Sickened by the whole whirl of ‘kiddy consumerism’, eight months ago Hattie Garlick did something radical and decided to opt out altogether. So how are she and two-year-old Johnny faring?
You don’t expect to be faced with an existential crisis at a children’s birthday party. Yet there I was, in early January, cake half way to mouth, when one of the fathers asked me, ‘So do you think the way we’re raising our children is evil?’
How had I got here? A fortnight before, I’d blithely started a blog, Free our Kids, that would chart a year-long personal challenge: could I go a whole year without spending any money on children’s products for my son? In retrospect, I hadn’t thought a great deal about it.
I published the first entry, went to make a coffee, and came back to a small storm of online interest. One hundred messages, five hundred newTwitter followers and 10,000 visits to the blog by the end of the day.
By the end of that week, it had had international coverage from Australian breakfast TV to the Hollywood blogger Perez Hilton.
I’m not an eco-warrior or a socialist. I don’t, as that father suggested, think ‘we should all just weave our shoes out of palm fronds, go live in the hills and sing kumbaya.’
Neither am I another self-appointed expert on other people’s parenting techniques. I’m just a working mother with limited time, patience and funds.
This became critical three days before last Christmas when I was made redundant. It was terrifying. Every area of unnecessary spending – new clothes, eating out, magazine subscriptions – had already been eliminated when our two-year-old son was born.
But I began to notice something: my wallet was stuffed with receipts for toys, ‘Tiny Tots Tumble Classes’ and cute little trousers from Baby Gap. Every supermarket shop included at least £15 of ‘children’s food’ such as mini pots of yoghurt, special squash and fish fingers. It all added up.
And it wasn’t just about the expense. According to UNICEF’s well-being reports, British children’s happiness lags well behind many others in the developed world.
Learning the guitar with his father, Tom
The reason? We, their parents, are trapping them in a cycle of ‘compulsive consumerism’ that makes them miserable. Meanwhile, parents are wracked with guilt, partly because we can’t afford all the things we think our children want and need.
I thought of Johnny’s overflowing toy box and of how rarely he actually played with anything in it. Apparently, there are 474 million unused toys gathering dust in British homes – seven for every single person in the country.
Was I accidentally teaching my son materialistic values? I made a New Year resolution to cut out all spending on ‘kiddy consumerism’: no more new toys, no more new clothes, no kiddy snacks, paid-for activities, disposable nappies or professional haircuts.
Our mothers and grandmothers managed without them, right? There must be alternatives.
But points that had felt clear, typed onto the glow of a laptop screen, became clouded with emotion as I looked at the room of presents and cutely-outfitted children. Would I be depriving Johnny? Was I prepared for him to stand out from his peers?
Before I could think about clothes and toys, however, I had to tackle food. Johnny has always been fussy. I’ve relied on organic toddler lasagne and mini-rice cakes to coax him into eating.
Heading to Tesco for the new, ‘real’ food we would be eating together, I was suddenly aware of the vast range of children’s products on offer. Infant ready meals didn’t even exist as an industry category in 2006. Now they’re worth £25.8 million in this country and are growing by 23 per cent every year.
Why had I been buying them? Yes, I had a picky toddler who screamed at the sight of a cucumber. I was short of time. But, I’m realising, I was short of self-confidence too. I was easily lured by promises of brain-boosting omegas and balanced diets. Not this time.
That night, instead of cooking two separate meals, we sat down to a family supper of shepherd’s pie. And… nothing happened. Well, Johnny picked out the carrots and built a tower with them.
But there was no tantrum. Later in the week, he threw his ratatouille at the wall and I momentarily pined for Jamie Oliver’s fish fingers. But, instead, I spooned what was left onto my plate, took a deep breath, and got on with the day.
It’s meant compromises for my husband and I – fewer spicy curries, more pedestrian pies – but I no longer dread my son’s mealtimes and spend much less time in the kitchen.
Johnny being helpful in the kitchen and playing the piano
And, because I haven’t spent extra time and money on Johnny’s meal, I’m more relaxed if he refuses it. He just has a banana and usually eats the next meal.
As the months wore on, I began to see that a lack of self-confidence was behind a lot of my spending. My husband and I don’t have any family within an hour’s drive of our home. Without the advice and support of relatives to lean on, there were times when I felt scared, incompetent and alone.
I was easy prey for product marketers. I remember standing in the baby aisle of a department store jiggling a screaming, colicky infant, my eyes and mind blurred by a rainbow of pastel-coloured goods promising to ‘soothe’ and ‘comfort’ my angry child, as I had failed to do.
Exhausted, and desperate to do the right thing, I’d fallen for the idea that I wasn’t enough on my own. To be a good parent, I needed all these props – educational mobiles that played Beethoven sonatas, baby sign language classes and purees put together in a factory.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the annual cost of raising a child in Britain hit a ten-year high this year of £1,307 – 58% more than a decade ago. Over £500 a year goes on clothes alone. Partly to combat this and partly to reach out to my neighbours, I decided to hold a swapping party for local parents.
