Fighting the System vs. Embracing What Is

Yesterday was my daughter’s birthday. A whole big FOUR. And she had a perfect 4yo’s birthday, everything she might have thought to want– balloons, streamers, bear cake with chocolate coconut ‘fur,’ all her best friends, and her favorite party dress.

Oh yeah, and lots and lots of presents. And lots. On and on, all day long. More and more presents.

Are holidays just cursed for me now? I used to love Christmas and birthdays before I had kids. They meant special rituals, glittery lights, people I loved, decadent food. Now they both mean stuff, loads if it. Mostly cheap plastic stuff from China.

I have old fashioned values about stuff. Like, maybe depression-era values. I think a kid should get one or two, maybe three presents. That sounds like plenty to me. Anything else turns their eyes into jelly doughnuts. Kids need fresh air, space to play, raw materials and household objects to imagine into games. Toys get played with surprisingly little, in the full scheme of things. In the meantime, the many pieces and parts get scattered helter-skelter and quickly become just something that needs picked up.

Not to mention the global oppression necessary to supply first-world toy stores with all that bargain priced junk.

I’ve written about this before, and although ranting is good, that’s not what I had in mind today. The thing is, when there is heaps of presents, at any holiday, I get extremely uncomfortable. I have to keep swallowing and swallowing. I mean really, it just about ruins the day for me.

Which seems like a big waste of my time, at best, and the beginnings of a complex in my kids, at worst.

I have lately been pecking away at the book Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves by Naomi Aldort. I find her arrogance almost insufferable, but there is some very good stuff in amongst the bullshit, so I’m trying to keep at it. One of the things that struck me recently was a passage about community. She was refuting the apparently commonly (?) held belief that a close community, like a tribe, is better for kids. She basically said things are just different now. No point romanticizing the past. Let’s embrace the present as it is. Instead of mourning what we lost, let’s appreciate what the present has to offer, the unique benefits of a nuclear family.

This hit on something I’ve been stewing over lately, so I was intrigued. I don’t know if she’s right particularly about the community issue, but what struck me was the overall concept of embracing and appreciating what is, rather than fighting for what isn’t.

I have a renegade nature, I like to fight against what is. The world needs renegades for certain. But I’m a lazy renegade, or at the very least, extremely distracted. I’m not really going to put the effort into serious revolution. Instead I just spend a lot of time obsessively railing against the Way Things Are.

I know it’s good and important to fight for what you believe to be true, but at what point had you better knock it off and just relax into what actually is?

Am I just going to keep hating computers, and using them, and hating them, and using them and hating myself for using them forever? I mean, looks like these suckers are gonna be around for awhile. And more importantly, what about my kids? Looks like computers will be the foundation for their world. Should I raise them for that world, or the one I really, really wish would exist?

Should I just keep hating presents, alienatating myself from the people I love and slowly poisoning my holidays? Or should I accept graciously the reality of the situation and share their joy and excitement at all the fun new toys?

I want to share their joy. I want to show them how to live up to your values. I want them to be unencumbered by guilt and shame. I want it all. But it seems to come down to an either/or. Fight vs. Embrace.

I guess this brings me right back to that old dog, submission, and the perennial Alcoholics Anonymous prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”

But even then, there’s only two admitted possibilities. Either you can or cannot change something. I think what plagues me most are the myriad gray tones. If my angsty holidays could change working conditions in China, I’m pretty sure I could live with the fight. Instead, for all my internal turmoil, all of my stern emails to grandparents and moralistically shaming My Man, I might save one or two toys. Keep them on the shelves for someone else to ply their child with…. Stupidly, more than actually effectively helping the world, I am just making the people I love feel bad.

I don’t have any answers. Just a big, fat, crucially important question. Which I suppose must be asked by each individual person, in each individual family and each individual situation.

How do you ask it?


16 thoughts on “Fighting the System vs. Embracing What Is

  1. thanks for bringing up these issues. i have no idea of the answers – but i want to ask: do we HAVE to raise our children in a world in which computers are the foundation, when we know that that may not be healthy for them? will they really be so impaired if they don’t know how to do online banking or use a smartphone? is it true that they won’t be able to get human-to-human banking anymore? i am really struggling with this as a teacher. how do i teach my students? has our whole way of learning got to change? or is it okay to want them to have the joy and discipline of reading a novel printed on paper?

  2. interesting post. i definitely agree with your perspective (about the waste of the plasticky stuff, about the ethics, about the benefits of kids making their own toys and games, etc.) but i also hear your dilemma about not wanting to make people feel bad. no solution comes to mind…except maybe enjoying the day, and then a few days later when the novelty’s worn off gathering all of the detritus into a big bag and making a trip to the sally. ’cause you sure as hell shouldn’t be responsible for taking care of it all!

