By Lara Strong
In Hungary, where I have lived for ten years, most schools operate with tight budgets. As a result, there aren’t a lot of toys or books in the classrooms for kids to play with or look through during breaks. In the States, the “bring-your-own lunch” concept exists; in Hungary, kids are allowed—in fact, encouraged—to bring in their own toys.
This has never caused much of a problem. My eight-year-old son has always relished the morning ritual of choosing which toy to bring in: Should it be a Lego dinosaur? How about Playmobil pirates or some tiny, plastic animal figures? Now that my six-year-old daughter, Sara, is entering first grade, she is already eagerly anticipating this practice—a stuffed unicorn, perhaps? Maybe a pretty pink pony?
I’ve rarely had an opportunity to witness what happens when my kids actually arrive at school, but I imagine how it goes each morning. They set down their backpacks, take off their jackets, and change into the indoor slippers required in most Hungarian schools. Then they produce their toys. There are lots of oohs of admiration, squeals of excitement. Exchanges are made, deals struck—if you let me play with that at recess, you can play with this and then after five minutes we can switch—and on a really lucky day, My mom says we can swap as long as we swap back tomorrow.
As Sara’s first year in elementary school progresses she spends much of her time talking excitedly about who has what, and long minutes are devoted each morning to carefully selecting her toy of the day. “Tekla likes ponies,” she’ll say, “so I should bring this blue pony with the sparkles, and then maybe she’ll let me play with her white Pegasus with the golden reins, unless Flora brings her mermaid with the sequins, because then I would want …” Occasionally she mentions, “We learned a new letter today” or “We started adding double digits.” With an approving nod, I encourage her to divulge more about her school day, but her response is inevitably “And Athena brought in a ballerina Barbie …”
One day not long after Christmas, Sara comes home chattering eagerly about a new toy that has made its appearance—something that apparently stands out from the now mundane ponies, mermaids, and Barbies.
“It’s a stuffed animal that can transform into a fruit and even smells like a fruit,” she explains excitedly. “A Fur Berry. And there are four, maybe even five different kinds! And Tekla has one, and so does Flora, and Anna, and …” She stops her speech and looks at me expectantly.
“Well that’s great. Lots of Fur Berries, lots of opportunities to make swaps.”
But she’s shaking her head as if I don’t understand. I turn and face her. She is not eager or excited as I first thought, but agitated. In fact, her big brown eyes are blinking hard, fighting back tears. “No, Mommy,” she says with a hint of desperation. “Everyone has a Fur Berry—don’t you see?—everyone but me.” I may have been slow on the uptake, but now the message is clear. Swapping isn’t enough. A Fur Berry is not a toy one merely obtains on exchange for just a day or two at the most. Its importance lies far beyond its transient entertainment value. It will earn her social cachet, and it’s vital that I as a parent understand this. But somehow, I find myself unable to accept Sara’s urgent need for this fuzzy, pastel-colored plaything.
Days go by, however, and the Fur Berry is the only topic she’s willing to discuss, and always with the teary eyes. Eventually she does concede that, okay, not everyone has a Fur Berry. Only the girls. And well, not all the girls either, only a few. But they are the girls that matter. They are the girls who decide who is in and who is out.
My husband and I are dismayed. She’s only in first grade, yet peer pressure and the tyranny of cliques have already reared their ugly heads. Sooner than I expected, I find myself recalling my own painful struggles of early adolescence. I was never a popular child, introverted and bookish, awkward and unfashionable. And this last quality, my lack of style, was the most problematic. I was sadly aware of how popularity was connected to wealth, and that material possessions could impact one’s social standing: all my clothes came from the Sears catalogue, while many of the other girls were wearing trendy stone-washed Guess jeans. “A waste of money,” my mother would say, “and totally unimportant.” But I remember the looks of scorn on my classmates’ faces.
Painful as it was, however, I knew then as I know now, that the lessons my mother was teaching were important. A person’s value could not be measured according to the number of designer labels hanging in the closet. As my mother reminded me repeatedly, friends and social groups were chosen based on shared interests or personal qualities such as a sense of humor or intelligence. Whether someone had the latest velour V-neck pullover was of no consequence. “We don’t buy things just for the sake of popularity!” she’d say.
