A method to the madness

We have all kinds of crazy rules in our house. Trying to raise good kids in this crazy world requires a little insanity.

The annual onslaught of Christmas toy circulars designed to suck our children into a world of mad consumerism (and to convince them to hound us into purchasing their way into said world) created an urgent need for just such a crazy rule. So, our kids are allowed to look at all the toys, but they are not allowed to say, “I want that,” or “Can I have it?” It would bury us. Instead, they have to focus their comments on whether something looks fun, or cool.

We created this rule when Simone was about four, and she got it right away. Jude, who is four now, however, has had some trouble with it.

“Mom, I want that.”

“Jude, we’re not allowed to say that. Why don’t you tell me what you like about it?”

“Can I have it?”

Finally, the other day, he was looking at a Target circular, saw a fantastic Lego set, and said, “Mom, I think some kid would really like playing with that.”

It made me very happy to hear. It was not so much that Jude learned the lesson -- although that’s always a triumph with Jude -- but more that, when he did, it drove him to think even a little about some child other than himself. Not an easy thing to do when 30 glossy, color pages are screaming “You want this!!!!!” at a kid over his oatmeal.

I know it sounds silly to make the kids jump hurdles like that. They have everything they need, though. There can be something obscene about letting a kid focus his attention on wanting even more, especially now.

At Catholic Charities, we’re spending increasing time trying to help families who absolutely do not have what they need. This year, for example, we’re hearing from families living in shelters that they would rather not receive toys for their kids from us this Christmas because they are worried they’ll be stolen since there is no secure place to store them. Our giving trees and family wish lists are increasingly populated with requests for basic adult clothes and outerwear. That’s something we don’t usually see.

My colleagues at NECN just offered us the toys from a toy drive they are doing. They wanted to know if any of our programs could put them to use as late as Dec. 22. I put an email out to our program directors on a Saturday afternoon and had responses from four programs within two hours that they didn’t have enough clothes and toys to meet their clients’ needs and would gladly take the supply.

Jude is young to understand much about the true meaning of Christmas beyond that it is Jesus’ birthday. In this time of overwhelming need for so many, though, with more than 1,100 families living in motels because there isn’t enough shelter capacity, and 9,100 families slated to lose their TANF (welfare) benefits for their kids within the next couple of months because of state budget cuts, we surely can teach him a little about priorities, about real need, and about putting his focus where it belongs this time of year -- on others. If one of our crazy rules does that, I’m happy to be a little nuts.

And, in the mean time, don’t tell Jude, but he’ll be getting a few Legos for Christmas.

Tiziana C. Dearing is president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston.