This week I threw out the rest of the Easter candy that my son had been saving. Only peppermints remained in the bag and I was tired of seeing them around the house. When he discovered what I had done, he was upset.
“But those were important to me! I wanted to eat them!”
“Don’t worry about it. We’ll just buy new candy.”
A week ago my son accidentally melted one of his toys against a lightbulb. When I realized that my son was performing this dangerous melting experiment, I told him that he had ruined this toy, a little police officer. Sergeant Murphy’s face was now a black hole of melted rubber. My son had no idea that he was causing real damage during his experiment, so I felt empathy for him.
“Can you take it off!?!” He sobbed, wanting to peel off the melted face.
“No, son. It’s ruined. But we’ll just get you a new one.”
I use this phrase to comfort my son when things break or are lost because I imagine that I am helping him not to put too much emphasis or concern into things. If I tell him not to worry when things break, then I’m teaching him not to be materialistic, right?
I am convicted that the opposite is actually true.
First of all, I am teaching him that when something breaks, it can and should be replaced, as long as we can afford it. Only in a privileged, wealthy place could this possibly be relevant. In most of the world when something breaks, it is gone. There is no next time, no second chance. When I “just get a new one” I am teaching my son that everything is replaceable. Not to steward his wealth. Just to consume. If we consume this item again and again, it is okay. What’s one more Sergeant Murphy if we can afford him? But Sergeant Murphy or a bag of peppermints cost more than the $1 per day that many people earn in this world. Would I spend a day’s wages to make my son feel better?
I am convicted that it is just as unethical to spend someone else’s dollar wages to make my son happy again as it is to spend my own. Why should our family purchase two bags of peppermints instead of sending one bag to someone else? Yes, we earned the money, but is it truly ours to squander?
Secondly, when we “just get a new one” I am teaching him to avoid pain and suffering. Don’t cry, just look forward to the new one. When I do this, I presume that I am teaching him not to worry about physical possessions, but this cavalier attitude actually reinforces the material value of the item. The message I am sending is that possessions are so important that we won’t spend a minute being sad. We will replace the item immediately to avoid that pain.
I am convicted that I must teach my children to mourn and grieve well. This means material possessions as well. As they learn to mourn, they will also learn that some items are worth mourning more than others. If we want to use our time and resources wisely, we will mourn for a moment and then find joy elsewhere — not “just buy a new one.”
Thirdly, when we “just buy a new one” we are robbing our children from the opportunity to confront the chaos and danger that is inherent in a material and spiritual world. Things fall apart. People make mistakes. Stuff breaks. Other kids don’t take care of your precious toys like you would. Moms throw out candy. Experiments can end up with a melted mess. Actions have consequences.
I never would buy a toy for my son to replace one that he had deliberately broken, but I have often replaced toys, food, and clothing that had succumbed to chaos. Our dogs eat whatever falls on the floor.
I have replaced dropped food countless times. Rubber balls deflate. Balloons pop. Paint fades. Plastic deteriorates. Batteries lose power. Music stops playing. Toys die. That is a reality that cannot be fixed or replaced or bought or borrowed or put on a shelf to mend.
I can see my son having a good old car someday. He pulls out of our driveway and accidentally totals it, backing into a tree. Will I run outside, dry his tears and say, “we’ll get you a new one?” Probably not. And most people in the world can’t make that promise for something as small as a peppermint candy or a toy police officer.
So why do I rely on that option whenever my son is sad?
It’s time to make a braver choice whether I can afford to buy something or not. The comfort is in the grief and mourning, not in the promise for a replacement.
Son, we can’t get you a new one, but we can mend your broken heart.