  3. Sometimes I look around at the people I admire, and wonder how *they* do it. What lines are they walking? It helps me to realize what my priorities must secretly be when I find myself idolizing someone who isn’t worried a fig about what eats at me. I try to figure out what they are worried about, and therefore, what they spend time doing.
    I realized when I was 16 that what we do at each moment is actually what we most want to do at that moment. Really. Remembering that still gives me perspective. When I’m not in the middle of a funk, of course.
    And every once in a while, I find that when I embrace what is (that I didn’t want), or – ok, I’m not an embracer, but I can sometimes *let go* of what isn’t (that I did want), anyway, when I can do that- it turns out that what is and what I wanted slowly merge. Do I change? Do circumstances? Does it matter? I dunno, but it generally doesn’t happen quickly either way. Like years. But it’s worth it.

  4. I guess for me in the end it comes down to that old adage ‘pick your battles’, especially as I am, like you, a Distracted Renegade. If you know a lot of junk is coming in at birthdays, skip the 3 things rule and just get one lovely, cherishable thing. Your children will recognise the difference and your values will be clear and no doubt shared by them in time. Once your children are a little older, with their permission, you might even like to let people know that gifts are appreciated but not needed and so are given to a local charity by the children.

    On a different note, embrace the computer. It is our friend. x

  5. Oh CJ, I wish I knew the answer. The fella’s family just about worship at the alter of the $2 aisle at Kmart, bringing all the kinda crap that’ll last all of 3 minutes. I just don’t get it. Why would you buy 5 things worth $2 each? Why not pile all your cash together, if you really must give a gift, and buy something the kid will love and that they could potentially have for years to come? And then my friend’s friend did the best thing ever.
    She wrote a note with her son’s party invites that had a picture of the garbage swirl in the ocean, and her note just said something like ‘my kid wants just one thing, and he’d like $5 at the most from each guest to buy it’ and she wrote what it was (won’t say the brand, but it’s blocks, and they last forever). Each person that came actually did it! He got about $50 or so to go and get that one thing he really wanted. And I just thought that was magic!

  6. When my 1st son was small, I asked all our family to please give “old fashioned” toys, preferably wood or metal, and no batteries. Both my family and my husbands family were so thoughtfully receptive to the idea of toys like they used to play with. My son is now almost 9,and over the years we have had a bit of those pesky plastic bits creep in through the cracks.I have a perpetual problem of folks wanting to give me second hand stuff which I appreciate, but I can’t always use it, and then I am obligated to find a new home for it, which is not as easy as it sounds(our sals and good will are perpetually “not accepting donations”)
    Also the big GUN ISSUE. I mean how can you give a child the freedom to work out their world through play and not give them hassle about wanting to play with toy guns, while being very uncomfortable with gun play. My parents hunted. I like “free range” venison and I have thought about toy rifles, but I have a hard time looking at my sweet boy and watch him turn into a gun wielding killer. Because that’s what guns are all about, Death.
    I think Many people are attracted to the power of this, even kids, especially kids.I see no good answer to the stuff issue, the gun issue, or myriad other issues that we as thoughtful people come up against except to raise our little babes in a community of kind, thoughtful people, because in the end that’s what matters most.Our kids will find their own way with their own values, and they don’t need us modeling bigoted behavior, even if we are right.

  7. I am currently going throught the exact same thought processes with my daughters 6th birthday coming up (been meaning to blog about it but no time at the moment!). This year we are trying ‘presents are not necessary, but she is getting a craft box, and would love some craft gear to go in it please” on invites, plus same said to Grandma’s. I think it is going to backfire… so far, one Grandma bought a whole craft box, filled with junky craft stuff. The other bought a heap of craft stuff, again mostly plasticky. They both bought clothes & extras on top of that too. *sigh* I know, it’s a Grandma’s preogerative to spoil their grandkids & it makes them happy… but we are so sick of the ‘junk’ and ‘crap’ in our house, mostly given to us by other people. But can we also expect them to stick to say, ‘wooden, second hand or handmade only’ limits, when we don’t always stick to those guidelines ourselves? We can put limits like that for ourselves, but what if others impose their own limits, “Only highly packaged, plastic, made in some-poor-country, battery requiring, disposable gifts for our child please”!!

    I know my children are so lucky in this life, and I try to help them realise that, that there are many around the world who will never have the opportunities, resources and ‘things’ that they have…whilst maintaining a magical childhood for them too. As always it’s about finding the balance, so I’d better get back to finishing the hand sewn felt ‘picnic’ foods I am making & line the little basket we just bought at the op shop!

