Tom Hodgkinson: The boys seem happiest surrounded by screens


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What's wrong with children? However much you attempt to instill an anti-consumerist philosophy into them, they still hurl themselves unthinkingly at the latest fads, costing you an arm and a leg in the process.

Take packed lunches. My own ideal packed lunch would be a nice sandwich made from brown home-baked bread, an organic apple, a beaker of water, some carrot sticks, maybe a pork pie made by a farm which treats its pigs humanely, possibly some Burt's crisps, and a bit of expensive dark chocolate for pudding. But my children would turn their noses up at such a lovely collection of carefully thought-out treats. In fact, the last time I needed to make a packed lunch, the child in question wrote out a list precisely detailing what I should put in it. Needless to say, it was one long catalogue of horrors. It ran like this: "Ham sandwich (bland ham from supermarket) with chemical white bread. Wrapped in clingfilm (not paper). Peperami. Dairylea Dunkers. Crisps (Walkers). Corner yoghurt. Coke."

It's the same with toys. No matter how much I encourage them to play with wooden toys sourced from renewable forests, or simply to go outside and play in nature's vast and magical wonderland, using their fertile imaginations to create their own stories and invent their own games, they seem interested only in toys made from oil-based plastics, and which preferably involve a screen.

While I'd happily spend an evening in front of the fire singing the old songs to them, accompanied by my ukulele, they would far rather play Minecraft for two hours, preferably with a couple of friends on Skype. They appear to be able to watch television and play on a laptop and a phone simultaneously.

I have to say our daughter is better than the boys in these respects. She will happily draw, paint, colour and make cards for relatives and friends for long periods, whereas the boys seem happiest under a duvet in the sitting-room, surrounded by various screens and electronic devices. I think with sadness about the electronics kits and chemistry sets that sit ignored in the cupboard.

Lego is perhaps a good halfway house that pleases child and adult. It is admittedly plastics-based, but children can spend hours putting the toys together, and marvellous creations they are, too. But even Lego – is it really creative? Or is it simply a matter of following instructions? And does forking out 70 quid on a Ninjago dragon merely buy you two days of non-computer time?

What are they going to do when the world ends, when the electricity and the oil run out – when Armageddon, so long wished for by the Greens, comes to pass? Will they be like battery hens, which, when released into the wild, simply look at the world and immediately keel over and die? Will they be unable to cope with their freedom and without the stream of sensational entertainment that dominates childhood today?

I worry as well that the "entertain-me" culture leads to spoilt behaviour. They are so used to getting what they want now, that if they don't, they tend to throw a tantrum. Should we not teach them to postpone their pleasures, and think about other people?

Admittedly our eldest son, who is 12, plays his guitar, which is good. He works out songs by Green Day. We knew he was growing up when one evening he stormed out of dinner, went up to his room, and played "God Save the Queen" by the Sex Pistols at top volume in his room. In fact I was a bit proud at that point, as I thought he displayed good taste in music. And that is not always the case. He has taken to reading Kerrang! and is a fan of a cartoony heavy metal band called Black Veil Brides, who, in my view, are a trifle uncool. But what is good about these musicians is that they constantly tell the kids to practise, practise, practise: greatness is not achieved without work. I count Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers as a positive influence in this regard, judging from his YouTube clips.

I suppose in the end we have to accept that children are going to be fascinated by "the world" and will not be ready to retreat from its temptations before they have tried them. Even though we adults believe we know better, it perhaps ill behooves a freedom-seeker to ban worldly delights from the house, like a totalitarian East European state before the fall of the Berlin Wall. As long as I can force them occasionally to stack logs with me, talk about Aristotle, get them into American hardcore punk of the 1980s, and do a bit of Latin, I should count my blessings.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'

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