My son’s birthday is tomorrow. He can’t wait to be 4. He’s excited about starting preschool and playing sports and getting taller. He cheers when he’s outgrown a pair of shoes. He loves to look at his growth chart on the wall in our laundry room. Each night he stands on his little blue step stool as he brushes his teeth and makes faces at himself in the mirror saying to me, “Mommy, I will be taller than you soon!” He’s right.

I’m so grateful that my boy is healthy and growing and looking forward to getting bigger, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t also nostalgic and emotional each time I add another article of clothing or discarded toy to our donation box. It feels like I’m closing in on a chapter of my favorite book when I’m not quite ready to turn the page.

At this stage in his development, my son is imaginative and inquisitive. I’ve read that the average 4-year-old asks 437 questions per day.  Fact or myth, I can’t be sure, but I can say that in our house, my child asks a question about every 3-4 minutes. That’s a lot of opportunities for me to teach, shape and foster his understanding of the world around him. It’s a responsibility that I take seriously.

When he asks me why snow is white and rain is clear, I consult Google and do my best to give him an accurate answer. When he asks why I organize the clothes in my closet by color, I can explain that too. But when he says to me, “Why is our family so small and will I ever have a brother or sister?” – those are questions that require careful thought and reflection on my part.

Along with all his probing and questioning, it’s apparent that he’s beginning to notice and take inventory of what we have and don’t have, often comparing our material possessions to the belongings of those around us. He is constantly talking about all the “stuff” he wants and has forgotten about all the things he already has.

TV advertisements speak to him. “Mommy, I want that!” Strategically placed toy displays distract him as we walk through the aisles of Target. Cereal boxes with superheroes on the front shout his name from the grocery store shelves. His birthday list gets longer with each passing day.

Every night before bed we read books, sing songs and say our prayers. We each take a turn saying them out loud, giving thanks for our blessings and then requesting needs be filled for whomever or whatever is on our hearts. Sometimes he pretends to be a dog and barks his prayers to God. Sometimes he requests healing for sick people. Other times he asks that his mommy stops telling him ‘no’ so much.

Lately, however, his prayers have taken a different form. Instead of praying that his papaw’s surgery goes well or the squirrels don’t freeze at night, he’s been asking God to give him a bigger house and more toys.

His newfound interest in acquiring more stuff has been really difficult for me to digest. Partly because it forces me to acknowledge my own attraction to material things and also because it’s kind of hurt my feelings. I’ve worked hard to be able to give him what he has.

I think back to what it was like when my son and I moved back to WV in December of 2014. I had no job, a negative bank account balance and bill collectors were calling me daily. My parents had just paid my security deposit and first month’s rent. They helped unpack boxes, assembled furniture and loaded my pantry with groceries. They even put up my Christmas tree, knowing I was too detached and depressed to do it on my own. I remember being overwhelmed with equal feelings of gratitude and shame. It wasn’t easy for me to accept their help, but my son and I truly needed it.

I was someone who had always taken great pride in being able to afford Christmas gifts for my loved ones. That year, however, I dreaded the season of giving. I had no money to buy gifts for my family or my son. I wanted to partake in the holiday gatherings, and though I didn’t need to be, I was embarrassed when I showed up empty-handed.  I remember crying as I gave my brother a box of IOUs which included promises like a night of babysitting his kids, an evening walk, and a car ($275 thou..might want to hang onto that one.)

For my son I wrapped hand-me-down dinosaurs, worn puzzles and a used winter coat given to us by my cousin who lives in Tennessee.

I will never forget that year, my son’s first Christmas. I couldn’t buy the kinds of gifts I wanted, but it didn’t matter. I was with people who loved me. At a time when I couldn’t support myself and my son, my family helped me to understand that the best gifts in life are the people who surround you and the time you spend together, not the stuff inside those beautifully wrapped boxes and bags tucked under a tree.

Now, as my son’s 4th birthday approaches, I am questioning myself as a parent. How much is too much to give? Am I inclined to give more because I can now afford to do so, or am I trying to overcompensate for being a single parent?  I don’t want his sense of self-worth to be determined by what he has or doesn’t have. I know he listens as I answer his countless questions, but what behaviors is he learning from me?

There’s a Facebook survey that has surfaced in my newsfeed. The survey is designed to gain insight into a child’s perception of his or her parent. I decided to do it with my son to help me be more mindful of the types of things he observes about me.

The instructions are as follows:

WITHOUT prompting, ask your child these questions and write EXACTLY what they say.

*What is something I say a lot?
No candy for breakfast!*What makes me happy?
When I say please

*What makes me sad?
When I say mean things

*How tall am I?
I don’t know

*What’s my favorite thing to do?
Clean 

*What’s my favorite food?
Salads

*What’s my favorite drink?
Water

*If I could go anywhere, where would it be?
To the Creperi after church with me and I will eat your olives

*Do you think you could live without me?
Never

*How do I annoy you?
When you put me in time out

*How do you annoy me?
When I don’t want to get dressed

*What’s my favorite TV show?
Football (Um, this is false, but we often turn off his shows so I can watch live sporting events)

*What is my favorite music to listen to?
All the music all the time, you always listen to music

*What is my job?
Hugging people because they’re sad (this is how he understands counseling)

*How old am I?
81 (when I told him that I’m only 36, he said “oh I was close!”)

*What’s my favorite color?
Black

*How much do I love you?
More than anything in the world

Because he’s been praying for all these material things lately, I decided to ask him one last, unscripted question.
*If you could have anything, go anywhere or do anything, what would it be?
Spend time with you, mommy
After I dried my tears, I made a decision. I decided that on his birthdays I will give him stuff. If I can afford it and it is appropriate, I will probably buy it. That’s what parents do. But this birthday and every other birthday that follows, I will also include a box of IOUs  – IOUs that will include ways for him to spend time with his mom.

Sure, we already spend a lot of time together, but my thought is that as he gets older and life gets busier and we accumulate more “stuff”, these IOUs will be a reminder (for us both) that the time we spend together and the memories we make have far greater value than the material things we possess.

I’ve done some self-examining these past few days and I’ve realized that just like my 4-year-old son, I sometimes spend too much time wishing I had more and forgetting about what I already have.

It’s funny, here I am trying to be a good parent and teach my son all about life, and my son keeps reminding me what life is all about.

If you’re interested in doing the survey with your own children or grandchildren, you can get a clean copy of it here. Maybe you’ll learn as much about yourself as I did. 🙂

 

Erin Stroup has been the Development Director at KPCC Counseling since 2014. She’s the author of the First World Problems blog and a Beyond Addiction Support Group leader.