September 17, 2010

Teaching Children to Recognize and Appreciate Quality, Part 2

PART 1 (in case you missed it)

Exposure to Quality

Giving our children opportunities to create things is key, but we also need to expose them to the creations of others. Seeing what others have done inspires our children, and also helps them to recognize greatness in the work of others.

Art museums are one place our children can become acquainted with high-quality, aesthetically pleasing works.

Historical museums expose our children to the great inventions of the past, and help them understand why it’s important to make things that last.

Art and craft shows give children an up-close look at art and the artists who create it.

Quilt shows highlight the creativity of those who work with cloth. Be on the lookout for special exhibits of antique quilts; before cloth was affordable or readily available, women of the past used fabric scraps, worn-out clothes and feed sacks to fashion quilts of beauty that were used to keep their families warm. Such quilts are the ultimate examples of good stewardship of materials.

Of course, the best place to expose our children to well-made and high quality items is in our own homes. There are high-quality items out in the marketplace, but they tend to cost quite a bit more than we might want to pay. In many cases, they’re downright unaffordable. Many people just don’t have the money to fill their homes with such expensive things.

However, there is a way to find affordable items for our homes, and that’s at estate sales, garage sales and rummage sales. Amidst the warped fiberboard entertainment centers and rickety kitchen chairs of the recent past you can find sturdy wooden furniture, high-quality pre-1990s towels and linens (some with the price tags still attached!) and small appliances made with metal gears (much longer-lasting than today’s products with plastic gears).

My husband and I began shopping in such places when we were poor newlyweds. We still use some of our purchases from back then; a few are now considered antiques that would sell for quite a bit more than we paid for them, IF we were willing to part with them.

The high quality of goods made in the past really hit home with me several years ago, when I helped my daughter find supplies for her first apartment by scouring local estate and rummage sales. She especially likes the look of the 1970s (to her, it’s very retro; I, however, lived through it the first time!). In finding various items of that vintage for her such as glassware, utensils and linens, I was struck by the sturdiness of the items compared to much new versions of the same things in our home. The plastic utensils were stronger and heavier. The glasses were also heavier, and the paint on them had held up almost perfectly; quite a difference from the glassware we use that’s not very old but already has faded a good deal.

The difference in linens is especially noticeable. The sheets I found for her are not as tightly woven as those you can buy nowadays, nor are the towels as thick and soft as today’s towels, but both are made of better-quality textiles. I can tell this because they continue to wear well despite frequent washings. In contrast, today’s sheets and towels seem luxurious when you buy them, but after a few washings they begin to deteriorate quickly.

These differences need to be pointed out to our children so that they can learn to recognize quality. In fact, just living with and using well-made goods on a day-to-day basis will have a subliminal effect on them; when you’re used to quality, anything “cheap” really becomes noticeable.

But we have to make an effort to “buy quality” in order to have it in our homes. If we can’t afford to buy new, buying older, used items is the way to do it. If you have a problem with doing that, just remember, every one of those expensive antiques you see on television’s “Antiques Roadshow” is a used item.

A Resurgence of Quality

Artists put a lot of time into their creations. In the new age of increasing productivity (the faster a product can be made, the better) and throwaway products, we have to ask if the creation of high-quality items is really worth the time it takes. Does it make sense to encourage our children to recognize quality and to develop their artistic talents so that they can create items of quality when the rest of the world seems to have forsaken quality for low prices and the convenience of disposability?

I think it does. Beyond the pleasure creation brings, and the joy of working with good materials, is the likelihood that eventually, people will tire of having to buy new goods all the time. There are many reasons for this:

• It takes time to keep buying replacements, and we’re increasingly short on time.

• It’s very frustrating when things keep breaking or falling apart.

• The novelty of each season’s “hot” new items wears off after a while; we get bored with them.

• It’s expensive to keep replacing the items we use in our daily lives; this is especially important during economic downturns like the one we’re in now.

• As people age, they lose interest in continual consumption, and learn to appreciate what they have (or maybe they just get tired of all that shopping!)

• In rapidly changing times, people find security in the possessions that have meaning to them.

This last point is especially intriguing. In a throwaway society, which items will become the eventual heirlooms we leave to our children and their children? Will the museums of the future have anything in them to represent the early 21st century, or will it all have fallen apart?

I think today’s “it’s cheaper to buy a new one” mentality will eventually lead to a resurgence of the appreciation of quality. It will always have its place, even among an avalanche of cheap imported goods. In the world of job insecurity and changes that we’ve entered, it’s human nature to want some security, some things that don’t change. Possessions that have stood up over time and even have special significance for us are greatly appreciated.

In our home sits a sturdy old rocking chair that we inherited after the death of my husband’s great-grandmother. She received it as a wedding gift, so it’s over 100 years old. I rocked my babies in it; when my children were small, they climbed in it and all over it. It has held up very well, and holds many memories for us.

It’s one of many chairs we’ve owned; many of the others are no longer in our house. Having been made more recently, they fell apart from the daily use of six people. They were replaced by even newer and not-inexpensive chairs. While my husband tries to keep them in good repair, it is a constant job. It’s true, they just don’t make things like they used to make them. Yet that rocking chair remains in good shape. You can’t beat quality.

NOTE: Excerpted from Thriving in the 21st Century, now available in print and eBook.

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