Money can buy me love. And Pokemons and Action Men, too
Our children are accused of being hopelessly materialistic and, as Christmas approaches, they are under assault from toy and game advertisers. But does a little of what they fancy really turn them into monsters?
We have our own little Christmas ritual in our house. Every time an ad comes on for some piece of worthless plastic tat (recommended retail price, pounds 399.99) Clara, aged four, asks me to buy it and I say "no". It's a pleasant enough exchange, almost comforting in a liturgical kind of way, as reflexive as sneezing and someone saying "bless you".
Occasionally we'll take things a little further. I am becoming morbidly obsessed with a giant Day-Glo caterpillar called "Lotsa Lotsa Legs". This cuddly invertebrate, apparently a huge hit with little girls, is a six- foot-long rebuke to William Morris in that it is specifically designed to be of neither use nor ornament. The only thing to recommend it is the fact of its being constantly advertised on the telly, and this, frankly, seems to be enough for its target market.
As far as I am concerned, however, the name alone drives me into a frenzy (and that was before I noticed that "Legs" is spelt with six "g"s). Twenty times an afternoon, when the virally insistent "Latsa Latsa Legs" song comes on, I roll my eyes and demand to know what the point is, while Clara patiently explains: "The point, Mummy, is that it has lots and lots of legs." But she knows that I won't buy it and I know she doesn't really want it.
It has taken a little while to reach this point of easy understanding. At first, my stock answer to all requests was the time-honoured "we'll see". (Answer: "when will we see?"). Waiting to see "what Santa brings" was a non-starter, too. Clara has a fundamentalist faith in Santa's omnipotence, and stories about supply and demand in the elves' workshop just don't wash. Funnily enough, the one argument that she, and most of her contemporaries, will accept is the unvarnished "Sorry, it's too expensive." It may be sad that four-year-olds should have to put a price on their dreams, but it's a truthful way out. And on a straw poll of the nursery class it is clear that most children do not, in fact, expect to get everything they sigh for.
But it wouldn't be Christmas if, in response to the jingles carolling out over the airwaves, you didn't get the traditional antiphon of complaints about commercialisation of the feast.
Last week Roseanne Musgrave, head of Blackheath High, an independent girls' school in south- east London, hit the headlines when she spoke out against "infant materialism". Children as young as three, argued Ms Musgrave, were under pressure from advertisers to join a rat-race where personal worth is measured in possessions.
"Material goods have already become important to this generation of youngsters... Madonna's material girls are getting younger all the time. What will be the values that little girls will have in the next century? And whose values will they be? Many [parents]," she went on, "work very hard to provide for their children and are then blamed for encouraging materialistic acquisitiveness in the young." Such parents, claim Ms Musgrave and her supporters, are killing their children with kindness.
Emma Thomas passionately disagrees. Mrs Thomas lives in Chiswick, an affluent area of west London, with her husband, a local press photographer, and her three children, Natasha, ten, Tyber, six, and Cameron, three. Every inch of their emphatically child-friendly home is packed with toys.
The three-bedroom semi is filled with the electronic chirrup of countless Gameboys, Pokemons and PlayStations. A whole regiment of Action Men is billeted up and down the stairs, while dolls' houses, forts and fairy castles fight for floor space like the maquette for some madly aspirational housing development. Art materials are freely to hand on every surface and there are great drifts of toys knee-deep against the walls. Hand-crafted wooden playthings, ecological and educational as you please, jostle with the pointlessly plastic variety and the hot acquisition of the moment - a plastic egg filled with slime that will reproduce in your fridge and populate the dairy shelf with tiny alien babies.
"I know all about bead-frames and flash cards," laughs Mrs Thomas, 38. "I used to be a Montessori teacher, but the fact is, children like crap. Look at all this," she says, pulling out an arcade-style rally-driving game from an under-bed drawer stuffed with brand-new toys. "Anyone will tell you that this is sexist, competitive and with absolutely nil educational value, but it's the sort of thing that will go down well on Christmas Day."
Mrs Thomas goes out toy-shopping most days. She is au fait with the current stocks of every toy catalogue, reads toy reviews assiduously in children's magazines, and works hard at establishing personal links with the sales staff in local toy shops and city-centre department stores. Her chief thrill is hunting down the must-have toys that are really hard to find. "If you can't buy something, I want it," she says. "I see it as a personal challenge and put a lot of energy into it."
Her prize haul this season is the full complement of Beanie Babies (some 60 soft toys at pounds 5.99 apiece) complete with the highly covetable "end- of-series" bear embroidered with the words "The End". She had to do a special bulk-buying deal with the shopkeeper to secure "The End", but, she says, it was pounds 60 well spent. The family is also the proud possessor of a complete set of Pokemon electronic games.
"Almost nobody over here has all of them," she says with radiant satisfaction. "I sourced some in the US and got my father to bring them back for me.
"There is a distinct pecking order to toys these days. It's not just about who has the biggest bike or the most Gameboys; you have to keep your finger on the pulse of what is hot at any given moment. There was a boy at school who had got this Pokemon wrapping-paper that you can only get in the US, so he covered all his work books in it and was showing them off to the world - but hardly anybody," she repeats, "will have the yellow Pokemon, and we've got the Pokemon Master Trainer Game. That's not even out here yet."
Tyber agrees that it is "better to have toys that nobody else will have", while Natasha points out that although it is a "lovely surprise" to come home from school and find something new nearly every day, she sometimes thinks her mum is more interested in toys than she is.
"At certain stages of your life you get pleasure from different things," acknowledges Mrs Thomas. "When I was younger I was obsessed with the children's health; now it's their toys and entertainment. I don't think I'm unusual. I have a group of very close friends and we're all passionate about our children. We all want the best for them, and that's something which I feel feeds our family life."
The whole notion of children "spoilt" by material acquisition is rejected by Mrs Thomas as "outdated and unrealistic". Buying presents for her children, she argues, is just another way of showing love, like putting food on the table.
"I know children who are spoilt," she says - while Natasha points out that the Queen is spoilt and she isn't even a child. "Spoilt children," Mrs Thomas continues, "are the ones from families who go abroad three times a year, who have nannies, cleaners, ironers, au pairs. We've only ever been on one family holiday abroad and that was because it was free. I had your classic, liberal Bohemian upbringing - very much the whole wooden-toys-and-creative-play thing - but the only thing I ever remember really wanting was to hear my parents say `I love you'. I'm sure they did say it, but I always wanted to hear it. My children hear it every day."
Mrs Thomas is, by my standards if not by hers, an unusually indulgent parent, but she may have a point. Of course, it is affection, or the lack of it, that does most to shape a child's character. Who can say that my Presbyterian insistence on deferred gratification will help my children through life any more than a full set of Pokemons? I would certainly hope, however, that their small triumphs, in the playground or out of it, are based on more than material possession and that their treats will remain treats, rather than the daily currency of family life.
All the same, I could probably lighten up a bit on the caterpillar front. There was, come to think of it, a kind of Blakeian simplicity in my daughter's most recent bid for the accursed thing. "But darling," I said to her for the umpteenth time, "What would you do with a stuffed caterpillar?"
"Mummy," she replied, "I would love it."
I'm not promising anything, mind, but if the elves go into overtime making lotsa lotsa shoes, don't go blaming me.
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