The story of the Jamestown colony in Virginia goes like this, as far as I can remember from law school. The first settlers wanted to build a Utopia where all property was held in common. They set up one big farm that they all worked together, and planned to share the harvest out between everybody. Or rather, the free folks hoped their indentured servants would do all the work for them, but they didn’t.
The first year, they nearly starved. When sharing property in a group, it’s all too easy to assume other people will do your share. When a new governor divided the land into plots for each household, and a person’s own pantry was affected by how hard they weeded and hoed, Jamestown became a thriving community.
And so goes a classic defence of private property.
Russia and China haven’t made communism a very attractive system, but the West isn’t a brilliant advertisement for consumeristic capitalism either. We all have Too Much Stuff. We don’t look after it. We are selfish with it. We take it for granted. We think stuff will make us happy.
What I’m getting round to saying is that I’m torn about how to interact with SBJ as he grows, when it comes to property.
My mother delights in telling the story of the first time playgroup was held at our house when I was a toddler. I spent the entire morning retrieving my toys, one by one, from each of the other kids.
I wondered briefly, while pregnant, whether we could abolish personal ownership in the family – it’s not SBJ’s teddy or bike, it’s the family’s. A bit like in a convent… But that’s not only fallacious (does he have his own underpants, or are they ‘ours’?), it’s naively avoiding the issue. He lives in a world of private property and needs to get lots of practice in being generous and responsible. So I guess I’ll have to grit my teeth and call it a teachable moment when I first see him snatch, or hear the dreaded exclamation: ‘That’s MINE!’
Obviously, our best hope is to get over this consumeristic obsession with stuff ourselves, and model a different way of interacting with resources and possessions. But one thing I noticed as a pastor is that you think that your tacit behaviour is more self-explanatory than it actually is. You can’t always rely on silent modelling (sounds like a challenge on Top Model…).
So I’ve been collecting ideas from other people about what kind of overt family practices we can build to reign in the stuff and encourage gratitude. Here are some things I’m wondering about trying:
- One in, one out. Whenever we acquire a new possession – I guess especially toys and discretionary things? – we give one away.
- Go through possessions in December and find nice things to donate and give as Christmas presents – not just junk we’re throwing out.
- Or the other way around: start with people we know who have needs and thoughtfully give away stuff that will make a difference to them.
- I loved Running On Empty, a River Phoenix movie from the 1990s. The family in it had a rule for birthday presents: they had to be found or made, not bought.
- Secondhand sites like Trade Me, EBay and Freecycle might be good techy outlets as kids start getting into being online.
- Use the Toy Library and the other kind. Though the thought of keeping track of every game and puzzle piece borrowed from the library fills me with dread. Good thing I have Pinterest to help me be a domestic goddess!
- Develop some mad skillz at fixing stuff. I possess none of these at all at this moment. Perhaps SBJ and I can learn to sew at the same time.
- Taking photos of things to liberate us from having to keep things we don’t need or use or love, or keep every piece of potential nostalgia, like kindy artwork.
I’m really keen to hear your ideas on this stuff. What do you observe in kids and families, and what are some good ideas you know of or practice? Parenthood in this case is just an excuse to be far more intentional about disentangling ourselves from consumerism. Help me out!
There are strands here of sustainability, simple living, stewardship of the earth, a la Genesis 1, slow parenting, domestic goddesshood, whole food living and general subversion of cultural norms. I’m keen for the moment to just stick to the issue of our relationship to possessing things – or we’ll be here all year!
If this stuff interests you, do check out the amazing animation, The Story of Stuff. It might change your life! I’d love to hear your comments.
[The top image is Jamestown Fort in Virginia (U.S.), c. 1608 (Credit: MPI/Hulton Archive/Getty Images); the second is from The Story of Stuff.]