Last week my 5-year-old kicked me in the shins while we stood in the checkout at Rite Aid. Granted, we should not have been at Rite Aid so late, and by late I mean 6:30 p.m. And perhaps, since I was the one who dragged her and her toddler brother out to get toddler Tylenol, I should have been more understanding. Maybe I should have just purchased the toy cars and lollipops they were yelling for as I tried to pay, so the rest of the line would stop wondering why I had been allowed to have kids in the first place.
But I was mean. I did not purchase toy cars and lollipops. Instead I scooped each kid up and dragged both of them screeching out of the store. (In our whole family, the only people who aren’t a little dramatic are the ones who are dead.) I strapped them into their car seats and drove the three minutes home, contemplating whether the timeouts should begin in our Toyota or in our apartment.
Something slightly unexpected happened on our way home. Ordinarily good-natured, my lovelies did not stop screaming. When we pulled up to the curb both were still demanding I go back and buy them “stuff,” any “stuff,” from their beloved Rite Aid.
I get the desire for stuff. I also understand how my children, who are enjoying the perks of a 21st-century childhood, have come to have a complex relationship to their stuff. Or, rather, the stuff the adults in their world get for them. From the very start children today are esteemed guests in what others have referred to as the Museum of Me. They are the centerpieces in thousands of pictures and videos that chronicle their every movement. Their parents’ living spaces become crowded with Fisher-Price and Playskool plastic in ways that astound those same parents. As I watch friends with older children, I realize you might be able to shake off all that plastic stuff. But as George Carlin pointed out in his famous routine about “stuff,” there is always more stuff to be had. As your kids get older, it often comes in smaller but more expensive packaging.
I, like my children, covet stuff. I recently joined a website — Pinterest — that aims to connect people and stuff to other people and more stuff by enabling its users to click on pictures of stuff they like or that is important to them and “pinning” it on virtual cork boards. Despite the fact that you “pin” while sitting at your kitchen table or couch or, ahem, desk at work, there is something primal and pioneer-like about finding all these objects online and arranging them in relation to yourself. These objects not only explain where you’ve been (all those Judy Blume books, and the bright yellow Sony Walkman that made life bearable when you were 15 and stuck on family car rides) but also where you would like to end up (a real-life treehouse with walls of glass perched high up in a forest in Washington state, maybe). Pinterest: our own destinies made almost manifest, our own me-museums beckoning others to come and enjoy and click in agreement.
Except: This is perhaps not the most fulfilling way to meander through life, this coveting, this curating of stuff. It is a means of focusing inward, of connecting to others through objects that are, when all is said and done, simply objects. They make poor substitutes for actual human interaction and connection.
Still, from the back seat, each kid howled. I had come between them and their stuff. I was altering their view of the world — a view that it is OK if your need for more objects affirming your place in the universe takes over your experience as a human being.
After putting them directly to bed (do not pass go, do not collect $200) I decided I was banning any more stuff. I e-mailed my husband at work and told him: No more stuff. I e-mailed family members and told them, too: No more stuff. And the next morning during breakfast I broke the sad news to my shin-kicking lovelies: Until the next special occasion, no more stuff, not even at the bank where they give you lollipops. Mommy’s closed the museum.