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Free sugar, trash, and entitlement on a stick. What 'free' stuff really costs.

Free sugar, litter, and entitlement on a stick... Yummy Right?!

Scene: Two parents are attempting to calm a toddler in the midst of a tantrum.

Setting: Walmart

Action: Having just calmed said toddler down enough to continue into the store, the family continues on their shopping mission. A young woman, with good intentions, bursts out of the mini McDonalds just inside the entrance, stops the family, and hands the toddler a toy. The toddler is of course now elated. The worker feels great about making a kid smile!

End Scene.

That's a true story. My son Connor still has Arctic Wolf. My husband and I picked it up off the floor no less than ten times on that excursion alone. Also, I firmly believe that Arctic Wolf was in no way free. In fact it has cost us to keep it. Had I been stronger in myself in that moment I would have refused it.

Look up 'free' and you get three primary definitions.

  1. Adjective meaning not under control or power of another; able to act or be done as one wishes. Not physically restrained.

  2. Adverb meaning without cost or payment.

  3. Verb meaning (freed) released from captivity

Have you ever gone shopping with a list and bought something unplanned to get something for free? Do you have a junk drawer? More than one? How much free stuff have you signed up for that you don't use? As a parent have you ever had family, friends and strangers give your kids free stuff? Have you ever been helping your child calm down and had a well meaning adult offer a freebie? Ever felt like some one was mad at you or have you felt guilty about not wanting free stuff?

I think there are many reasons for all this free stuff. No other animal takes more than ten years to leave mom. Kids are a resource drain! There is a deep 'it takes a village' mentality. (Side bar, it really does take a community to raise up our little ones!) If a small gift is free what harm could it do?

Scene: A mom and her toddler are at the bank.

Setting: Drive up window.

Action: Having just quietly returned the unwanted lollipop, placed in her envelope, to the drawer, and thanking the teller. The teller asks the mother if she's sure she doesn't want a lollipop for the handsome boy.

End Scene.

Another true scene from my life that has played too many times. Perhaps at one time in our recent history it really was a nice treat. Now I feel like free sugar is more readily available than public drinking fountains. I have to become the 'bad guy' and say no. I know I'm not alone here. Another bank visit...

Scene: A mom and her toddler are at the bank.

Setting: It happens to be the bank mascot's birthday and there is a table with a selection of 'free' items. Cookies, balloons and a selection of cheaply made widgets.

Action: The mom is trying to teach her child about the real value of items and the power of choices. She trends towards minimalism and eco-friendliness. A well meaning bank worker offers the child a balloon. The mom refuses and becomes a villain to the crestfallen toddler who didn't know that was an option. The banker persists, "would you like a..." The mother politely asks the teller to stop offering her child things.

End Scene.

The truth is I wasn't as polite as I should have been. Nor was I as calm as I should have been. My tone was not that of an eco-activist. While I shouldn't have aimed my ire at the well meaning banker, I feel my momma bear moment was justified. Have you picked up the running themes yet? One more scene for you and then I'll tie all this together.

Scene: A mom and her toddler are at Subway for lunch.

Setting: I mean it's a Subway...

Action: The mom and child have brought in their own drinks. The mom orders a child sized sub and one for herself. Never asking for a meal. Only the sandwiches. At the register the well meaning worker begins packing a child's meal bag and looks directly at the toddler and says, "That's right buddy! You get a toy!" The mom has to reiterate that she didn't order a meal.

End Scene.

Here is one running problem with all of these scenes I've shared. The scenes didn't really end at 'End Scene.' Especially that last Subway example. The next four hours of our day frustratingly revolved around the toy he didn't get. Which leads me to my biggest issue with all these examples. When did it become ok for strangers to tell or ask our kids directly what they can and cannot have? In each of these instances, these strangers addressed my child, not me. In my humble opinion, this is NOT OK. I believe these seemingly small instances ripple through our lives and add to societal problems in big ways. Below are three (of the many) hidden costs of free stuff.

