It’s early January, and the kid’s playroom looks like the aftermath of a New Year’s Eve party. One attended by a hoard of Tasmanian Devils, hell-bent on covering every square inch of the room with stuff.
This isn’t unusual. My very active (knackering) and spirited (troublesome) children do like to scatter toys and are apparently offended by clear surfaces. As I push the door open with some difficulty, I am greeted by 8 cardboard boxes, 100 multicoloured pipe cleaners, 2 rolls of sticky tape, 2 desecrated CBeebies magazines and 15 marker pens. Only 2 of which still have their lids.
Christmas was two weeks ago. Two bloody weeks. And not one of the Christmas presents lovingly bestowed by big Daddy C has been played with for the past four days in favour of this cardboard city. Not one.
The Kiddizoom cameras, Thomas Trackmaster train sets and urinating Tiny Tears have been shunned in favour of decorating some large cardboard boxes and turning them into rockets. Spectacular rockets. With yoghurt lid windows and empty kitchen roll toppers.
Hastily cut out pictures of Blaze, Go Jetters and the cast of Peppa are stuck to the flaps (snigger) of the rockets. The images have been speared at random with glittery pipe cleaners, turning an innocent picture of Daddy Pig into a not so innocent one. They’ve been stamped, written on and are shining with sticky tape. These carefully crafted masterpieces have commanded more attention from my 3 and 4-year-old over the past few days than any of the offerings from Santa’s sack (ahem).
I don’t know why I’m surprised, we all joke about it. “Why do we bother, they prefer the boxes,” we say, rolling our eyes and smiling. Except we do bother. We bother a lot. My Prime account was hit hard in December, so much so that my 4-year-old thanked the delivery man as he retreated from the front door before shouting “I love you so much!”
This, of course, prompted a long discussion about love, what is appropriate to say to people you don’t know and how the packages being delivered are not presents, but things we have chosen and paid for from the ‘internet shop.’ This last revelation blew his mind. “A shop you can’t see? How?” he innocently asked. In all honesty, this stumped me as I couldn’t explain it in simple enough terms. Which made me realise that our use and interaction with the internet have evolved so quickly over recent years that sometimes it blows my (tiny) mind too.
The complexity and maturity of technology have dramatically changed how I shop and subsequently how much I consume. If I notice I am running out of teabags, I simply ask Alexa to add some to my Ocado order. If I want to get a reasonably priced present for a 5-year-old’s birthday party, I open my Amazon app, select ‘toys’ and ‘under £10’ and it arrives the next day.
With algorithms tracking my spending habits and preferences, I no longer even need to think about what I want to buy. Not only are options subtly suggested on the website I’m using, but they also pop up later through my social media channels and search engines. It doesn’t always get it right: I’m not too interested in Singles Dating as haven’t been single since 2001, I don’t go for fancy meals anymore, and It’s been ages since I was taken up the Shard ;-).
But for the most part, the pesky algorithm does get it right. How the Amex does it know me so well? It seems to know me better than I do. It’s almost like I’m not aware of what I’m buying, the purchases are so quick and automatic I don’t clock on to what I’m spending. Until my phone beeps with the daily text from my bank and it’s a paragraph long. A sonnet by PayPal International. An instigator of guilt brought on by my purchasing blackout. I’ve been drunk on spending and this is the start of the debilitating hangover.
Usually, I pride myself on being a thoughtful present buyer. However, this Christmas, my first as a busy school Mum, I didn’t have the head space and found myself struggling for inspiration. When asked, the children wanted unrealistic things (as noted in my son’s letter to Father Christmas) – but really they only wanted one present. One of those Fur Real dogs each, in lieu of a real dog, because quite frankly I’m tired of clearing up faeces.
Fake dogs ordered, I then found myself searching for other things they might like. Would they like a train set (apparently not)? How about a Scalextric (in the loft, gathering dust)? What presents will come from us, which ones from Grandparents and how many should be left by Santa? Do they have the right amount each? What should we put in the stockings? What about Christmas Eve boxes? I thought it all through, found some options, divided them into the appropriate categories and delivered them with a knackered satisfaction. And now, I see that it wasn’t necessary,
I’ve been tricked. Conned into thinking that they need 4 presents each or they will feel hard done by. Maybe as a result of my own childhood. As I continue on this parenthood journey, I am consistently reminded that it wasn’t the happiest. But they are not me, and the thing I lacked as a child wasn’t stuff, it was affection and engagement. No one built rockets with me and re-enacted ‘blast off’ 300 times a day. I wasn’t encouraged to make a handle from a pipe cleaner. My visions were not realised, and I definitely wasn’t allowed sticky tape.
That’s why kids love playing with the boxes. The crafting requires thought, imagination and creativity. A dash of trust and freedom to get it wrong (it took me 20 minutes to get the sticky tape out of my daughter’s hair). They need help with scissors, adult interaction and constant, unfiltered praise.
The satisfaction they feel after creating rocket adorned with images of an X Rated Daddy Pig can’t be attained by a voice command or click of a button. It takes time, it isn’t instant and easy. It requires focus, and can’t be done through the habitual reflex of picking up an iPhone.
There is pride in the end result. That’s why Thomas is stuck in the drawer and the markers pens drying out on the floor (put the lids on!). We love the things we create. They love their cardboard rockets just as I love them. Next year, and for my son’s fast approaching 5th birthday, I will reassess my present ideas and give them the most valuable gift. My time and love in abundance.
They don’t need the ‘stuff.’ None of us do. We just need to find true happiness in each other. And no matter what we are told, there is no app for that.