Successful parenting without spending money: a mother's story
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.
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.