In a rare moment, even my Hungarian mother-in-law, who tends not to agree with any of my ideas on childrearing, concurs. She grew up under communism, raised her children under communism, and while she despises totalitarianism, she is also disgusted by the creeping materialist culture. “There was never much to buy in those days,” she explains, “so we never had situations like this Fur Berry business. All you could get were the same Czechoslovak paper dolls, East German toy cars, Yugoslav jeans. What was the status in that? Nothing. It was better that way. Now,” she says shaking her head and waving her hands, “everything comes in from the West. Everyone has to have what everyone else has got. A terrible waste.”
I sigh, knowing the two moms are right. Everyone knows materialism is running rampant these days, even in Hungary. With the economy in crisis, the environment in peril, the evils of wanton consumption discussed on every television talk show, the need to resist is more important than ever. I look at Sara blinking back the tears and know that I have to remain steadfast. There’s no time like the present to instill in my own daughter good, solid values. What better place to start than this basic tenet: Material possessions don’t matter, but how you make your friends does. Who could argue with that? I say to her firmly, “No, you cannot have a Fur Berry. You don’t need it, it’s totally unimportant.”
A couple of weeks later, I pick Sara up at school early. A group of little girls are sitting happily in a circle rocking pale-colored stuffed creatures that smell of strawberries, plums, and peaches. Occasionally the girls cast derisive looks back at those few little girls outside the circle who do not possess these strange-looking animal-fruit hybrids. I even hear one girl utter, “I’m not playing with you if you don’t have a Fur Berry.” I feel a stab at my heart and do my best to recall my mother’s words (“a waste of money, totally unimportant, we don’t buy things just for the sake of popularity!”)
But I look again at my little girl, who’s visibly upset. It’s different when you see the hard, real consequences of your decisions played out before your eyes. What does Sara really understand about good, solid values, the right method of choosing friends, or the irrelevance of our material possessions? All she knows is that she is on the outside looking in. All she knows is that the bear-cum-peach is more than just a toy, but an entrée into the coterie of the privileged, her social savior, an assurance that tomorrow she will have someone to play with.
As days pass, she informs me of more and more classmates whose moms have succumbed and purchased them Fur Berries. The number of girls on the outside is slowly diminishing. I begin to see that the story of the Fur Berry is not going to end where I had assumed. Sara is not going to join the ranks of the non-Fur Berry girls and discover those kids—the witty, intelligent ones my mother talked about—who might become her best friends for life. Instead she is coming home each day feeling increasingly isolated.
My opposition to peer pressure and materialism begins to feel less stalwart. What would happen if I did buy her a Fur Berry?
She would certainly take pleasure in the toy itself. This is a point I have resisted considering, since it runs so strongly against my anti-materialist stance, but it’s true: Having nice stuff feels good. My mother-in-law might argue that in the Hungary of the 1960s and ’70s, people didn’t care about material possessions, but then again, maybe her memory is not exactly perfect. After all, communism wasn’t an overwhelming success, and, when given the opportunity, Hungarians had shed it as quickly as possible. I’m sure an evolutionary biologist would probably tell us pretty much every human on the planet is vulnerable to the lure of nice, cool things and their social perks. Sara is experiencing an anguish that is almost universal. The little girls in a first-grade class in Budapest are no more immune to this pull than any child in any American classroom, or any adult for that matter, perhaps anywhere. After all, communism failed because it ignored basic human nature. Even my mother-in-law acknowledges this.
My mother never did buy me the Guess jeans, but one afternoon as I’m contemplating the whole Fur Berry dilemma, into my head pops an image of me at twelve or thirteen. I’m sitting on a school bus, wearing a pair of purple Sassoon corduroys. Yes, designer pants. How could I have forgotten those? I bought them with my own pocket money. Those pants were so elegant and smooth, the legs and pockets fully lined, the corduroy soft and lush like the down of a baby chick. How well I remember them now!
