In swift succession our family had enjoyed three birthdays, Chanukah, and an anniversary. Amidst the wonderful celebration of good times, somehow the inevitable flow of gifts had taken on a life of its own. Gifts began to appear on a nearly weekly basis – from tchotchkes to serious (read: expensive) toys. And a funny thing began to happen. While in the past, they had received presents eagerly and excitedly, more recently our kids had been reacting in less-pleasant ways. It wasn't just becoming "old hat," it was becoming almost disappointing.
Upon opening a recent present, my daughter began to sulk. "Why did they get me this?" she asked disdainfully, fingering a toy I would have killed for when I was a child.
"Sweetheart," I explained to her, "Even if you don't get what you want, you still need to thank the person who gave it to you. It makes them feel bad when you say you don't like their gift."
Even as she shook her head at my attempt to console her, I realized that the frown was only a symptom of a greater problem. Where had the excitement and pleasure of past gifts gone? Why were the presents piling up in little-used mounds, gathering dust? Why were my children's faces glum after the pretty paper was peeled away?
Looking at all the toys strewn across the living room floor, my husband and I pieced together the simple truth: when you have too much, it just isn't enough.
It's not a revelation. We're taught this golden wisdom by our Sages, who say in Ethics of the Fathers, "Who is the wealthy person? The one who is happy with what he has." They also hit it on the nail when they said "He who has one hundred [dollars] will want two hundred." Why will we want two hundred dollars after we acquire one hundred? Because inherent in materialism is its elusiveness.
King Solomon, who enjoyed the ultimate in wealth and material possessions states point-blank in the book of Koheles (Ecclesiastes): "Everything is vanity." The Hebrew word for "vanity" is hevel. There is another meaning to the word hevel, one which reveals the very essence of all things physical. Hevel is breath, the vapor that comes out of our mouths when we breathe out. You can see it on a freezing winter day, when you let out a deep, warm breath – for an instant, it billows from your mouth like a puff of smoke, but the next instant it's gone. That's the way materialism is: now you see it, now you don't. Now you feel satisfied, now you don't. The more we have, the more we want. The more we get, the more our expectations are piqued.
It's a double-edged sword because, as our Sages say, the more we get, the needier we become. Hence my daughter's droopy face when she unwrapped her latest gift.
As I slowly worked my way through this revelation, I felt a jarring disquiet in my own head. The gifts my children were being bombarded with had to come from somewhere, after all. While many of them had been generously purchased by grandparents, aunts, and friends, I had to look at my piece in the picture. I, too, had become a culprit in the over-gifting phenomenon. I'd bought things here and there, little trinkets, small toys that they didn't need. Surely I was aware of the fact that my children were lacking nothing – especially as I labored to put the endless toys in their rightful places each night! So why did I do it?
I bought things for my children because it made me feel good as a parent.
I began to realize that I bought things for my children because it made me feel good as a parent. Perhaps I was trying to give to them what others never received as children. Perhaps I was falling prey to the multi-billion dollar advertising campaigns which tell me that I need to buy something in order to feel happy – and do the same for my children. Or maybe I could placate my nagging insecurities about being a less-than-perfect parent by offering my children some tangible expression of my love.
Whatever the angle, I wasn't pleased with the behavior. I needed to make a change – for my children's real happiness, and for my own character development, as well.
This revelation brought us to a crossroads. If "things" weren't what we wanted to bestow on our kids, we obviously needed to come up with what we truly wanted for our children. The answers came, fast and furious, once we were looking for them. We wanted to imbue them with genuine happiness – from the inside out – which cannot be bought at any Toys 'R' Us. We wanted them to appreciate what they had, and to rediscover the meaning of gratitude. We wanted them to love us and our relatives for who we were, not what we gave them. We wanted to impress upon them that "things" make us temporarily excited, but that spending time together, giving to others, and exercising creativity are truly fulfilling and everlasting. From this new perspective, a living room stacked with countless toys suddenly seemed intensely pathetic.
We sprung into action, fueled by a sense of purpose and a newfound hope that we could right the wrong and begin anew. We called grandparents, aunts, and well-meaning friends, explaining our new parenting plan. We gave our daughter a great birthday party without buying her a single present. You know what she said? "That was such a great party – it was better than a present!" I felt as though my heart would burst.
We played a "Gratitude Game" this Shabbat. We each filled in the blank at the end of a sentence that went "I am so grateful for ________." We named specific people, toys, games, and places. I felt my own self filling brimful with gratitude for what we really have. We talked about giving things to other children who didn't have enough toys. We emphasized showing love through attention, caring, and spending quality time. Paradoxically, the biggest gift our family has ever received is the absence of presents.
In trying to make a change with my children, I know I need to first work the change in myself. I, too, have been introspecting, looking at where gifts, materialism, "things" work into my own Self. It's a painful, sometimes shameful process really, as I come to understand that there are times when I attempt to fill myself with "things" instead of seeking fulfillment by doing the kind of stuff that really pays off. I know, though, that if I wait to properly parent my children until I, myself, am perfect, we'll all be in trouble.