The question of the sand dollar

On a recent spring break trip to Florida, one thing soon became very apparent: If our kindergartner didn’t find a sand dollar on the beach, the vacation – and perhaps even his entire life – would be ruined.

So it was with scanning eyes and single-minded purpose that we scrutinized the beach and tide pools. We found many a shell, broken pieces of shells, fractions of sand dollars (thus confirming their existence) and even an angry crab Andy picked up by accident. By the second day, with no intact sand dollar yet found, the prospects were looking grim. Then, our daughter found a perfect sand dollar in the surf – thus raising the stakes even higher. Surely, Andy reasoned, if his sister found one, destiny dictated one should be his as well.

The sand dollar is a curious thing. A marine animal similar to a sea urchin, it actually has a covering of spines on its surface when living. After it dies, the spines fall off and it attains a smooth, dry finish with some interesting, petal-like markings. As far as shell collecting goes, the sand dollar is of pretty high value to kids (even though it’s actually a skeleton, not a shell). So it was kind of a bummer when, upon visiting some of the tourist traps along the strip in Destin, Fla., we discovered they were almost literally a dime-a-dozen – available even at Wal-Mart.

Somehow, though, Andy made a clear distinction between the value of a sand dollar purchased at a store and one found on the beach – presumably by dint of his own hard work and perseverance (and, by association, my hard work and perseverance). At first, this didn’t make much sense to me, since the Wal-Mart sand dollar was fundamentally the same as the beach-found variety. So far, China hasn’t figured out how to create an artificial version that’s cheaper than the one Mother Nature produces. But upon reflection, it parsed with what I know about most little kids and Andy in particular: Although he’s a consummate consumer, he also really values stuff we make ourselves. That’s why the crappy robot we cobbled together out of a fallen aspen branch last year was infinitely more valuable to him than a more functional plastic one bought at the store.

But back to the sand dollar: When it looked increasingly unlikely that fortune would land one in the surf for Andy to find on his own, my wife stepped in and intervened with The Fates: She bought one and planted it for him to find.

As a family, we were split on this decision. My teenage son and I were opposed to it, thinking it a slightly unethical deception and not in line with the “school of reality and hard knocks” we believe Andy must learn to deal with. Jen and our teenage daughter were OK with it, justifying it fairly easily by pointing out how very excited Andy was when he found the sand dollar – and who cares where it came from when the kid is happy?

And so the sand dollar was brought back to the mountains, dutifully named (“Sandy”) and trotted out at the next show-and-tell. It remained a prized possession for a few days, after which it was supplanted by something else. In the end, I chalked it up to a parental deception of the Santa Claus-Easter Bunny variety – probably harmless, and just another way to brighten his little life with what is truly a minor wonder of nature.

Even so, questions of this kind are not ones I want to confront often. If Wal-Mart can one day supply every kid with all the curios to be found in nature, we can say goodbye to the magic of discovery altogether.

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