In those pants, I was transformed—no longer the Sears-catalogue ugly duckling, but a radiant swan. I still had a dog-eared copy of These Happy Golden Years under one wing, my flute case under the other, but as I headed toward early-morning band practice, I discovered a new sensation. Airiness. I was rising high into the sky, far above the pedestrian fray. The petty comments, the mundanity of junior high school life seemed so small, like the tiny little specks of cars and trucks you see from the window of an ascending airplane. Triumphant and indomitable, I was soaring.
As wonderful as those corduroys made me feel, however, they were in no sense a social entrée for me, any more than the Fur Berry would be for Sara. The Sassoons did not lead to automatic acceptance in the popular girls’ group. What divided me from them was never those superficial differences—jeans, blue eye shadow, and pierced ears—but a different temperament, a different orientation. I loved books, handicrafts, and quiet contemplation, and disliked parties, alcohol, and all team sports, especially those involving a ball. In retrospect, my mother’s message about what really draws people together, or keeps them apart, was confirmed by my having the cords.
Still, having those pants empowered me. I was a girl who could wear a designer label just like the others. In this way, the pants had lost their power as a tool of social tyranny. The playing field was now even, if perhaps only temporarily. In my set of peers I was among equals, and my lifestyle was of my own choosing, not foisted upon me as a result of some kind of social or material inadequacy. While the designer pants hadn’t necessarily made me wiser, they had given me a much-needed boost in self-confidence.
A Fur Berry might do the same for Sara. My mother-in-law would surely disapprove of my acquiescing, and my mom, too. But how liberating it can be to do something that others might not approve of! After all, how many times a day do I utter the word “no,” to my kids? More times than I can count. I am constantly fighting against their basic human desires—their love of sugar and staying up late, their captivation with TV and any other kind of moving image, their pleasure in potty talk, and enjoyment of overfull bathtubs with bubbles overflowing. I am constantly trying to contain their yearnings in a tiny little box of decorum, good, solid values, and healthy habits that will help them build character, avoid illness and obesity, contribute to society, save the environment, and ensure a successful career and a happy marriage. It gets tiring sometimes. And what happens when it risks the self esteem of a six-year-old child incapable of understanding the virtue of controlling her desires.
At that moment I realize, my mind may not be made up, but my gut is. I stop weighing the pros and cons, and with the feel of those Sassoon corduroys swishing against my legs, I plunge on ahead, certain now of what I am going to do, even if I am not at all certain that it is right.
When I pick Sara up at school that afternoon, we head straight to the toy store. She chooses a furry yellowish, pinkish ball that opens into a bear and has the essence of apricot. Her eyes light up as she dangles the fruit from its string handle, then pops it open into a round-headed bear with floppy arms and legs. She squeezes it lovingly, her eyes brimming with gratitude and relief. I recognize the feeling as she dances down the street, swinging her Fur Berry. After weeks of trudging heavily along, she is carefree, light, and airy, equal to her peers; her destiny is in her own hands. What’s more she has something that just looks good and feels nice to cradle in her arms. She runs, she jumps. She is soaring.
Author’s Note: Shortly after this article was written, Sara’s teacher called a general meeting for all parents. Fur Berries were at the top of the agenda. Shocked by the numerous stories of Fur Berry-induced stress so many of us had to share, we parents took a vote, and Sara’s class became the first in her school to restrict bring-your-own-toy to Fridays only. A second (unanimous) vote banned Fur Berries once and forever from class 1/A. Where Fur Berries had been a dividing force among our children, they became a uniting force among us parents.
Sara is now in second grade. Fur Berries are still banned in her class, and no new toys have since bewitched any of our kids quite the way Fur Berries did. But if one ever does, I hope that we parents will be ready to join forces again.
Brain, Child (Spring, 2010)
About the Author: Lara Strong teaches English language and culture in a bi-lingual high school in Budapest, Hungary, where she has lived for the past fourteen years. She’s a member of the Budapest Writers’ Workshop, an informal group of amateur writers. Her work has also appeared in Literary Mama.
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