Putting the Great in Recession
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Not that I want this to be a Great Depression. I hope it’s not. But if it is, there just might be one group of Americans that really benefits from Wall Street’s recent slide.
I can see kids emerging from their dens when they get sick of their X-Box games and their parents can’t afford any new ones. I can see kids dropping out of pricey travel soccer leagues and playing a game of pickup instead. I can see kids figuring out how to retool their bikes and skates and maybe even their mp3 players when their parents can’t immediately buy them the newest, niftiest models.
In other words, I see fancy toys and vacations and enrichment classes falling away. And the only thing left is … childhood.
And the only things left to play with are … other kids.
I know I have a tendency to romanticize the past — not to mention poverty. (And sticks.) And I suspect that for all the heady joy of feeling “grown up” and responsible, helping the family pick peaches in Salinas, Calif. might not have been quite as fulfilling as it looked to a suburban girl reading “The Grapes of Wrath” on the patio while her dad grilled skirt steaks on the hibachi. (Thanks, Dad.)
Still, it can be argued that affluence has been really miserable for our kids. Easy money — or easy enough money — bought them all the stuff they used to make and do on their own. Professionally built tree houses. Ballgames organized by a paid adult. Dance recitals with real roses and expensive costumes and a slick DVD at the end. Kids have been treated like grown-ups on a cruise: Only the best, let-us-do-it-for-you, don’t worry about a thing.
For grown-ups, a cruise can be a nice interlude — a fantasy time of pampering and luxury. But for kids, when pampering becomes part of everyday life, it’s a drain. Having Beauty Home Contractors build your tree house is about as fulfilling as having Beauty Home Contractors run a race for you, or steal your first kiss. These are things kids should be doing on their own: falling, fearing, flailing, failing, and eventually, in some manner, succeeding, even if the tree house ends up half the size and twice as rickety as Beauty Home would have made it.
Same goes for fancy dance recitals, girls. If you always wait for the class and the videographer, you’re going to missing a lot of fun.
Yesterday morning I met a mom named Megan who’d just moved here from Vietnam. She’s Canadian and had spent the year in Hanoi with the United Nations. Her family, like most well-off families there, immediately hired a maid, and the maid brought over her daughter who was nine — the same age as Megan’s son.
“For the first few days, she was amazed at all the stuff we had,” Megan said. Electronic stuff, mostly. “And then after a few days it was, ‘Well, that’s interesting, but let go out and play.’ So out they went. That’s just what they do. They play.”
What do they play with? “The cheapest junk. You give them a cheap, junky jump rope and it breaks and that’s part of what you play with. Fixing it. They all want to imitate adults, so they crouch down and have a meeting with the other kids and figure out how they’re going to fix it or solve the problem.”
No caregiver is called in. No parent is shaken down for a better, sturdier toy. And somehow — yes, to my romanticized brain — that sounds like so much more fun than reaching Level Triple Z+ on any brand new Nintendo game.
Speaking of which, as Christmas approached, Megan sat her son down to write out his list for Santa. He sat and sat and sat some more. “Come on,” said Megan. “You always have a list. Not just the name, but the brand and the number of what you want.” And he says, ‘But we don’t have TV here, so I don’t know what there is to want.'”
Now, actually, they did have a TV. But apparently Vietnam has yet to start advertising to children, because children aren’t loaded and their parents aren’t loaded. So the kid was in the dark.
Now imagine a Depression where everyone’s broke and kids can’t beg their parents for the latest gadget (the way my kids do). Forget “Tickle Me, Elmo.” The hot gift will be “Recycle Me Even Though I Stopped Giggling and Am Missing An Eye Elmo.” That’s the kind of toy that builds the imagination. Or future eye surgeons.
So while I don’t want all our 401ks to dry up, and I really don’t want my kids to have to pick peaches for a living (although when the Joads fried dough for dinner, it always sounded delicious), there could be a silver lining to the current financial meltdown.
Or if not silver, maybe plywood. Or frayed nylon. Or maybe it’ll be made of sticks. And that’s good, too.