Photo: Photography by Mijang Ka
A confession: I’m one of those people who frowns when they see bad parenting. Or at least what I consider bad parenting, from my relatively ignorant perspective of not being a parent at all.
And I’ll go even further than frowning – at times, I’ve even been known to tsk.
Whenever I’m in a shop and I see a child throwing a tantrum in what seems a cynical strategy to get the latest toy, I can guarantee that I will shake my head, with what I hope, but cannot guarantee, is sufficient subtlety that the exasperated parent won’t notice my self-righteous disapproval, and think to myself how much firmer I’d be in the same situation.
The child might cry, and beat the linoleum floor with its fists, and even say “I hate you, daddy,” and I would remain as unmoving as one of Clive Palmer’s imitation dinosaurs.
I’ll also gladly tell anyone that when I was a kid, we didn’t have anywhere near that many toys, and how we appreciated each and every item our parents purchased for us. Whereas kids these days are so thoroughly spoiled.
They’re so materialistic nowadays, so rapidly dissatisfied with what they already have, even though their personal collections represent the majority of the average toy shop, to the point where finding something they don’t already have can be a genuine challenge. And yet they’ll still incessantly hassle their parents to add to their massive stockpile.
And it’s not just me who thinks so. A genuine, card-carrying mother, Sarah Macdonald, recently wrote about this for Daily Life – about her own children. As I read about their demands for teenage retreats and soft eggs, I felt vindicated in my disapproval. If I ever have children, I thought to myself, they’ll be different.
I should perhaps have been alerted by the title of Sarah’s piece, “Do all middle-class parents have spoiled kids?” The reality is that most families today can afford more possessions than my memory of childhood. As a nation, our average disposable income has increased at a consistent, and remarkable, rate. And I’m sure toys have gotten cheaper with the advent of mass-production in vast overseas factories.
Whenever I go shopping for kids’ toys, I’m genuinely shocked by how inexpensive they can be. I’ve previously admitted to buying my nephew a drum kit for his last birthday – what I didn’t mention is that it left me with change from thirty bucks. I don’t know how they even make money out of that, and given the conditions in many sweatshops, I probably don’t want to know.
So if toys are cheaper and we are wealthier, it’s little wonder that presents have become a weekly thing instead of something saved for Christmas and birthdays.
The other factor is the sophistication of the marketing machine. When I was a kid, ads were generally limited to ad breaks in TV shows, and I was only allowed to watch the ABC, so my parents were only subject to nagging when my school friends had things I wanted.
Nowadays, though, the marketing is relentless. To give just one example, my nephew’s crazy about Angry Birds – but when you play those games now, every second thing you click on is a link to some form of ad for more of their games. He’s constantly being catapulted out of the game and into YouTube, where there’s an ad for another game in the series which then offers a bunch of links to toys. In particular, there’s a kid who reviews them for a series called EvanTube HD which has – no exaggeration – nearly 250 million views, delivering advertising revenue that no doubt keeps Evan in all the figurines of porcine Darth Vader he wants.
Kids these days are constantly bombarded with inducements to buy stuff, which transforms them into little sleeper agents who are activated whenever they go near the toy aisle, a fast-food outlet or the lollies that unscrupulous supermarkets display at the checkouts.
There’s no point blaming the kids for it, or indeed the parents, who generally have the best intentions. How many of them have attempted to stop their sons playing with toy guns, or keep their daughters away from Barbies? But such efforts are doomed to failure. It’s like trying to use an umbrella to resist a cyclone.
I thought about my nephew’s love of Angry Birds, for which I’m responsible, and the fancy tablet computer he uses to play it, and I suddenly realised that I’m no better, even though I’m 36 compared to his 3. The only difference is that instead of needing to chuck a tantrum in order to get the latest toys, I just pull out my credit card.
The disposable income figures I talked about earlier are especially advantageous if, like me, you’ve steered clear of parenting into your mid-thirties. The same desire for instant gratification and lack of satisfaction with what we have is equally true of me, which is why I’m pondering a phone upgrade even though mine is only a year old.
Our society’s obsession with big houses and shiny cars and nifty gadgets shows that the kind of materialism that makes me shudder in the toy department continues on a grander scale once we transition to adulthood.
All of which leads me to conclude that the person I should in fact be tsking and shaking my head at is myself. And to the crime of materialism, I can also add a secondary charge of flagrant hypocrisy.
I hope I never become complacent about our transition into a generation of Veruca Salts, but if I’m serious about doing something about it, I should begin with my own behaviour.