With the close of the gift-giving season I am thinking a lot about what gifts mean to our 2 ½ year old son. I remember my childhood being enriched by a few really well-designed toys that I played with for years. With these toys, I formed deep imaginative relationships which provided outlets for me to explore my world. Seeing the high volume of toys in other people’s houses, I noticed that children often don’t feel bonded with any particular toy. I see kids playing with one toy for a few minutes and then casting it off to play with another toy and another and another. They seem overwhelmed by all of their toys and not at all connected with them. I can’t help but wonder if giving kids a huge amount of toys overwhelms them while also teaching them an early form of materialism or, at the very least, diminishes the impact of imaginative play.
Because of this, I have tried hard to limit the amount of toys my son receives as gifts. At first, when he was a baby, I tried to limit the toys to ones not made out of plastic and that do not require batteries. I was also really worried about toys from China and phthalates, BPA, etc. That proved hard. It felt awkward to restrict people’s ways of expressing their joy through presents and of course, there was always the unexpected gift that I was never prepared for. I eventually just gave up. After all, people were just expressing wanting our child to have something that would nurture and delight him.
Matt and I have it pretty great. Our families are pretty reasonable and don’t give obscene amounts of gifts. But still, there is this burning drive for some to give something -anything in some cases. And then there is the insane amount of advertising that gives one lots of ideas of how to spend one’s money -particularly on children. As a consequence, some of the gifts do not have lasting value. Having a small house and being at a point in our lives where we are trying to just have what we really need and value, it is hard not to feel like some of these gifts just end up as clutter to manage. As it is, we struggle -like many do- to maintain order to all the stuff we have. We are trying to question what it is that a person really needs to have an enjoyable, meaningful and fulfilling life. And although we have made progress, it seems like having a child is the backdoor of getting more and more stuff that clutters and distracts us from our values.
As I read about ReSkilling, I have been thinking about what I want for our son and what I want for him is not necessarily a lot of toys or things. Sure, I love Brio and love what it teaches him, I love all the jigsaw puzzles he is playing and how it helps his reasoning skills, I love seeing him hug and cuddle with plush animal toys. But what gifts can I give him now that will have enduring value throughout his life? What are gifts, in other words, skills or talents, that he can draw upon when times are challenging?
ReSkilling is all about giving ourselves the knowledge that used to be taken for granted by our grandparents. Learning about growing and canning vegetables and fruits, root cellaring, home repair, sewing and mending, knitting, bicycle repair . . . the lists go on. Why have these skills, you might ask, when you can just buy food at the grocery store or hire someone to repair your leaking roof? The future is uncertain. People in Europe are taking 40% pay cuts. With our unstable economy, can we really be so sure that we won’t ever face similar hardships? With global warming fueling superstorms like Sandy, can we be sure that we can hire a crew to repair our house when a fallen branch takes out a window? As more and more news stories of widespread food-born illness outbreaks are reported, are we going to want to depend entirely on the industrial food system? These are the challenges facing our children. Do they (and do we) have the skills to navigate this new world?
There is an excellent blog post about how the UnSkilling of our society is a huge (unintentional) injustice to our children. A few years ago, we hired the junior class during their fundraiser to rake our 1 ¼ acre yard while we cared for our baby and were astonished to observe that they had no idea how to rake! I had never seen anything like it before. They randomly and absentmindedly raked, making little progress, taking hours to accomplish what should have taken a half hour. My husband went outside and offered a tarp and strategies for getting the job done. But still, they floundered. They just really did not know get how to get it done. Some of the kids I had as students (I am an art teacher at AHS) so I asked them about it and they said that they never had to rake before. -Their parents just hired a crew. This might seem like something that is to be envied -I could have skipped the monumental amount of raking I had to do growing up!- but it is not just about the raking. It is about how we no longer know how to do many of the things that used to be a part of everyday life and the fact that many of us have so little time. Many of us are working such long hours that we don’t have the time to use or learn these skills or even to teach them to our children. Our jobs are taking more and more of our time, leaving little left over for taking care of our household and other business. We used to be a Producer/Consumer economy -we produced some of the things we needed and bought or traded for the rest. Now we are simply a Consumer economy and the only way to get by is to make more and more money so that you can afford to get all the things done that you don’t have time or skills to get done yourself.
