I want! I want!
I saw an ad on the TV the other day, which struck a familiar chord. A father is walking down a street with his tubby son. The boy lingers longingly at a toyshop window. The father, semi-sternly, drags him away by the hand. They pass a sweet shop and then a fancydress store. Each time, the son again needs to be dragged off. The father shakes his head, indulgently. The son looks mutinous.
If this were real life, of course, the son by now would be crying, stomping his feet, and possibly lying down on the pavement screaming and kicking, while perfect strangers cast disapproving stares at the harassed parent while surreptitiously feeling for their mobiles. But this is AdLand and neither son nor father can afford to be too unappealing. They then pass by a car showroom, and the roles are reversed. The expression of unadulterated longing is now worn by the father, and the son, sighing, pulls at his hand, while the father’s eyes are superglued to the glistening temptation of the brand new car inside.
One of the key jobs of a parent is the ability to say no. Repeatedly, loudly, and consistently. No, no, no. Not now. Not that. It’s not easy. Denying your child can be pretty awful; indulging your child can be utterly wonderful. Do you choose tears, tantrums and recrimination? Or cheers, smiles and a little peace? Perhaps the maxim sure be altered slightly: never negotiate with terrorists or children.
Like no other job on earth there’s no qualification exam you have to take to become a parent. There’s no job description or person spec, there’s no resignation clause or redundancy. There’s no union you can join or management you can either fight or appeal to. And the modern world seems to be dead set against you: lining the path with temptations that would test a saint.
And so we compromise. From no coke, to only on Sundays. Or, okay, Saturdays and Sundays…and Friday evening because that’s almost the weekend. Oh, and special occasions of course. From no TV to only one hour a day. Alright, make that two – after all, I have to cook – but not after 6pm. Or 7pm. Unless there’s a really nice film on, in which case…
My mother-in-law tells me when she was a child, she and her brothers would be issued with one pencil. When it was sharpened down to the last half-inch, it would be surrendered to their father, who would give them a new one. I don’t know what happened if they lost the stub, but I suspect it wouldn’t be pretty. The other day, I admired one of my son’s schoolfriends new gloves. His mother said with a shrug, “He gets through two-three pairs in a month. After a while he gets bored with one lot, so what to do? We buy another.”
Buy this! Have that! Happiness beckons on all sides – in exchange for mere money, all this could be yours! We can be forgiven, surely, for buckling under their sustained weight of advertising and peer pressure, and buying our precious bundles of joy the bubblegum, the gloves, the chocolate, the Ben Ten gadget, the Barbie doll, the remote controlled robot-dinosaur, the PlayStation… the list is endless, the desire insatiable, the opportunities rife, the possibilities limitless (at least, one has to clarify, for the moneyed urban middle-classes).
The road of parenthood is paved with good intentions; but over the past six years, ours have been, if not abandoned entirely (we fondly believe), then at least compromised – sometimes out of all recognition. Nobody warns you, when you become a parent, that you are now part of the constabulary; your job is not only to lay down the law but enforce it: a horrible prospect for wishy-washy liberals like me.
So much easier to not have something at all, than to regulate its use. I often toy with the idea of simply getting rid of the TV. If it ain’t there, ya can’t watch it. Instead of setting the rules for when and for how long he can play computer games, we have managed (so far) to maintain the fiction that there is no internet connection. I suspect that this little white lie will soon go the way of the other one, that you can’t play games on our TV – a discovery that Roshan’s technosavvy friends soon exposed (oh, the squeals of joy! the feigned surprise!).
One of the world’s most successful and celebrated children’s authors, Eric Carle, once lamented that the problem with children today is “too much, too soon.” His picture books – The Hungry Caterpillar, Brown Bear, Brown Bear and others – are superb illustrations of another famous ad line: “Less is more.” In our household, or at the school bus stop, grown-ups frequently lament how in our day, we had cold drinks once a month – if that – and how much sweeter and fizzier and more delicious they were for that. Ice cream was a rarity, toys were played with until they disintegrated, and a trip to the cinema was an annual event. But how do you explain to a child that their mean and evil parents say no, not to deny the pleasure, but to sharpen it? The law of diminishing returns is hard enough for most adults to grasp.
And how hollow that argument rings when we, ourselves, succumb so willingly to the lure. The overt message of the car ad, is that adults are just big kids in the sweetshop of consumerism: that the desire to own is something we never do and – more importantly – never should outgrow. What does this say about our own values (plural), or even our understanding of ‘value’ (singular) itself.
Perhaps the job of parenting is not so different from that of living responsibly and ethically in the twenty-first century, when rampant consumerism and wastefulness is pushing our planet to the point of no return. Wouldn’t it be good if we had God the Parent, wagging his long white beard, and dragging us away by the hand, saying “No, beta. Enough is enough.” We may throw our childish tantrums, but in the end, perhaps will discover that happiness lies in being content with what you have, and not striving to fill the bottomless pit of what you don’t.
Child Magazine, Feb 2009