My kids will never go to Disney World. One, I hate The Mouse in all his corporate glory. Two, I took a look at the vacation prices there and had to lay down for a while with a glass of wine. Six nights and seven days costs approximately $3,485 bucks for a family of four, or about $871 dollars per person. My honeymoon in freakin’ Rome (like Italy, not Georgia) cost less than that. Our impromptu two-week grad school trip to Ireland cost less than that (yes, we lived in a tent, and yes, we ate at farmer’s markets). Hell, I could fly all my kids to Itlay and eat pasta for that much moola — if I had the cash. Which I don’t, because who the hell has $3,485 just lying around waiting to be fed into the Ba’al-like mawl of the Mouse? My husband teaches public school. We’re lucky if we can fix our dying refrigerator.
My kids ain’t going to Disney. They will, somehow, survive. Just as my 5-year-old will survive without the gazillion dollar pink Indominus Rex he’s yearning for. Another dinosaur will do just fine. Maybe it doesn’t seem like it when you’re 5, but with all the other presents he has coming, a cheaper dino will have to do. Same with my 7-year-old: We pointed out that for the price of the ultra-deluxe Lego City Volcano Exploration Base (over $130 for a few minifigs, a car, and some sundry geological equipment), he could get several Star Wars sets. He decided, on his own, that he wanted the Star Wars sets instead. They’ll be cheaper. And while he wanted that giant Lego set, its absence won’t ruin the day. Neither will the lack of a several-foot Darth Vader ($125), or a Lego Millennium Falcon ($120).
That’s because those aren’t the important part of a childhood. You probably remember getting your price-jacked Cabbage Patch or Furby or whatever. How much did you actually play with it? How much do you remember that specific item factoring into your life? It’s much the same as a Disney vacation. I went there twice as a kid. And it was fun while I was there, though I wouldn’t venture to call it magic. And when it ended, I didn’t carry some magical stamp upon me forever. I went back to my normal childhood.
And what did I want from that childhood? First, I wanted adults who cared about me. I wanted adults who listened, who would take me to the library every so often, and maybe have time to sit down and play Gin Rummy with me. I didn’t need a deluxe card shuffler ($14) or super-duper twisty crayons ($8) to draw the pictures I hoped someone would hang on the refrigerator. My best memories are of baking nut roll with my grandmother. She wasn’t dropping cash on something she was making anyway, so this was basically a free activity. She let me roll out the dough, and with whatever was left, my sister and I got to make tiny nut rolls she dusted in sugar and packed in our lunches.
I still remember the taste of those nut rolls. I still remember that my grandmother hung on her refrigerator my painting of Simba from The Lion King. I remember going on walks with her and my grandfather when I was very small. And when I was bigger, I remember riding my bike alone for hours and hours. These are all memories in the grasp of families like mine, families without much money, families who can’t afford Disney, who can’t buy big toys or afford big vacations.
So I try to do the same things with my kids. Their favorite thing right now is clay. So I lay out for nice clay, sit down at the small table with them, and sculpt some pinch pots. We talk while we sculpt. I tell them I like what they’re making, and they glow. I start a pot and hand it over for them to finish. My husband cooks with them. They fight to cut zucchini for him. Literally, they fight. Not because of the cutting or the zucchini, but because it’s a task they can do that gets them closer to Daddy.
Because that’s what kids want from this big world. They want someone who, when they lash out at the TV stuttering, doesn’t yell. They want someone who says, in a calm, normal voice, “Maybe you need to wait in the other room while the TV comes back on.” They want someone who asks about their day and means it — not “How was your day?” but “Did you do school in the morning? What did you do in the afternoon? Was it fun? What was your favorite part?” They want someone to read to them, whether those books dwell in a vast personal collection or get borrowed from the local library every week.
And they will play dinosaurs, or Star Wars, or Legos, or whatever, with however many plastic figures you give them. More won’t matter. More won’t significantly enrich their play. They’ll just be cool, if by cool you mean one more thing for you to step on in the middle of the night.
You can keep Disney. I don’t remember it, other than buying a Cheshire Cat with my First Communion money. It didn’t make me feel more loved. I don’t doubt that my kids like the play structure we splurged on for a joint birthday present last year. But I don’t think it significantly adds to their childhood experience. I hope my kids grow up and remember our house as a bright place, full of light and love ($0). If I accomplish that, I’ve won my deepest dream — a dream that has nothing to do with how many toys they have.