“Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.” – Albert Einstein

I came from a “clean your plate” family.  In my mother’s defense, I do not ever explicitly remember hearing her say “There are children in Africa who would be grateful for your food…”, but I know with utmost certainty that my grandmother did.  In any case the message “Thou shalt not waste food” came through loud and clear.  It pains me to throw food away.  I feel a deep pang of guilt upon coming upon leftovers or produce that have gone past the point of no return in my refrigerator.  My Tupperware gets a workout.  Waste is a sin.

I remember distinctly rolling my eyes and thinking (if not being brave enough to actually say) the classic child’s response:  “So, if the children in Africa WANT my lima beans, they can HAVE my lima beans.  Please just pack them up and send them.”  There is a lesson beyond “don’t waste” that was completely lost on me.  It is a message that has clicked only now that I have had “children in Africa” moments with my son.  It is only now that the well-worn words are coming out of my own mouth that I look back with a certain amount of shame on the lesson that I missed.

Accept providence with gratitude.  Be thankful for what you have.  Do not want when you are not wanting.

My son had a meltdown last evening over a coveted toy, a Batman sword with flashing lights and sound effects.  A very hard plastic sword whose safety in my son’s hands (to our household pets and possessions if not to himself) could not be guaranteed.  A sword that he emphatically Does. Not. Need.

When these sentiments were expressed to Harry, along with the request to put the toy back in its place on the store shelf, the desperate WANTING of youth overtook him.  Nothing but the possession of that sword was important, and when he couldn’t have it,  he was ready to trade in family and home with the need of it.  He screamed with defiance.


I stopped and turned to look at him.  Keeping my voice as level and calm as possible, I played the “children in Africa” card, and there was an internal wincing as I realized it.

“Harry.  Do you know what happened last week?”

That got his interest.  He paused.  “No.”

“Harry, last week, there was a big earthquake far away in a place called Haiti.  And lots of little boys and girls lost all their toys.  Not only did they lose all their toys, but many of them lost their homes, and their mommies and daddies.  Some of them even died.  Isn’t that very sad?”


“Now when we get home, I want you to go straight to your room without any supper.  I want you to look around and think very hard and decide if you really want to lose all your toys and your room.  I want you to think very hard about whether you really want to lose your mommy and daddy and never see them again.  Because, Harry, sometimes that happens to little boys and girls.  And it isn’t very nice or respectful for you to behave this way when you have so much.”

I would love to say this ended the screaming instantly but it didn’t.  He did go straight to his room, where he continued to fuss for a time, before he declared he was done and wanted to make the appropriate apologies and have his dinner.

The sword has not been mentioned again.

I have no idea if he even has the beginning of an understanding of gratitude.  I don’t think it occurs to him for a moment how fortunate his life is, even among his peers.  But I do have an obligation to teach the lesson I missed, even at the expense of the “children in Haiti”.  If I gave away every possession I owned, I could not right all the unfairness in the world.    I can at least teach my privileged son to be thankful.   Generosity starts with gratitude and I hope the message leads him better than it did me.

January 20th, 2010 at 2:48 pm
3 Responses to “Lessons of my fathers (and mothers)”
  1. 1
    jodifur Says:

    Every holiday season and b-day I make Michael go through his toys and pick out the toys he wants to give away to the “boys and girls who have no toys.” I don’t know if it gets through to him, but I hope it does.

  2. 2
    Pink Pelican Says:

    I think this is one of those lessons that you start really early in life and you repeat endlessly until the switch in the head flips. I think it requires more experience and maturity to get to the point of truly understanding the complexities of empathy. But I think if you lay the groundwork when they are young, they will “get” it a lot faster.

    I think you did well. Of course, I’m not a parent (yet), but still … it’s a lesson I will squirrel away in hopes of using it myself someday.

  3. 3
    Deirdre Says:

    good. for. you.

    I wish more mommies would handle meltdowns with such purposefulness. (is that word?)