A few summers ago a friend and her daughter invited my two oldest daughters and me over to her house to go swimming. But before we even had a chance to slip into our swimsuits, the sky turned black with rain.
To assuage our girls’ disappointment, we let them play in the downpour. My friend and I stood watching our little girls squeal with absolute joy as they ran through sheets of rain while taking turns holding a pink umbrella.
Later that night, Madeline announced, “Mommy, I want an ‘umbella.’”
Out of the oodles of toys her friend possessed, what Madeline coveted most was a simple kids’ umbrella. I smiled a bit too smugly. Ah, so my noble efforts to keep Madeline from turning into a materialistic, “I want an oompa loompa now, Daddy!” child were paying off!
Oh, how my (obnoxious) mommy pride was swelling.
Yet, one hard lesson I’ve learned in motherhood is to never, ever get too self-righteous. Just when you start to brag, just a little bit, about how Junior started walking at nine months and everyone is starting to agree that your child is obviously gifted and will surely be reading Shakespeare by age three is when your whiz kid shoves his finger up his nose while grinning stupidly.
This is the law. Don’t ever question it because your kids will humiliate you.
So I really should not have been surprised when, in mid-December, Madeline said she wanted an easel for Christmas.
“What about the umbrella?” I asked, stunned.
“I don’t want an ‘umbella’ anymore.”
Well, an easel isn’t too outrageous. It’s not like she was asking Jolly Old Saint Nick for a plasma television or a diamond tiara. I could deal with this development, but my heart really sank when I returned home with a surprise for my little girl later that week.
“I have a special treat for you,” I said, showing Madeline a bobbing helium balloon.
“Oh! Thank you!”
She smiled and took the balloon, but then my little material girl asked, “Something else, too?”
What? My not-even-three-year-old was no longer happy with just a balloon?
My baby certainly was. She smiled, watching the silvery Mylar globe dance around the room and giggled when I tugged at the blue string and made it gently pop her on the nose.
Madeline, meanwhile, was scribbling away in a coloring book.
By the next day the balloon had already lost most of its helium. I watched it slowly drift along, looking sad and forlorn, and I felt like my hopes for raising an unspoiled child were just as deflated.
Though, not so long ago I remember flipping through the thick holiday Sears catalogue and being bedazzled by all of the playthings displayed on its glossy pages. I remember, too, that while my parents taught me that while there was nothing inherently wrong in having or wanting things (provided you worked for them), you had to guard against becoming too attached to material goods. How? By always showing gratitude and by sharing your blessings with others.
I’m trying to teach my children similar lessons. Money, power and things aren’t what corrupt people. It’s when they make them their idols and put more trust in their possessions than in God. Radical poverty is not possible or even realistic for all of us, but each of us is called to glorify God with our time, talent and treasure.
Still, while I’m very careful and deliberate about the messages I send my children about what’s important in life – God, family, friends, simple pleasures like dancing in the rain – and what’s not – things, things, and more things, I’m realizing I can’t expect them to never hanker after the latest and greatest toy or to occasionally hope Mommy shows up with something a little more exciting than a balloon. (Especially when I’ve been known to pine for a new pair of shoes or a book off my Amazon Wish List.) What I can expect of them is to recognize where their true treasure lies.
Saint Ignatius of Loyola said, “Man is created to praise, revere, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. All other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him fulfill the end for which he was created.”
Shortly after the balloon incident, I discovered that “all other things” just might include the loose change that finds its way to a child’s piggy bank.
“What are you going to do with all your money?” I asked as I watched Madeline sort her piles of coins.
“Give it to God or to the poor,” she said.
I’m not going to get too smug this time for I know that tomorrow my child might come down with a bad case of the “gimmies.” But maybe – just maybe – my little girl is starting to figure out a lesson it’s taken me a lifetime to learn – that the more you give away, the more God fills you up with the riches of His goodness.
This column originally appeared at Faith & Family LIVE!