I’ve been on a budget ever since I stopped working to start a family, so this is an idea that’s been rolling around in my head for some time: kids don’t need stuff to be happy.
Sure, my kids love toys, especially syndicated TV merchandise (the type I dislike most of all), and we’ve bought our fair share of it over the years. But I can’t help thinking that these toys, while they do bring them some enjoyment create a sense of disappointment too: they rarely stay shiny and new once out of their packaging, their small pieces get lost, or they get scratched and damaged. And the collectible toys especially create a vacuum of discontent because there is always one more to acquire.
I know my kids. They are most happy when they are either knee-deep in mud in our yard, or elbow-deep in sand at the park. We have a Saturday morning ritual of walking to the park with our pushers, sitting down beside the big sandpit and watching the kids get sand all through their clothes and in their shoes. We bring our lunch, so the whole outing costs us nothing, but they enjoy this much more than a trip to the toy store.
Kids like doing things, not having things
My kids also love visiting my parents’ house and running around on their two acres. My mother always puts them to work, digging holes, spreading compost and harvesting vegetables. Last weekend they worked for hours, and enjoyed every minute of it. It wore them out and they slept much better. Helping out and having an important job to do gives kids pride just as it does for us adults.
When I think back to the time when I became a parent, I remember how eager my husband and I were to be good parents, and to raise happy children. Yes, we bought the toys and the gadgets and showed our firstborn the TV shows. We wanted to do the right thing, so we bought into the consumerist culture around parenting. But now I understand that the toy manufacturers and the chain stores exploit the inexperience of new parents and use it to sell them things they don’t really need.
But these days, I never take the kids shopping with me: there are far fewer arguments this way! In fact, I keep shopping trips to a minimum, and shop online whenever I can. I try to avoid giving the impression that ‘going shopping’ is a valid form of leisure. As Tom Hodgkinson says in his excellent book The Idle Parent, “perhaps we are more materialistic than our children.” It’s actually my own consumerism that I need to keep in check, not theirs.
Often the free things are valued the most
I’d like to finish by giving three examples where a free gift has brought my children more happiness than the over-priced but cheaply-made toys from the shops.
- One thing my kids love to receive is the rocks, shells and other artefacts my husband brings back from his morning surf. “What did you bring us, Daddy?” they always ask as he rolls into the driveway.
- My father in-law can make all sorts of things from cardboard boxes and leftover pieces of wood. The children design them and he shows them how to put it together. The love their ‘Grandpa toys’.
- On a family road trip a few years ago, my oldest child found a little dog figurine. We called him Ned, as we were travelling through Kelly country at the time. Ned travelled with us several hundred kilometres until finally we lost him in a museum cafeteria. The kids still mention Ned from time to time.
It takes courage to resist the guilt and the fear that your kids won’t have the same stuff as their friends. If not buying things makes you feel guilty, then set up an investment account for your children. Put your money there, and you can use it for education expenses down the track. Then you really won’t have to worry that your kids won’t have all the same things their friends do!
You don’t need to spend money to give your kids happiness. They are already happy.