As parents, we try to give our kids as much as we can. I didn’t grow up in a household with a lot of money, but my parents were always willing to sacrifice whatever they had to give me what I wanted. And I had some pretty cool things growing up.
But as much as I loved that stuff, none of it was what made my childhood great. That’s the thing about being a parent — we focus so much on the “stuff” and creating a “magical childhood,” that we never really think about what is making the most impact. Sure, your kids will remember winning a trophy in Little League, or that hideous pink tutu, but that’s really not what sticks out most fondly when kids grow up.
The quiet moments are the things I remember most about my childhood. Sitting with my mom watching her soap operas. Or maybe watching an old movie musical. We love popcorn in my family, and my mom loves a lot of butter. So she would melt butter and pour it over the bag of microwave popcorn. I’ll always remember finding the random butter soaked kernels in the bowl. I never knew when they were coming, so it was like a greasy, buttery surprise every time. I don’t even remember what we were watching, but I’ll always remember the taste of that buttery kernel.
When I was a kid, my parents’ marriage was rocky a lot. My dad, as much as I love him, could be kinda shitty. He would just disappear sometimes for days at a time. He always came back, but each time I thought “what if this time he doesn’t?”
We didn’t really spend a lot of one-on-one time together back then either, because he worked a lot. And I had a busy calendar myself. But every once in a while, it would just be the two of us. My mom would go out for whatever reason, and leave the two of us to fend for ourselves. Whenever that happened, my dad would make me macaroni and cheese. Even though it wasn’t home-cooked, I loved it. Mainly because I knew that if mom left us alone for dinner, my dad would make it for me. It was kind of like our little secret, even though my mom totally knew. Even now that I’m in my 30s, I can still see a box of macaroni and cheese and get nostalgic for those days with my dad.
Now that I’m the parent, I find myself wondering about the things that will matter to my child. My son is only four, but he’s at an age where he’s starting to form the memories that he will have for the rest of his life. As a single mom, I don’t have a ton of money to buy him all the things he wants. Sometimes I’m too busy working to take him to the playground. Sometimes I’m just too tired to get down on the floor with him and play. But then there are moments with him that I hope stick out when he’s moved away from me and has a life of his own.
I hope he remembers those moments when he crawls up in my lap to watch a movie. The walks we take to the grocery store where I’m chasing behind him as he zooms down the sidewalk on his scooter. Teaching him how to pick out the right piece of fruit, and shucking corn husks. Our own times sharing a bag of popcorn, him sitting next to me while I’m working during the day. Those hugs when I pick him up from preschool. Those are the things that I hope will stick out in his memory.
My family never took a fancy family vacation when I was a kid. Our idea of fun was heading up to Central Park and watching the horses trot by. Or watching the roller skaters dance to groovy tunes on a summer afternoon. I can’t remember half the toys my parents bought me when I was a kid, but I remember those moments. The rattle of the subway, the way the Staten Island Ferry sways while it docks. The smell of soft pretzels and the first bite of a hot dog with mustard from a street vendor. Those are the things that make up my childhood.
I’m not saying not to buy your kids toys, or take extravagant vacations. Sign them up for all the after school activities you can. But keep this in the back of your mind. Nothing quite compares to those little moments. And sometimes the times when we thought we were totally messing up this parenting gig — ordering takeout instead of cooking a home-cooked meal or letting our kids eat ice cream for breakfast — those are the things that are truly magical to our kids. Things like buttery popular and sharing a box of mac and cheese.
Think about the things from your own childhood that give you the warm fuzzies. Our kids need us, not things.