Material World

"What are your toy-related concerns this December?" Jody asks.  I realised, to my surprise, that I don’t really have any right now.  We’ve bought enough presents for Jamie (a book about farm animals, a set of magnetic letters and numbers, a box of picture dominoes, and an inflatable globe from me, and a Tinky Winky that waves its arms and legs around from Barry).  They haven’t been wrapped yet, but that’s Barry’s job, not mine.  We aren’t trying to get rid of any toys right now as we’re still hoping and planning on having someone else to play with them in the fullness of time.  So, right now, the whole toy-related area is a concern-free zone.  It’s a weird and pleasant feeling for a neurotic like me to focus on something I’m not worried about.

However, even if Christmas Present is under control, there’s still the ghost of Christmas Future to haunt me.

The latest edition of Right Start, a free parenting magazine that gets given out at Tumbletots, has, among its list of articles on the front, ‘Why Xmas is not all about money!’  Of course, it did seem just a touch ironic that this was less than three inches above a red-highlighted headline exclaiming ‘FREE!  32-page Best Toy Guide for Christmas’.  Then there was the free Toys ‘R’ Us catalogue that was also enclosed with the magazine.  And the full-page advert for some toy shop on the back of both the magazine itself and the aforementioned enclosed 32-page Best Toy Guide, which depicted a quite unbelievably gaudy, unnecessary, expensive-looking toy and the slogan "Give her the Fairy Wonderland and who knows what she’ll grow up to be."

However, in all fairness, the only way most publishers are going to be able to afford to hand out a free magazine is by making the costs back in some other way, and that usually is going to be advertising, so let us not be too much the purists over this.  I appreciated the fact that they were making the effort to inject the token touch of non-materialism, and turned to the article in question with some interest. 

It was, apparently, about "two families with very different approaches to Christmas", summarised as "Budget vs. bonanza".  What I noticed immediately was that although the total amount the two families spent was indeed colossally different, the amount they spent per child really wasn’t all that different.  The ‘budget’ family weren’t paying for a skiing holiday or for incredibly expensive presents for each other and they were managing to buy their food and their decorations a lot more cheaply, but, when it came to their children, they were going to town.  With four children, they were spending around £80 on each of the younger two (aged one and three), and £150 on each of the older two.  The only reason they were able to keep it that low, the mother explained, was because they started buying months in advance to take advantage of every bargain they could find.  In comparison, the ‘bonanza’ family spent around £200 on their child – a single big present worth around £50 – £75 ("We try not to go overboard", the mother reassured us), plus enough little presents to make it up to that total.

Now, I had my usual moments of self-righteousness about what is the world coming to and doesn’t anyone realise that Children Should Learn To Appreciate The Small Pleasures In Life.  (I don’t know exactly how much we’ve spent on Christmas presents for Jamie specifically, as we bought presents for both Christmas and birthday collectively and only separated them out into one or the other category at a later stage; but I do know that the sum total for Christmas and birthday comes to under £60.)  But I also faced the fact that it’s easy for me to get moralistic here.  My child is two years old.  Pester power and peer pressure are things of the future, for us.  So I have to wonder – how on earth am I going to handle the Everybody Else Has One category of complaint, when that day arises?

There seem to be so many issues tied up here.  Of course I want my son to enjoy the simple pleasures of life without getting sidetracked by materialism.  I have a romantic dewey-eyed image of a child like Laura and Mary in the Little House On The Prairie series, so overwhelmed by getting a tin cup and a stick of candy and a little cake each that they can’t believe they could possibly have been bought anything else and have to be shown that they have a penny each as well, whereupon they go into a trance of bliss.  But I also have to face the fact that, well, we’re not going out to live in a little house on the prairie.  That, no matter how much you enjoy the simple pleasures of life, there’s also a lot to be said for the more complex pleasures – specifically, the expensive ones.  That, after all, I’m not writing this blog by hand in a cheap notebook, and I’d miss out on a great deal if I was.  That we live in a world where my son is going to want expensive things. 

How am I going to handle this?  How am I going to draw lines between wanting to keep him happy, and wanting to teach him that the responsibility for his happiness isn’t something he should root in the amount of money that someone else can spend on him?  Am I going to make his life a miserable hell by my insistence that I don’t want to spend a fortune on the latest brand-name trainers just because Everybody Else Has Them?  Am I going to be able to resist the temptations to equate love for my child with money spent on him and get drawn into keeping up with the Joneses?  And will I be able to bring him up to understand that he is, in fact, incredibly privileged as such things go (yes, I do realise that there will be people reading this saying "Almost sixty pounds on birthday and Christmas presents, and she thinks she’s doing this cheaply?"

By and large, I have all this mentally filed under "Future Concerns – Do Not Open Until 2009".  I’m getting passably good (only passably) at this ‘don’t solve the problem until it happens’ approach.  But that article did bring home to me the fact that I’m highly likely to have to face it all at some point in the future.  I hate it when people tell me sagely that parenting only gets more difficult as children get older – if there are things out there more difficult than a day spent trying to stop a fifteen-month-old from getting into everything he wants to get into, I’m not sure I want to know.  Sufficient unto the day, and all that.  But, realistically, I recognise that I’ll have parenting challenges to face in the future that, right now, I can barely imagine.

So, although I don’t have any current toy-related concerns this Christmas, I can see plenty looming ahead of me in years to come.



Filed under Here Be Offspring

4 responses to “Material World

  1. Clare Wilson

    I know. I know I know I know.
    Right now I am determined we are only going to buy Katie (our 14-month-old) ONE Christmas present this year. Is that mean? But she’ll get so many presents from everyone else – maybe ten or so in total – does she really need more than that? She doesn’t even know it’s Christmas for Chrissake…
    I actually succeeded in sticking to this limit for her first birthday, two months ago – just a cheap plastic shape sorter for about £5.99 from Toys R Us. (She plays with it almost every day, though, so I reckon in real Katie-value, it was probably worth about £100.)

  2. This sort of budget is understandable – it’s the people who spend so much that they spend a year paying it back that I am concerned about.
    I know of neighbours who spend in excess of a thousand pounds per child. No, they don’t have that sort of income. Absolutely – it’s none of my business except that they row (loudly) about their financial problems for the rest of the year and the children can end up cowering in the garden.

  3. Claire

    “It gets worse, you know” is one of those mildly sadistic things people like to say. I don’t believe it does get worse – it gets different. Each stage has it’s challenges. Pointless to compare keeping a toddler safe with keeping a teenager safe. As for money spent on presents – I think it’s the manufacturers you should be railing at. Babies don’t pester, so no point in making those toys expensive. It’s – relatively – easy to resist the demand for the latest trainers, when even children can see that the prices are ridiculous and alternatives are available. It was the pricing of things like computer games or whatever the must have is nowadays that can be a bit harder to deal with. Personally, I have indulged my 15 month old granddaughter at a very modest cost. My older great nieces aren’t so easy.

  4. I remember desperately wanting the expensive toys in the adverts when I was little, and when I got them they were always disappointing. I’d play with them for a couple of hours and then go back to the old favourites (stangely, these toys could become old favourites I’d return to once they’d lost their glossy sheen and accessories and become a little more adaptable – i.e. once she wasn’t new and expensive and untouchable, I could cut Barbie’s hair and make her a dress out of scraps of tea-towel and she could be anybody I wanted, so I could actually play with her). There’s a distinct difference between what we want and what actually makes us happy – I got far more hours of enjoyment out of a new pack of felt-tips than a new Barbie doll, but I know which I wanted for Christmas. Like Albert says, you’re a selfish little bugger when you’re seven. I blame advertising.

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