The thing is, they could have fun with or without toys. I have watched them fill an entire afternoon with a card table and a blanket. It's a fort! It's a spaceship! It's a submarine! Without a single toy in the room at all, they will wrestle, and make up stories, and shoot each other with imaginary lightning bolts from around the corner of the couch. So all of the random action figures, plastic vehicles and projectiles are really just gravy. Expensive, nonbiodegradable, clutter-inducing gravy. And we are swimming in it.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not aiming for the earth mama ideal of toys made only from natural materials, procured through the barter system or anything like that. I live in the real world. Motherhood eventually does that to you. Go back and look at his baby toys — wooden blocks, cotton dolls, wooden stackers and cars and rattles — I was pretty hard-core for the first couple of months. But you get tired, or I did, anyway, and you stop saying no. You let in one plastic toy that really makes his eyes light up. Then another, and another — and the next thing you know, your family room looks like a DuPont testing lab.
I know I sound like a Scrooge, but I am really not against toys, or buying things in general. I personally enjoy buying stuff myself. But there comes a point where you have to ask if you (or your kid) are buying an item because you want it or because you just want to buy something. Anything. One sure way to tell the difference? If the item is stuck in the Target bag along with the paper towels, dish soap, crackers and granola bars, and by the time you get home it has been completely forgotten and proceeds to languish on the kitchen counter without being inquired after until little consumer is reminded of his purchase? That, my friends, was a thrill-of-the-buy purchase. Bought for the sheer joy of buying something. And it's a hard habit to break.
We are working hard to mend our ways. It has not been without tears. In the end, though, I hope it leads to a tidier house, a richer purse and a little boy who has learned how to be happy with the big pile of toys "yat" he already has. Which I am sneakily making smaller every time he takes a nap, but that's a story for another day.