Real Family Values
A few years back, my colleagues and I shared an offsite holiday potluck lunch and departmental meeting. The newest member of our team offered his home as our gathering spot. In addition to his work with us, he designed sustainable houses, his own among them, and he was as eager to show it off as we were to see it.
Clearly, our first order of business was to tour his lovely home. The last room we visited belonged to his pre-school-aged son. One of our group, the mother of a child just three years older, slowly looked around the room. She seemed puzzled, maybe even troubled.
We discovered the source of her distress when she said, “Where are his toys? Doesn’t he have any toys?” Indeed, the room was almost spartan. It held a few books, a clothes chest, and a junior bed complete with a large, lime-green, leaf shaped canopy that seemed to turn the bed into a sort of cocoon. Her entire house, on the other hand, was overflowing with toys from gift-happy aunts, uncles, and grandparents.
Our host explained that their previous home had been cluttered with both toys and other belongings. When they moved, they made a conscious decision to rid themselves of as many “things” as possible. With an impressionable young child to raise, they wanted to model a new ethic—one of simplicity, one of sustainability, one where experiential activities trumped sedentary ones. No more television, no more oversized, nonbiodegradable toys to trip over and litter the place. Instead, they had chosen to live a life where doing replaced being.
Not long after that day, my colleague told me that as the weekend neared, his little boy had come to him and eagerly asked, “What adventure are we going on Saturday, Daddy?” That’s the way he saw his life. It’s the way his parents had presented it: a life of adventure. He knew he could look forward to one every weekend.
Their adventures consisted of simple things—watching the university’s new wind turbine go up, checking out a crane at work during the construction of a classroom building, ambling through a street festival, spending a morning at a you-pick blueberry farm.
Over the years I’ve watched this family with appreciation and admiration. In the early years, I was privy to tales of weekend activities as soon as they’d occurred. In fact, I’d encountered the boy and his mother even before the father came to work with us. The Gnome and I were on a walking trail and she was with another mother, their children in tow. The son was only two at the time, but he was on a balance bike, a two-wheeled pedal-less bicycle. He was getting started early.
Now from afar, I usually get my accounts via social media. There were pizza-making sleepovers. There were kid-friendly street festivals. As the boy grew, so did the adventures. Snowy days meant not only sledding and snowball fights, but igloo building. The family built mini-bike trails on the back of their property for the boy to ride. They put in a kid-size zip line. They went backpacking. They engaged in cosplay—Halloween’s an adventure extraordinaire.
When the boy was old enough, he joined the Cub Scouts—they’re all about adventure. It wasn’t long before Dad became the group’s leader.
The boy is ten now. These days father and son can be found mountain biking. Mom joins in on scouting activities and weekend camping trips. They visit state and national parks. They go to the beach where they build complex castles and bury each other in the sand. They fly kites. They canoe. Evenings at home may find the three of them playing strategy games with friends.
It’s kind of funny when you think about it. This family is doing something revolutionary in the world of giant, expensive (though often cheaply made and short-lived) toys and games: they’ve gone old school. They’re doing it the way their grandparents and great-grandparents did it—making do with what they have, turning everyday things into exciting experiences. Finding fun in simple things. In the process, they’re teaching values, building a rich childhood, creating a close-knit family life.
And the thing is, it isn’t hard; it doesn’t have to take money. It may take a little imagination. It may take a few hard discussions with the grown-ups, mostly grandparents, who want to shower the kiddies with love via tangible gifts. It certainly takes time. But isn’t it worth it?