Well, of course…

How happy were you when you picked the first loganberry of the year? Or would a Wii make you happier?

This blog is by Nicola Baird sharing ideas about thrifty, creative and eco-friendly ways to raise children.

I remember one of my daughter Nell’s friends telling me about her birthday. She was 8 and had been given a Wii. “Is it fun?” I asked. *Amy shrugged her shoulders, not really sure. I get that feeling too, whenever I have to try and make a new gadget work, a sense of complete disempowerment. Watching the two girls interact at Amy’s house I could see that Amy – apparently super lucky to have a must-have gadget – was now being told to sort it out, and play on it, when she’d really rather have chased the cat or sat giggling with her friend.

A few months later Amy was at Nell’s birthday party, a trip to the aquarium, clutching an incredibly expensive camera (her Christmas present), which she then had to worry about not losing or letting be stolen, and try to take pictures too.

She was the classic poor little rich girl.

An early news item on the radio was that children prefer time spent with their family rather than time on the eye-wateringly expensive gadgets they’ve been given. Or rather they don’t like being bought off by gadgets, however expensive. “That’s obvious,” said I catching the last bit of info as I handed my partner Pete a cup of coffee to drink in bed. Lola, 13, was already up so I mentioned what I’d heard and her response was “duh, of course!”.

Back in 2007  UNICEF found that child well-being in the UK was at a terrible low – bottom of 20+ industrialised countries. The new research by Ipsos MORI looked at 250 children’s experiences to compare Sweden, Spain and the UK. See this link  here.

This is how Unicef’s media team put it: “Children in all three countries told researchers that their happiness is dependent on having time with a stable family and plenty of things to do, especially outdoors, rather than on owning technology or branded clothes. Despite this, one of the most striking findings is that parents in the UK said they felt tremendous pressure from society to buy material goods for their children; this pressure was felt most acutely in low-income homes.”

In the Guardian (14/9/11) a news in brief summary (p12) claims that “British children are caught in a materialistic trap in which they are unable to spend enough time with their families and instead are bought off with branded goods by their parents.” There is of course no irony that on page 6-7 the newspaper has far too much coverage of the new vast shopping centre at Stratford, Westfield.

I know families have to work very hard to pay bills – although the trade off of earning a bit less (which often means your external costs, eg, childcare go down) can also be a plus if both parents find a way to work less hours. Having more time with your kids is nicer for you and apparently makes your kids a bit happier too, especially if there is an extended family (or friends) to share the tasks around.

Having less money may mean everything’s going into the mortgage, or the rent, or your food shopping bill and that you are not able to buy expensive gadgets, but no little child cares two hoots about that. And as the report shows, in the long run, it’s actually soul-destroying for kids.

Amy is from a well-off family. But there are many poorer families I know who spend frightening sums on Nintendos and Wiis and smart phones. I hope it is something the mum or dad (or both) want to use too, rather than a misplaced assumption that this type of flash gadget gift giving is good for the kids.

UNICEF suggests some solutions:

  • TV ads aimed at children younger than 12 should be banned (as they are in Sweden).
  • UK working hours should be far more family friendly – goodness knows if Cameron’s suggestion to shorten the school holidays will make this easier or harder for us.
  • Public spending cuts need to avoid destroying good things for kids, like play facilities and free leisure activities.

Forget the material world
That’s the big scale. Here’s some tips for tackling this small-scale, in your own family. These tips are adapted from my book Homemade Kids.

  • Firstly start young: borrow or swap toys for your baby/toddler and avoid anything with a battery (especially if it is going to annoy you).
  • Use toy libraries (and real libraries) or use charity shops like toy libraries.
  • Encourage your child to look around and see things – in the buggy that will be dogs, trees, shoppers. If you use a car never be tempted to plug your children into a DVD.  At a young age aim to make cars a journey that’s shared and talked about.
  • If an older child says their friend has a particular gadget, sound interested. I find this works: “That’s great, lucky them, maybe when you go round to their house you’ll be able to play on it a bit too…”

As my girls get older they are acquiring items, but they certainly appreciate them more when they’ve had the opportunity to save up, or to look forward to getting something. That way there is a good chance they will also be the right age, and be ready to enjoy being one of the lucky ones…

I haven’t really focused on the part about being outside. Having spent most of the past three months outside with my kids, a fabulous experience, I think that better be another blog post!

*Amy’s not the child’s real name.

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4 Comments on “Well, of course…”

  1. hedgehoghugh Says:

    another great piece Nicola – though in my defence, the Wii was given to me as a bribe … it is mainly used as the way on to BBC iplayer! And as for dvds in the car – both my kids fall asleep without it – which means we will arrive at the destination, usually a grandparent, with two tired adults wanting to relax and two children ready for another day (as the evening draws towards night). Technology, like most things, can be wonderful, in moderation.

  2. nicola baird Says:

    Thanks, and haha! Good point about how DVDs can keep your kids awake, we so rarely go in a car that I haven’t really had to turn my thinking on its head. Mind you I find our squirming, sometimes vomiting terrier, does a pretty good job of keeping anyone in the back awake. N x

  3. heshwesh Says:

    Car trips– we don’t have too many of them either. But since our daughter saved up for her own (i won’t name) individual music player, she tunes out, atomized from our family group experience, singing along to the Beatles on the radio, or whatever it is we do. That is a huge thing about a lot of the expensive tech– the a-socialness of it.

  4. nicola baird Says:

    @heshwesh, great points, and of course tuning out in the constricted space of a car can be a benefit at times. It is v strange being in London after being in a 3rd world country – few people can reply to my hellos or good mornings because they are locked into their own music landscape.I can’t see how it is good for society that we are choosing to isolate ourselves. I can cope without the replies though!


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