I posted an invitation on a community Facebook page inviting parents over to exchange unwanted kids’ things. Having done that, I panicked: an unspecified number of total strangers was about to descend on my home. Then the doorbell rang.
Three hours later, I’d passed on a bag of old baby toys and acquired three pairs of trousers, two T-shirts and some books. And I’d gone from knowing only two people on our road to suddenly having a dozen new friends to call on for help, company, activities and swaps.
Johnny and friends are let loose in the kitchen
A recent National Trust report noted a ‘pay to play culture’ across Britain – the prevalent feeling amongst parents that, with expensive classes and entertainment all around us, simply leaving your child to play outside with a stick must count as lazy or, worse, uncaring.
Over the months, we’ve found that most of the activities that we enjoy doing together are, in fact, free: cooking, gardening, foraging, even just getting together with neighbours for coffee and ‘music lessons’ (everyone brings whatever instruments they’ve got, or even just pots and pans, and we turn the music up loud).
There have been times when turfing Johnny and his friends into the garden has resulted in tantrums and tears (mine as well as theirs) and I can’t just let him play on our busy London street.
Work deadlines mean I often don’t have time to plan inventive games of my own. But we can just turn up to the park now and, instead of Jonny playing on his own, he plays with his friends from the neighbourhood.
There’s just no need to pay for soft play sessions and classes when your child has a social life on his doorstep.
One challenging moment came when I realised I’d forgotten all about children’s toothpaste and no-tears shampoo. Surely those were non-negotiable purchases?
I called Dr Chris Flower, a cosmetics expert, who told me that while some children’s products are less concentrated, many are just brightly packaged, appealingly fragranced versions of adult cosmetics.
Sure enough, I uncovered industry reports bragging about the success of ‘character licensing’ (the use of cartoon characters) in fostering ‘pester power’ in children as young as two, thereby boosting their sales.
I wrote a triumphant blog post about my discovery – I love a bit of myth-busting – and I wasn’t prepared for the reaction of other parents. “How can you scrimp on your child’s safety?” asked one mother. No matter how much research you’ve done that always hurts.
Johnny gets creative in the garden.
But the real test was when Johnny grew out of his shoes and the podiatrists I spoke to disagreed on whether or not new shoes are essential at his age. Realising that there are no hard and fast rules is liberating but also frightening.
Without the security of expert advice to follow, I was on my own. A virtually unscuffed pair of second-hand leather lace-ups was offered to us by a neighbour. I accepted them with mixed feelings. The reaction online was, unexpectedly, one of interest rather than condemnation.
Many of my greatest fears have gone unrealised: cloth nappies, for example. On the first day of using them, I laid out what I imagined were the essentials: pair of marigolds, nose peg, industrial bin liner. When the big reveal happened, it was a bit of an anti-climax.
The nappies snap on with poppers or Velcro, have a flushable liner and the rest goes into the machine. Huh. Hanging them out to dry and making my tiny stand against disposable culture, I felt a deep and unfamiliar sense of satisfaction.
It just about made up for carting bags of dirty rags around with me whenever I went out.
And Johnny doesn’t stand out from his smartly-dressed peers at all. Toddlers grow so fast that their clothes barely get worn. Some of the ‘second hand’ items I’ve acquired still have the tags attached.
And, you know, maybe London did host the world’s first Kid’s Fashion Week this year – but two year olds really don’t care about trends.
The first Global Kids’ Fashion Week, in London
There are times when that old materialistic hankering rears its head. At the moment, there is a craze in London for a particular brand of micro scooter. Johnny seems to be the only child in our neighbourhood without one.
He’s happy and content. He hasn’t asked me for one. And yet I want him to have one. It’s made me realise that not wanting Johnny to stand out isn’t always about Johnny – sometimes it’s about me.
We’re now six months into our project and people keep asking what we’ll do when the year is up. Will we buy Johnny a massive present? I don’t think so. He hasn’t even noticed the change. Will we carry on?
I’m pregnant and recently found out it’s a girl. The thought of the consumer clarion calls my daughter will have to resist as she grows up is quite daunting: the princess dresses, the fashionable clothes, the expensive make-up.
I want to do everything I can to help her see through the notion that she ‘needs’ those things to feel truly feminine.
When our year of free parenting is finished, I won’t be devoting days of my life to hunting for the perfect anorak on online swapping sites likeFreecycle when there’s one going for £3.50 in the Oxfam down the road – it’s just not sane. But I hope we’ll keep hold of some of the lessons we’ve learned.
It turns out Johnny will happily spend hours building something out of a cardboard box but only be amused by a new toy for a few minutes.
We’re tending to tadpoles and vegetables in the garden now, and Johnny takes it really seriously. He takes his grandparents out there when they come round and they watch the birds and butterflies and talk about how plants grow.