Once upon a Christmas several years ago, when our children were quite small, my father came to visit with his grandchildren and to present them with their gifts. Almost as an afterthought, he reached into his pocket and brought out a handful of penny balloons.
Much to our surprise our three small ones abandoned their many impressive toys and spent the rest of the day with those penny balloons.
It occurred to me that evening that a rule I had been applying to entertaining children on television also applied to raising my own children at home. The rule was the rule of simplicity.
Jackie Gleason, the great showman, once said: “Never use one elephant when you can get two.” When “Captain Kangaroo” first went into production back in 1955, I placed a sign on the office wall reminding the staff, “Never use two elephants when one is enough.”
Simplicity. Too much adornment obscures the message.
So there it was with the toy balloons, the message of simplicity. My wife, Jeanne, and I, like most parents, have been concerned with the establishment of values for our youngsters, but how difficult it is to show these values in a world of material distractions.
But if it is difficult to be a parent in today’s world, it is even more difficult to be a child.
Take the matter of today’s toys. When I was young an airplane was two ice cream sticks tied together. Did it look like an airplane? Not unless I wanted it to. That is the point. I had to bring some imagination, something of myself to the objects of my play to make them what I wanted them to be.
Today the toy plane looks real in every detail, the door opens, the stewardess steps out and waves. What can a child bring to such a toy in the way of imagination? It’s all there for him, the spectator. No wonder he tires of it shortly after he receives it.
It is often difficult for a youngster to find a place to play a game of ball in this modern world. When we were kids we didn’t care if we had 8 or 18 guys for a baseball game. Any corner lot would do as a playing field. The uniform was not important, nor was the length of the baseline.
Today everything has to be organized. You have to have the uniform, the playing field is regulation and there is a grownup at first base to tell you if yon got there before the ball.
“Hey, Pop, cut it out.” That was half the fun of baseball, the argument at first base. How do you think a boy learns compromise and fair play? Not with his father making all the decisions!
I know you can’t turn the world around and go backward. Times change; life gets more complicated. But that doesn’t stop me from stressing on my television show the simple values: faith in God, saying “please” and “thank you,” being a good neighbor and sharing what you have with others.
One such story I have told several times on TV is called “Stone Soup.” It goes something like this:
Three soldiers were walking home after a long, bitter war had ravaged the countryside. They came to a small village and, being quite hungry, asked for food.
But the village people were afraid of the strangers. “We’re sorry but we ourselves don’t have enough to eat,” one man told them.
“Yes, and the harvest was very bad,” said another.
It was the same throughout the whole community. No one had anything to give them. Food seemed nonexistent.
“This is a very bad situation,” one of the soldiers said to several of the villagers. “We’ll have to make some stone soup.”
“Stone soup!” The people showed surprise–and interest. “What in the world is that?”
“First of all,” said the soldiers, “we need a big iron pot.”
Two men brought back the largest pot they could find. Then a fire was built in the village square; it took over a dozen pails of water to fill the huge pot.
“Now, for the special ingredient,” said one soldier, and he placed a flat, smooth stone at the bottom of the pot.
As the water began to heat, the people gathered around the pot with great curiosity.
“Of course, any soup needs a little salt and pepper,” said one of the soldiers. Two children disappeared and soon returned with some salt and pepper.
“It sure smells good,” said the soldiers as they stirred the water. “It’s too bad we don’t have a few carrots. Carrots really add something to stone soup.”
A woman slipped away to her home, then returned with some carrots for the soup.
“Oh, that’s great,” said the soldiers as they cut up the carrots. “Now if only there was just a bit of cabbage, but of course we don’t have any, do we?”
Another woman thought she might find a cabbage. She returned with three.
The tasty aroma from the boiling pot was now obvious to everyone. Several other villagers disappeared to get a piece of beef, potatoes, goat’s milk, some barley.
At last, the soup was ready. “But we can’t eat without tables and chairs, can we?” asked the soldiers. Large tables were set up in the square. Torches were lit. Soon there was music and laughter and joyful shouts from the children. Bread, cider, pastry surprisingly appeared. It was a sumptuous feast.
As the villagers ate and drank with the three soldiers, distrust vanished. For the first time since hostilities had begun years before, the people in this community found something to be happy about: rediscovered friendships, new ideas for rebuilding the village, dreams and hopes for the future.
The soldiers were given warm beds to sleep in that night, plus food and gifts the next day as they continued their journey. “Thank you for showing us how to make stone soup,” were the farewell cries.
A simple little parable, but full of great truth. For when we give unselfishly of ourselves to those about us, something magical always takes place, something even more amazing than turning stones to bread. Hearts of stone are transformed into hearts of kindness and love.
Did you enjoy this story? Subscribe to Guideposts magazine.