Last week, my daughter threw the biggest temper tantrum ever, because her father bought home the wrong lollipop. Not ‘no lollipop’, but the wrong color. No matter how tired the husband is, he always makes time to stop on the way home and pick up a ‘treat’ for our daughter. This has become a little game: when Rumi hears his key in the lock, she shuts her eyes and puts out her hand and giggles with delightful joy and anticipation and he hands over a treat. There is no reason to buy her a treat every day. There is nothing that she needs to be rewarded for. Yesterday, when she threw herself on the floor and screamed till she turned blue because the lollipop was red-and-yellow instead of orange-and-green, I started thinking about how she does not even perceive these lollipops as treats, but as something to be taken for granted whenever her Baba comes home.
We as parents are obsessed with making sure our child gets ‘everything’. Whenever our daughter expresses a wish, a desire or even a mild interest in anything, we go out of the way and occasionally out of our budget to make sure she gets it. On the days that we do put our foot down, she knows that her adoring grandparents will fall for her face and voice, and give her what she wants.
Since when did we become so consumerist? I remember my childhood, where I had to ‘earn’ every single Enid Blyton through good grades, chores done well, or good behavior. Whenever my Mum felt that I deserved one, she would give me a hundred-rupee note and I would walk down to the nearest bookstore on my own. I would spend hours in choosing the book because I knew that the next opportunity would probably come months later. I remember the exquisite agony of waiting for a title I badly wanted and the quivering joy when the book finally made it into my hands.
My daughter needs to wait for hardly a week before her parcel of goodies arrives. Online shopping has made it possible to order a toy as soon as we see the advertisement for it. There is hardly anything that we can’t immediately get. But is all this necessary for our children and their growth and development? The clever marketing gimmicks that are employed, sure make us think so. We are led to believe that a particular toy is absolutely essential for hand-eye coordination, for brain development and so on. And because these strategies play on our absolute worst fear of “Am I inadequate / not doing enough as a parent?” we fall for them and end up buying more so that our children may never lag behind in this ruthless, competitive world.
Except that you sometimes see your child happily playing with a spoon and bowl from your kitchen and ignoring that high quality ceramic tea-set “especially designed” for role-plays. Or talking to a block and pretending it is her little baby and not even throwing a glance at the dozen dolls in the cupboard. Or sifting her hand through the bowl of dried kidney beans instead of playing with her abacus. Children are essentially creative and have vast imaginations. A little actually goes a long way for hours of blissful play.
What we do when we fill their rooms and cupboards with all the latest toys and gadgets is create stressful and cluttered environments for them. They need room and space and air for their bodies and minds to develop. A new toy is convenient because it distracts our child for a while and we can fall back on the sofa in exhaustion and check our phones. But in the long-term, it is teaching our child nothing about the value of patience, of working hard to earn and deserve something. If she gets everything she asks for, she does not learn to cherish and take care of the things she has. She can throw her blocks around and break her new train knowing that there will always be more. Is this what I want for her?
Instead, what if we focus on replacing new purchases with time and memories? We decided to try that. Her father did bring home something every day, but instead of sweet treats, he got something we could all do such as a ball of clay or glitter and wool. While I would cook, they would sit cross-legged on the floor and make a painting or collage. Sometimes he bought some veggies and fruits and Rumi helped us cook dinner by tossing the salad or mixing the cucumber and the yoghurt. In the last week, she has not seemed to need any noisy toy or App at all. Our home has been peaceful with the TV switched off and our phones away. And it really seems to be doing our daughter good.
The next time you click on your phone App to shop or feel like your child needs the latest toy on the market, remember that all your child needs is your time and attention. As for brain development, a few household items such as spoons and dried beans are more than enough to do the trick.
(A version of this post first appeared on Kidsstoppress on 09.04.2017)