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Archive for December, 2009

Lurking in the warm gray heart of the pencil is a storm of confusion over values, materialism, and simplicity. This oft-used innocent little gift is actually a symbol of an epic struggle against the perils of modern life, rolled into a thin casing of wood, and presented for the purpose of doing math homework and writing down the names of cute boys. Or perhaps you thought it was just a pencil?

Well, maybe I’m getting carried away, but let me explain. Return, for a moment, to the perils of modern life and allow me an oversimplification: our kids are awash in too much of everything and it’s causing problems.

There’s too much good food and our kids are becoming obese. There are too many fun electronic toys, and our kids are playing them rather than playing the pickup sports of our childhoods. There are too many TV shows and our kids waste one quarter of their waking hours watching them. There is too much stuff and our kids are jaded.

Okay, you say, but what are we supposed to do when we need to give out party favors or offer a reward or a prize? We’re not supposed to give out candy because kids are already eating too many sweets. We can’t give out a great high quality object, such as a new bike, because it’s too expensive.

We should avoid small cheap plastic objects because they are toxic to make, transport, and dispose of. Small cheap plastic objects, by the way, have an additional problem: they breed. Yes, they really do. Put two little plastic hoo-haws under the couch (say, a purple wizard’s hat and an old sticky rubber beetle) and a few days later there will be at least five more hoo-haws, including a green army guy which you’ve never seen before.

Can’t you give a kid anything that doesn’t contribute to some grave social ill? Follow this line of thought down the path, almost, but not quite all the way to its logical conclusion and you get to: the pencil.

Pencils are small and cheap, yes, but they are perfectly glowing with potential and other good associations such as learning, creativity, and usefulness. Remember the thrill you had as a child when you got a new pencil? The enchanting way widening curls of dark-edged wood slid from the sharpener’s edge? The musty smell? The anticipation of all the gargoyles, elves, trucks and poetry that would surely flow from the pencil’s tip?

Well, it’s not quite like that anymore. That experience, although not lost to our children altogether, has been diminished by too much stuff topped off by too many pencils. To some extent, we’ve ruined if for them.

Yes, my kids have a momentary lift when they get anything new, pencil or even green army guy, but it passes too quickly to be meaningful. In our home, the newly sharpened pencil is not carefully treasured. Indeed, I fear it often goes under the couch to breed.

So now we can’t give them pencils either, you cry in discouragement. What then? But we’re not yet at the end of the path. Take just one step over the pencil and you get to this: we don’t have to give kids stuff all the time. Beyond the pencil is the understanding that most kids have enough stuff, which is the very same realization that prompts much pencil giving in the first place.

Of course kids need some toys. Of course rewards can motivate good behaviors. Of course companies may sell more of thing one if they give away free thing two. Of course fundraisers bring in more when they award prizes. In many situations, rewards and prizes are well and good; but they don’t need to be everywhere, all the time, just for showing up.

Kids don’t need a new hoo-haw or medal whenever they complete a treasure hunt at a museum, attend a birthday party, participate on a sports team, attend an event, go to summer camp, raise money for a good cause, eat at McDonald’s, or buy a box of cereal.

Does this sound like a bleak and depleted world? I think it’s just the opposite. If we can turn down the endless shower of T-shirts and water bottles and gizmos and widgets, perhaps we could give our kids back the ability to find true delight in a new pencil. And, we wouldn’t have to clean under our couches as often.

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