Lost Cause

Why do my children lose everything?

Where do all the soccer balls go? There must be a hidden graveyard for them or a coach who picks them up after practice and cuts them up to make leather jackets. Two Fridays ago, we had four soccer balls: two for 8-year-old Eli to practice with; a slightly smaller one for his younger brother, Simon; and a special, pristine ball that Eli’s teammates in Washington, D.C., signed for him when he left the team last summer because we were moving to a new city. Last Friday, five minutes before Simon’s soccer practice, we had only one ball. The unblemished one with the signatures. Understandably, Eli didn’t want Simon to take it to practice. But where had all the other ones gone? Neither of my boys knew. I tore around the house and the garage. Well, actually, Eli allowed, one or maybe two of the balls had somehow failed to make it home from practice the previous week. What to do now? Fume.

“Lose something every day. Accept the fluster/ of lost door keys, the hour badly spent./ The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” poet Elizabeth Bishop wrote. Yet I can’t accept the fluster. My children’s penchant for leaving their belongings strewn behind them—a long tail of balls and toys and lunchboxes and socks and shoes and sweatshirts—makes me fear that they are heedless prima donnas who will never be ready for the responsibilities of adulthood. And then, of course, I’m forced to concede that I seem to have raised them to be this way. The ritual of losing things makes me wonder about the line between taking good care of your kids and impossibly coddling them. Have middle-class American parents like us forever blurred the distinction?

There is a simple and practical solution to the soccer ball disappearing act, I know. I should designate a spot—a box, whatever—where the balls go. Then I can reward the kids for bringing them home and safely depositing them in that spot. And when practice comes around the next week, we will all know where to look for the needed ball. I will find and designate such a box as soon as I’m done ranting, but that won’t solve the existential dilemma that’s really plaguing me. Objects mean so little to my kids and most of the kids we know. They are cheap, they are expendable, they can be replaced easily. “Can’t you order more online?” my sons have taken to saying when I worry over a lost object.

This tempts me to let loose the Laura Ingalls Wilder lecture. No, I won’t spare you. In The Little House in the Big Woods, when Laura is about 5, she gets one rag doll named Charlotte. One. The family also has one picture book. When Laura and her sisters each get her own tin cup, it is a noteworthy event. Much is made over each of these possessions precisely because there are so few of them. There’s little abundance and little largesse—in fact, less and less as the books go on and the family leaves the relatively hospitable big woods of Wisconsin for the far harsher prairies of Kansas and South Dakota.

Forgive me for romanticizing the parsimony of necessity. I don’t mean to suggest that I long for the moments of deprivation that the Ingalls girls and their mother endured. (No matter how well Pa played the fiddle, I’m eternally grateful not to be related to him.) But I do think that our toss-and-go culture has its own stifling qualities. Especially when combined with our overly solicitous approach to childrearing. The day after my fruitless search for the missing soccer balls, I drove Eli and a couple of his friends to their weekend soccer game. We got out of the car and onto the field, and one of the kids asked, “Did you bring my water bottle?” I said, “No, that’s your job.” And then I felt guilty, because I could hear the bite in my voice, and also because I wasn’t entirely confident that I was right. Is it an 8-year-old’s job to remember his own water bottle? How is he supposed to know that if an adult has always done that for him? And in any case, maybe I should just lighten up.

This is what my husband thinks. Paul is of the shrug-it-off persuasion about losing things. He is unmoved by the Laura Ingalls Wilder lecture. He takes the sunny view that misplaced objects will turn up around the house (though he did go back to the field to find one of Eli’s soccer balls the day it went missing, he notes). Mostly, Paul doesn’t see the loss of a few soccer balls as a character flaw or evidence that the kids will become helpless teenagers and then adults. He figures that this is all part of growing up: They’ll get the hang of keeping track of their own things eventually.

How sanguine. I do concede that children should not be made to feel that they have only a few precious belongings when in fact more can be had for $5.99 and a few mouse clicks or a stop at the sporting goods store. In the end, we did order more soccer balls online. I’ll even admit that it’s handy to have a few spares. But I can’t stop feeling like the constant churning of possessions is exhausting and somehow immoral. One of my co-workers said he has a friend who tells her kids, when they ask the inevitable “where is” and “can you help me find” questions: “If I find it, I’m throwing it away.” I’d never be that bold, and besides, I’d never be able to countenance the wasteful result of carrying out such a threat. But I understand the impulse. Somehow, these children of ours need to learn that there’s a reason to come back carrying the things they left with. It’s my job to impart that, and for a while, even to remind them. But it’s their job to trot back onto the field at the end of practice, find the ball they brought, and bring it home. Maybe this won’t, in fact, make them better people. But it will make me feel better.