At some point we might not be able to hire a crew anymore. And then what? Those teenagers will be clueless as to how to live in this world where we all do our jobs and pay for everything we need. So that brings me back to where I started; gifts. What gifts can I give our son that will help him be a capable individual? What can I give him that will help him be a creator and not just a consumer? What experiences and tools should I provide for him to learn what inner qualities he has that can help him forge ahead? What should I be doing myself to be a strong role model for him for the future he will inherit? What is the clutter in my life -material or otherwise- that distracts us from our goals?
This past Christmas, with these things in mind, I made our son two gifts. The first was a puppet blanket. This is an idea I have had since college that I have always wanted to do. I cut holes in a blanket, sewed bias tape to the rough edge, attached a puppet to each hole and was sure to sew them on neatly and securely for many years of play. The other gift was a “digital” clock. I made digital numbers on wheels and put them on an axle inside a box with a window cut out for the time, allowing our son to play around with the numbers and notice the sequence. Both gifts were a huge hit! The puppet blanket I actually worked on in front of him and I would tell him, “I am making you a present!” He loved the sound of that, without really understanding what that meant. He played happily while I sewed. When I gave him the gift he knew it was one I made with my own hands. At school, he is learning sewing (yarn and needle going through holes in paper) and we tell him that someday he can make his own puppet that we will add to the puppet blanket. We cuddle up with him on the couch with the puppet blanket over us and we play with the puppets, creating simple story lines that are a part of his everyday life which absolutely delight and thrill him! He proudly and frequently requests we play together using the puppet blanket.
The “digital” clock intrigued and fascinated him. I got the idea to do the clock because each morning he will wake up and talk really loudly and we will tell him to wait until the “5” turns into a “6” and to go back to sleep. He has been really invested in understanding how that works and so the “digital” clock I made him ended up meeting him right where his interests are. I probably could have found a play digital clock somewhere but making it myself accomplished many more of my objectives. First, I am an artist and designer. I want to use my skills to tailor-make toys and teaching aides to engage him, using his learning style and his interests. Second, making gifts for him maintains a thoughtful , dynamic connection between us. I treasure that! Third, I want to limit his exposure to plastic and other harmful materials commonly found in kids’ toys. Fourth, I want to model for him that making and creating is the norm and that he is totally capable of being a creator, himself. Finally, I want him to recognize that there is meaning and value in making something yourself. There is a story behind it, there is thought and love. He plays with stuffed animals that my grandmother made me many years ago. The fact that we kept them all those years to give to him says a lot. And although my grandmother is no longer alive, he sees her photo and knows that she is the one that made him the big panda he loves so much. Few kids his age have or are aware of a connection to a great grandmother that they have never met.
In a few months, my husband and I hope to break ground on a greenhouse that we have been dreaming about for years. While we are hiring a general contractor to coordinate much of the work, we plan on doing a large portion of it ourselves. At first it seemed to be too much to take on and we just wanted to hire people to take care of it all. But, as we learn about extraordinarily expensive construction, we now are taking a hard look at the details, our assumptions and our values. While thinking about ReSkilling and raising our son, I realize that we will all get so much more out of the project if we are involved, taking ownership of the parts that we are capable of doing (and forcing ourselves to learn some things we don’t know just yet). In this process of realizing our potential, I feel a paradigm shift within me. The consumer part of me that was too intimidated and too busy to take on parts of the construction project is now stepping aside to let the empowered, critically-thinking, full-of-possibility woman take charge. Our son will see us not passively watching a construction project unfold but instead see us taking part in its creation. Later, when the greenhouse is done and full of fruiting plants and trees, we’ll teach him to be an active part in the care and maintenance of the greenhouse and all its denizens. It will be a living classroom that will enliven the teaching he will someday receive in the Ashland Public Schools.
As the consumer model that we have been stuck with for so long becomes harder and harder to maintain, we will all have to learn how to do more for ourselves and for each other. This is not necessarily a thing to dread! It is an opportunity for each of us to find our hidden potential and to feel capable and part of our world in a way we never have before. We will learn from each other and discover new talents and develop new skills. It is important that as we do this that our children and the youth of the town are every bit a part of this process. What skills could we all learn that can contribute to the health, well-being and quality of life in town? What skills are not only useful and practical but the process of learning them transforms something in ourselves? And what can we nurture in each other? My son has many aunts, uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers who all want to be a part of his life. What gifts (talents/skills) do they have that we can encourage them to share with our son? What profound connections will form between them as a result?