IT'S been a month since I watched my children open Christmas presents, but the memory lingers, and it makes me worry about the future of America. Like other middle-class kids, these children already owned enough toys to open a small store, and now dozens of new items have been added - most of them requiring batteries. I look at one of these, a farm set, and think back to my childhood. My possessions and my Christmas gifts were few.
My parents, having lived through the Great Depression, began with little. Slowly, over years of scrimping, saving, and hard work, they acquired what many couples today expect when they first marry: a fully-furnished home and a new car or two.
Many young parents today have never done without, but in their attempt to do as their parents did - to provide for their children more than they had - they give them far too much. And far too little.
While toys, such as Nintendo games and remote-controlled cars and dogs, certainly prepare children for a future in the electronic age, they don't require much from the child. Push the buttons, watch what happens. The toy itself does it all.
Some toys, of course, may help children develop their manual dexterity, but they don't leave any room to develop their imaginations. And these toys won't work when the batteries run down or the power goes off. When they break, they're usually thrown away because few adults are able to fix them. A broken wagon might be repaired with a bit of scrap wire and some ingenuity, but electronic toys require expertise, not common sense.
Children can play with only one toy at a time, and when they have so many, there often isn't time to try them all. Because children invest so little of themselves, the novelty of a new toy wears off quickly. The new toys become old toys and are soon relegated to the store of previous toys crowded in their rooms or elsewhere in the house.
As I looked around at the post-Christmas carnage this year and watched the children flit from one toy to another - or, after a month, forget them altogether - I couldn't help but think of what they're missing. Flashy electronic toys keep them in the house and moving fast. The TV and VCR capture their attention and freeze them passively in front of a flickering screen. They have little time to discover who they are inside.
Will these children ever create a town from a mound of dirt? Will they pass up their fancy swing and playset to climb a living tree? Will they find a secret place to dream in a grove of trees?
Will they be content to lie on their backs on freshly cut grass and look for cloud animals in the sky? Or perch on their knees and watch a colony of ants busily working to survive?
Will they leave the mesmerizing screen to make angels in new snow? Or slide down an icy hill on a piece of cardboard? Will they experience life on a wagon train or in King Arthur's Court through the magic pages of a book?
Will they walk in the woods to collect samples of leaves? Or in the fields to gather milkweed pods and nibble on tasty pieces of tall grass?
When they pick up shells along the shore, will they stop to think about the wonder of the natural world? Will they for a moment forget all that scientists have discovered and ask, as the very first people did, why am I here? How did the earth come to be? What's up above in the sky beyond where I can see and down below in the earth beyond where I can dig?
Today's children will inherit the responsibility for America. How well will they do if we allow them to become adults who have never learned to find satisfaction in hard work, to count the worth of people more than things, and to value the natural, the imaginative, and the spiritual?
I worried this Christmas that by giving our children too much, we have given them too little.
As the new year moves along, I remember the secret of the fox in Antoine de St. Exup'ery's ``The Little Prince.'' His wise words to the Little Prince seem to be a warning to us: ``What is essential is invisible to the eye.''