"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
August 27, 2009
Time is better than toys
by Orson Scott Card

We want to provide the best for our kids. But what is "best"?

We certainly don't mean the minimum. The old trio of food, clothing, and shelter just won't cut it.

We want the best food -- healthy, delicious. Excellent clothing -- durable, modest, and fashionable enough they're willing to be seen in public. A home in which they can be comfortable and do all the things that matter to them.

And education -- no skimping here! We want them to have a good start in life, and education is the key.

I think there's a great danger when we ever let ourselves think like this: "Nothing but the best for our kids."

As long as there is something "better" than what our kids have, we have not yet provided them with the "best."

Imagine that you're sitting around a table at a ward supper with any other family in your ward, and you bring up any of these -- food, clothing, housing, education -- and my guess is you'll find that every other Mormon family has different ideas from yours about what is "good" -- and even about what is "good enough."

Money or time -- somebody always has more of one or the other than we have, and therefore can provide more good things for their kids.

And whatever good things we do provide, there'll be lots of people who think that we're not giving them the most important good things.

Fortunately, it's not actually a competition.

When I was growing up in Santa Clara, California, I shared a room with two brothers. The three of us slept on trundle beds -- you roll the shorter and middle beds under the top one when you want floor space. Our room was so small you could hardly get around the beds to put clean sheets on them.

Here's the funny thing, though: We didn't think we were deprived, just because we didn't have rooms of our own.

We'd lay out the bedspreads across all three beds and move our toy soldiers or our Matchbox cars around to act out wars or stories. Or we'd pull out the middle bed partway and have a readymade "fort" in the gap between the top and bottom beds.

We'd build with blocks or Lincoln logs or American bricks (this was before Legos became well-known in the U.S.) or build plastic models from cheap kits. That bedroom was used all the time.

When my youngest brother came along, there just wasn't a way to squeeze a fourth boy into that room. So my dad framed in a wall separating the dining room from the living room and my older brother got a tiny room of his own.

It was, of course, the coolest room in the house -- even though it had a curtain for a door. And I learned that we could live without a dining room.

(In fact, my wife and I don't have a dining room even now -- we use that space for a music room and overflow when we have seminary or meetings or parties in the living room. We eat in the kitchen -- when guests come over, we plunk them down to talk to us while we do the last-minute food preparation.)

Would my childhood have been better if my parents had made enough money to buy a house that gave all six of us kids bedrooms of our own?

I don't think so.

Here's what made my childhood perfect: I helped my dad grade papers sometimes, and he taught me how to take good pictures and develop them in the darkroom he carved out of one of the parking places in our garage.

We helped my dad build a pantry next to the darkroom. We watched and helped as he made dollhouses using his jigsaw; we saw him paint signs with his beautiful hand lettering; when we wanted to make movies he traded cameras and came up with a used 8-millimeter with stop action so we could make our matchbox cars seem to drive around by themselves on tiny roads we excavated in a dirt patch in the back yard.

By proofreading dissertations that my Mom was typing to earn extra money, I learned skills that later allowed me to make a living as an editor. I helped her when she was secretary to a school district official -- I prided myself on being the fastest living collator of multi-page reports.

We weeded the dandelions out of the front lawn together and helped plant junipers and vegetables and my mother's beloved roses; we hung out clothes to dry on the patio when the weather was good; we went to the library; my parents knew me so well that I still remember the books they gave me for birthdays and Christmas -- because they were perfect for me.

We had family home evenings where we made our own flannel board figures or acted things out. We played board games and card games (Rook, not face cards!) and created photo albums and took part in road shows and learned social dancing in the living room from our older brother and sister, who took lessons.

There were whole years when the television stayed broken and we got along just fine.

My folks were there at every performance.

They somehow managed to get us lessons in anything we were really interested in and then drove us wherever we needed to go.


My wife has similar memories -- she, too, was around during her parents' years of poverty as her dad typed his dissertation on the dining room table. The best game they played? It was called Pull Down Daddy, and it consisted of grabbing onto their father and dragging him to the ground and trying to hold all his limbs down at the same time.

And they all competed for "daddy points" -- even though they soon figured out that nobody was keeping a tally of them and, unlike Green Stamps, they were never actually redeemable for anything.

In both our families, during the lean years and the fat years, Daddy and Mommy were the best toys, the best teachers, the best appliances, the best entertainment, the best everything: And they came to us absolutely free of charge.

I'm sorry for the parents who hardly see their children because they're both off making more and more money so their children can have "the best."

It's one thing if parents are working as hard as they can to provide the basics -- but it's sad when parents think that the things money can buy will somehow make their children's lives better than if their parents spent time with them, working and playing and teaching and talking.

Your children already have the best, if they have you.

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More by Orson Scott Card

About Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools.

Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts.

Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He also teaches writing and literature at Southern Virginia University.

Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, and their youngest child, Zina Margaret.

More about Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card currently serves as second counselor in the bishopric.

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