Views on generosity, greed, and morality as a child

I had a best friend when I was in Kindergarten who I would play with all the time. He had the same name as me, so when we were together (and often even when we weren’t), I was called Ben M and he was called Ben K. He was also Jewish, and I remember lighting Hanukkah candles over at his house one night and then lighting them at my house later that night. But for all our similarities, the friendship was star-crossed.

This other Ben was spoiled. His parents were rich, and he had typically got everything he wanted. I remember being in awe at his collection of toys. There were too many to even play with properly. He had a whole toy room in his house for himself, and it even had a built-in second level (kind of like an upper bunk in a bunk bed) that was great for barricading up with pillows and playing fort with. With my more limited collection of toys, we had to resort to imagination and playing outside when he came over. Eventually he just started bringing some of his toys over.

I recall distinctly one day when he was after school for a “play date” (don’t you just love motherly language?). I was showing him all of my toys, and for whatever reason, I was feeling really generous. He asked if he could have one of them. I said yes. He immediately asked if he could have a second one. I said yes again. It snowballed from there. It ended up with us raiding the kitchen for some heavy duty freezer bags that we filled up with a lot of my toys, all of which he could ostensibly keep.

My toys were not as flashy or expensive as his, but I made them much, much more interesting. I had stories behind them. I vividly remember hyping up and then digging out, from a special bag of goodies in a drawer underneath my bed, some shiny, prickly, glittery beads that I had snagged from camp the previous summer. Nowadays I would recognize them for what they are, cent-a-piece molded plastic junk manufactured in China, but as a kid, they were positively magical. They looked like something from right out of a fantasy film.

It was very uncharacteristic of me to offer up giving away all of these things. I had spent over a year accumulating them, and when you’re five years old, that’s a long time. I think I must have realized that he wasn’t going to be able to leave with them. I was just testing out the depths of his greed. I remember his wide-eyed expression when I responded in the affirmative each time he asked “Can I have this?” He wanted it all. He cared nothing whatsoever that he would be taking it all away from me, someone who already had far fewer toys than he did. He valued the toys not because of what they were (and he already had so many), but because of the value I placed in them. He got trapped up in the sell.

When his mother came to pick him up after the play date, she was outraged. She was a good mother, guilty perhaps only of loving her son a bit too much. Of course, she would not let him leave with so many of my toys when he already had so many at home. At that age, toys aren’t really the kid’s to give away anyways. My parents had bought most of them for me, and so Ben K’s mother couldn’t possibly let him take them all away. It would’ve been like her stealing from my parents.

My friend was furious. He clutched those plastic bags full of my toys and refused to let them go. He kicked and screamed and cried. I remember his mother dragging him down the driveway. It took her a full half hour to get him to leave. From his viewpoint, it simply wasn’t fair: I had given those toys to him, so why in the hell didn’t his mother let him keep them? She repeatedly tried to convince him that he already had so many toys, and that it wouldn’t be fair to take away so many of mine. But these pleas fell on deaf ears.

Our friendship quickly soured after that. I didn’t hate him or anything, but he was clearly resentful on all future play dates, and I quickly told my mom I didn’t want to spend time with him any more. He was being mean. Looking back on it, I don’t think I regret the loss of that friendship. I had exposed him for what he was. Even at a young age, I was already making complex moral judgments of my peers.

That night, I carefully took all of my toys back out of the freezer bags and carefully put them back where they had come from. The shiny, prickly beads went back to their special hiding place for treasures beneath my bed. I never once offered to give away most of my toys to friends after that incident, but then again, after that, I didn’t have any friends who likely would have accepted them.

3 Responses to “Views on generosity, greed, and morality as a child”

  1. Dyneus Says:

    wow you were 5 and you remember all of that in detail? are you sure you’re not filling in any of the blanks with some creative writing? i barely remember anything from when I was 5.

    and you were pretty devious as a kid, giving away your toys to your friend knowing you’d get them back, and exposing him for what he was. i don’t know many 5 year olds with that kind of morality.

  2. Cyde Weys Says:

    I don’t consider myself to have exceptional memory from childhood. There are only a few occurrences that I really remember in a lot of detail (like this one). Pretty much everything is accurate, though the 30 minutes figure isn’t exactly remembered, but rather, my best guess.

    The neat thing about memory is that as you age and mature, your memory schema changes many times as your brain gets more advanced (for lack of a better word). Memories encoded under previous schemas are irretrievable, and thus lost. However, this can be circumvented in some circumstances of memories that are frequently recalled. So I have a few good memories left from childhood that I’ve recollected every so often since then. But the day-to-day memories are totally lost.

    As for morality, well, I wouldn’t call it a good morality. I manipulated that poor kid. That was not even close to the only time I did something like that as a child, either. I remember playing mind games on the other kids during recess. That was my enjoyment. I was an nth agent between two cliques, telling each I was spying for them on the other, when in fact, I didn’t really have any allegiance either way other than to myself. I simply enjoyed being manipulative.

    You’ll be happy to learn that I’ve long since stopped doing this. I suppose it’s acceptable to derive amusement from it as a child when you don’t really know better, but if you continue doing it on through adulthood, that’s psychopathic.

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