Christmas time is coming up which means many of us will contribute to a toy drive of some kind.
For years I did what most people do. I eagerly strolled down the toy aisle, delighted to buy a big colorful gift for a child. Tonka Toys, Matchbox Cars, Lincoln Logs, Legos, dolls, action figures, Slinkies, crayons were all there to transport me back to my and my sons’ childhood.
I thought about the delight on the faces of the children who would receive them and smiled as I dropped them in the big box outside the store.
Then one year I worked behind the scenes with one of the organizations that sponsored the toy drive. It was fun to be given a basket along with a list of ages of the children in the families I was picking for.
In front of me were giant crates of donated toys, organized and labeled according to age ranges and gender.
The crate for the little ones was overflowing and the adolescents had a good selection as well. Even the crate labeled “Girls Ages 12-16” had a good supply of things like scarves, purses, and fun blank books, and jewelry boxes.
It was when I got the “Boys: Ages 12-16” that my heart sank. The supply was meager and the selection looked like cast-offs from the 99 Cent Store. When there was nothing left in the crate, I asked the supervisor what to do. She shrugged and said, “Just give them one out of the little kid boxes.”
Perhaps it is because I have known the stigma of poverty, or because I am the mother of sons, but this experience really affected me. Boys between the ages of twelve and sixteen are perhaps some of the most conflicted, most tender, and most misunderstood creatures on the planet.
They are caught between childhood and adulthood. Everything in our culture is screaming at them about what they should be and do. The true little voices inside their heads are devalued and many times drowned out completely.
Often times when there are financial burdens in the family, the older children are rushed into adulthood. When the holidays roll around, the resources and attention are given to the younger kids.
The older males, especially, have to rise to the occasion, and do what is expected. Inside they may still be little boys, but circumstances dictate they sacrifice for the good of the family.
They do it because they have to. The options open to then are as colorless and meager as the collection of items I saw in the crate that day.
So now, I don’t head to the toy aisle when it’s time to make my yearly donation. Instead, I buy several presents I know will be right for boys between the ages of twelve and sixteen. I look for good wallets, battery-operated coin sorters, I-Tune gift cards, cool watches, key chains that double as tools, and great t-shirts.
I like to think of the boy who receives my present leaning up against the wall on Christmas morning, watching all the little kids open their presents, grinning at their exuberance, and then opening his, nodding and smiling.
I hope my present helps balance the gap between childhood and adulthood.
More than anything else I hope it keeps his pride intact and his boyish heart alive for just a little bit longer.