Breaking the taboo that it has to be new….

My last post was about the plethora of children’s stuff. In two months time we will have the festival that sees most families make their greatest accumulation of childrens stuff in the year.

I like getting presents. Through Christmas and Birthday presents, I have been introduced to my favourite authors, acquired jewellery I wear frequently, and my children have discovered new interests I wouldn’t have known to share. What makes the gift special is the connection – when people want to pass on something they have enjoyed themselves, or they want to encourage something we’ve shared. It’s never about the price tag, and it certainly isn’t about the packaging; in fact, many of our most used playthings are hand-me-downs.  I love that because I think of the people who gave them to us every time they are played with. They were all given in good quality, and frankly, most things I have bought for my own children come from charity shops, ebay or second hand sales.

So if gifts are about sharing a connection and the hand-me-downs are good quality, why didn’t my friends just tie a ribbon around their old toys they knew we would like and call it our Christmas present? Why did one friend donate to a charity her perfectly functioning plastic toy (that will last for generations) once her children had grown out of it, and then buy an identical new one for my daughter’s birthday?

Because we all have this hang up that whilst we happily equip our own families with second hand things, it can’t count as a gift unless we have spent a certain amount of money on it. There’s nothing new in that: there is an Old Testament story where King David says ‘I can’t give to the Lord something that has cost me nothing’. And there is nothing wrong with the principle behind it: gifts are a sign that you value people, and spending money on them is a way of saying that.

But this is now a social hang up that drives a massive amount of unnecessary production and bursting houses. People who would swear blind you can’t put a price tag on friendship still have a mental list of those who merit £10 Christmas presents, or what the going price tag is for a school birthday party.  And the factories and the shops are ready to meet them. My 5 year old daughter was given 36 craft kits for her birthday because we had a shared party for the whole class and didn’t have the guts to say no presents. 36. And Yes, they have mostly been re-gifted, because in my life that’s a good thing. So these 36 craft kits, because they are mainly sold for presents, all have to be self-contained and came with their own plastic paint pots, sequins, individual plastic glue tubes, etc which are now either languishing in cupboards or landfill. Just like the “Stocking fillas”, a term that makes me shudder – many things, particularly for children, are deliberately marketed to play to your need to give something for the sake of giving, produced by factories and sold by shops for the sake of it. Yes, providing jobs, but not necessarily good jobs, and also a heck of a lot of carbon and waste once the novelty disappears.

So this year, this is what I’m saying: “To all friends and family who have us on your Christmas list. Thank you! We love your presents. But we dont need to open something in pristine packaging with a label for us to know you are our friends. If you want to skip a Christmas or a birthday, that’s fine with us. And if you have or see something second hand that you would buy for yourself or your kids, that’s good enough for us too. Our kids need our action to protect their future far more than they need new stuff.”

 

Desert Island Toys

Not long ago, (within my parents lifetime), we lived in a time where the acquisition of new stuff was exciting, a treat. You could go shopping for something and not be able to find it – even a trip to London to buy clothes didn’t always guarantee success. Now I feel the opposite -and the volume of things my family has and acquires increasingly feels like a burden, things to be sorted through, given away, etc. etc. I’ve reached ‘peak stuff’.

Two children five years apart seems to mean a lot of ‘stuff’. But I’ve begun to realise the obvious fact that all their things are just different variations on the same few themes. Rather than reinventing the wheel, it feels like companies are continually re-marketing the crayon. My impression from my children is that if they are in the mood for doing something, it doesn’t really matter what there is to do, they will find something to create or play. If they are not, then it isn’t a question of different stuff that will prompt their interest. And when they do play, they spend 90% of their time, playing with 10% of their stuff. It’s not my kids that are bored, it’s all the boxes of stuff that never sees the light of day.

So, what’s the law of diminishing returns for new stuff? If they’re not playing with lego, are the nano blocks ever going to get a look in? Once you’ve got one puzzle book on the shelf with only 3 pages completed, why will a different one get any more use?

If I had to take ten sets of toys to a desert island, I think with these top ten you would pretty much cover the bases.

1.    Something to throw and kick about.
2.    A bike, or something to ride
3.    Drawing and colouring materials
4.    Modelling material/ jewellery/sewing/models
5.    Construction toys (duplo, lego, kapla blocks)
6.    Dressing up, something for a den and toy kitchen/shop
7.    Model characters (preferably generic) and soft toys
8.    Books (fiction and non-fiction)
9.    Puzzles and board games/ pack of cards
10.  Music for dancing

I’m interested to know: what am I missing? Is this helpful in thinking about how to simplify life, or am I just mean?