1. You've won free clutter and trash! Congratulations!

How much free stuff is in your junk drawer? Free T-shirts, pamphlets, plastic cups, pencils, and foam hands... how much of this stuff do you have? How much do you actually use, read or need? How much of this type of junk have you sent to the landfill? Sidebar: Way too much seems to be designed to end up in the trash... too much ends up in our water ways and lines our roads as litter but that's I'll whole nother soap box I'll stay off of for today.

All this cheaply made, 'free stuff, ends up cluttering our homes and our earth. I feel like it's a gazillion times worse when you have kids. The amount of sugar rained upon this child... If I let him have it all he'd probably be in a hospital bed.

Honestly, has that free pencil ever made you call the business printed on it?

Free stuff takes up your time and space which leads into problem two.

2. Free stuff costs your precious time and attention.

Just because something is free, it doesn't magically take care of itself. Free stuff still has to be maintained, cleaned, and often moved. Free stuff takes up space. How much of your clutter is from free stuff? How much of your kids room is full of cheaply made junk that you wouldn't think twice about in a crisis? What precious belongings are hiding under the clutter?

Have you ever waited in line for several hours to be the first to get some free extra or food? Was that wait really worth your time in dollars? Really, how much would the item have cost to just buy vs how much your time per hour is worth? Is it really worth your attention for two hours? How many of your subscription emails do you actually read? How many do you waste time deleting everyday?

I think we tend to pay attention to and lose time to the wrong stuff if we're not careful. The next cost is the biggest...

3. What does constant free stuff teach us and our kids?

I worry about my son growing up in a world of cheap, free, and disposable. What happens when cute kid wears off and the freebies become less frequent? I honestly don't know what that does to kids' brains, but I do know that I want to set more realistic expectations for him. I want to teach him that most things do not happen in an instant. I want him to know to value experiences and people over things. I want him to know that most things are only worth the time you spend to create and earn them. I want to him to know that he doesn't need things to become happy. I don't want him constantly looking for the next easy, free, or cheap thing. I don't want him to have a sense of entitlement. Again, what happens when the cute wears off? What lessons are we teaching our children?

Sometimes free stuff can cause great anxiety for parents like me. Free stuff doesn't make me feel free at all. I recognize it comes at a great cost. Especially when well meaning strangers, and too often family, reward my son's temper tantrums with free stuff. I feel like I've been taught to feel guilty for saying no. I shouldn't turn away kindness in such a dark world. But when something bugs you it just bugs you. Cheap free stuff and sugar being thrown into my life bugs me.

So now what?

For starters, I think it's obvious that adults should communicate with adults. Please don't ask my kid if he'd like x, y, or z. Of course he does; He's four. (Also yes, if you hand my kid a balloon my head does spin. Thanks for asking!) Don't just assume that it's ok because it's free. If you see a child throwing a tantrum please don't reward that with a treat or toy! Whine and cry enough and you'll get stuff is not a lesson most parents want to teach their kids. Do your best to be discreet in your offers of free stuff! If you work at a bank maybe don't ask in an obvious way that alerts the child. I know you just want to see my kid smile, and I appreciate that, but I don't appreciate being made into the villain of my son's story that day.

Don't make any one feel guilty for saying no. It is each individuals right to decide what they allow in their life. Free stuff doesn't take care of it's self, it adds up. It's nothing personal. Each parent has the right to teach their kids about value. Each parent has the right to raise their child according to their values. I'd love to see more individuals and businesses offer passive freebies. Maybe banks could place a small window sign that says ask for lollipop instead of assuming everyone with a car seat wants sugar on a stick. Our local grocery store has free cookies at the front of the store they don't hand every customer one at the register. The deli counter asks if I want a sample they don't throw a slice over the counter at me. Offer free stuff in a way that allows people to choose it rather than feel forced to accept it.

That's a wrap!

Returning to my scene references. The world is crazy complex. Everyone is different. Let's be clear, I'm not talking about stuff you inherited from beloved family. I'm not saying all free things are the devil. My husband says I'm the only person he knows who complains about free stuff. To that I say we all have our quirks. In my world free and cheap doesn't equal valuable. What do you think?

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