  8. Hmmm… more guilt. When my 4 yo little fairy ‘won’ a plastic barbie type doll at the local fair she looks at me and said, (with a pleased look of YIPPEE in her eyes) “I won it so I can play with it and then throw it away. We don’t like plastic dolls do we Mummy?”. How I stared dagers at this big busted, goggle eyed peice of cultural horror. My heart ached for the dolls I had made for her, each stitch filled with love… But how much more it ached to see how I had loaded her with guilt that she should like such a toy.

    Answers, none. Appreciation to read that I am in grand company, immeasurable. On reflection, perhaps it’s enough to know that our munchkins are, to a large extent, protected from the norm of excess. And surely the examples we set, both in our striving and in our falling, will stand them in good stead when the choice becomes thiers?

    Here’s hoping!

  9. I love this conversation. My kids are now 29 and 31. Fully launched wonderful humans. There may be no right answers but Jane, it IS important that you ask these questions.

    Guns, barbies, TV, we wrestled with these issues. As for gifts.. I like the idea presented in Kylie’s comment!

    As to guns…My son was so obsessed with guns…(of course we swore to never give him one.)…while still in his high chair he chewed his toast into the shape of a gun…(!)…yet the more we held our ground, the more energized the issue became. By preschool age we realized he was picking his freinds solely on the basis of wheteher or not there were toy guns available at the kids house! We relented and bought Star Wars style guns that bore little resemblance to real guns.

    Again there are no answers, but I believe that your kids will learn to question and to look at issues openly (or dogmatically) as they experience your struggles. Just shower them with love, as it is clear all of you are doing…

  10. Very interesting post and very honest. There are no easy answers to any of it. Of the top of my head I can think of a few things I would like to comment on. Firstly why does there have to be a right and wrong for a computer. Why can’t a child learn to use a computer with ease but still b excouraged and expected to actually pick up a book and read the written word each day. That is just one example of balance. Just balance things out. equal or greater time of the computer – not having every electronic gadget there is on offer – balance. If you ask others not to buy presents and they do then just let it go. You just go about doing what you do. As for mountains of gifts. It is only one day a year – maybe two if you count christmas. Encourage the child to look after and appreciate how it is made. Maybe research together exactly how the toy is made and where. They can still enjoy the present, understand where it came from, look after it, recycle it when they no longer use it and gift to someone else. Cheers Wendy

  11. “I have lately been pecking away at the book Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves by Naomi Aldort. I find her arrogance almost insufferable, but there is some very good stuff in amongst the bullshit…”

    Are you aware that Aldort has disclaimed her Ph.D.

    There is a discussion regarding this action at the Amazon page for the book Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves:

  12. I’ve been to bday parties where in leiu of a personal gift, kids are asked to make a donation to the birthday child’s favorite charity. Even 4 or 5 yr olds can get this concept. You can set up a big box decorated by your bday child for all of the donation money to the charity. Kids drop there “gift” there when they enter the party. Wha-la problem beautifully solved. Animal shelters are a big fav. It’s something we now embrace for the birthdays of our girls. The birthday child winds up getting a few gifts and everyone feels great about helping the animals :)

  13. Another awesome post! I mostly have this problem only with my father-in-law. Like someone else said, I can’t fathom why he would rather buy them half a dozen (or more) cheap crappy items, instead of one good one that will last.

    For birthday parties, we avoid getting a zillion crappy presents from their friends by inviting the whole class to an after school play at a local playground, and advertising it as ‘not a party’ we say BIO afternoon tea, we’ll have a birthday cake, and only bring a present if your child is a particularly close friend and wants to bring one. We usually end up with two or three.

    But the FIL! not content with buying them half a dozen cheap plastic badly made Christmas and birthday presents, he buys them stuff on and off throughout the year. Im talking every other weekend some of them time. Why this drives me nuts is because it has created such a sense if entitlement – you take me out, you buy me something. Also, it means I feel like I can never buy them things, because they already have/get too much. Ditto with the donuts or cakes he insists on bringing over every weekend (and nit just one each either).

    Anyway, sorry to rave on (this comment has been written in bits and pieces on my phone over the course of several hours, hopefully it is coherent!). It’s something that has been bothering me more than usual lately.

  14. I meant to say, we have tolerated it largely in the name of not alienating him (which id eady yo do), and allowing him to build a strong relationship with the kids in his own way (which he has done) which is good for them, and probably even better for him. But I am wondering lately if we should have been firmer earlier.

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