Raising kids for free
Each Christmas, we wink at each other and say, "Of course, all he wanted to play with was the box it came in." Yet each Christmas brings more flashing plastic.
First came a photograph of a stranger's drying rack. It pinged into my inbox at 10.04 on a Monday morning, laden with a family's sodden laundry, and lying beneath it, delighted by dangling socks, was a happy baby. "Look," read the accompanying email, "A free baby mobile!"
Then, ping: a picture of three children, sitting at the bottom of the stairs, barring the way of a crawling baby. "Our makeshift stair gate!" read the message. "We support you!"
By the evening, nearly 200 strangers had been in touch, another 2000 had read the blog - entitled Free Our Kids - I'd published that morning. It had announced my New Year's resolution for 2013: to raise my son cost-free for a year.
It had begun with my son's birthday. On December 19, with the new year in sight, our son Johnny had turned two. We were on holidays so had avoided any present-buying hype; instead, we'd pulled into a service station and had bought him a 75c water pistol.
He was ecstatic. It was a toy weapon, then it was a tool for watering plants ... no wait, it was definitely something to use to feed bedraggled dogs. A toy shop's stockroom could not have made him happier, or sparked his imagination more powerfully. And that's when I had my eureka moment.
It was all superfluous.
Clothes: a child's only requirement is to be warm and dry. New rules: we would use only swaps from friends or bundles from Freecycle, the website that matches people who have things they don't want with people who can use them. Toys: ditto. Food: out with the kiddy rice cakes, little cheeses and special squashes; he would eat his share of the three meals a day that we cook for ourselves. Cloth nappies (given away via "swap or sell" pages on Facebook); kitchen haircuts; activities concocted at home instead of play centres.
We would go a whole year without engaging in any kiddy consumerism, barring essential items such as medicines. Johnny wouldn't even notice.
Of course, it's not exactly a revolutionary idea. Back home, when I recounted my vision to Dot, my elderly neighbour, she summarily burst my bubble. "I don't get it," she said. "Isn't that what mothers have always done?"
Right. Oh dear. Was I the only one suffering from kiddy overspend? I thought back to our antenatal classes: a group of excited and nervous first-time parents, all dutifully pursuing the "must have" pram ($750). Not representative, I realised. So I thought about the queues in Baby Gap, the supermarket aisles devoted to snacks for babies and toddlers, the parenting magazines rammed full of ads for the latest infant accessories and trinkets.
Then I looked at the statistics. Last year, the average cost of raising a child to their 21st birthday rose to $331,000. Another survey found that British families spend more than $15,000 on toys before their child turns 19.
Still, as I pressed "publish" on my blog, laying out my sketchy and amateur plans, the best scenario looked like a few sympathetic comments from friends, some sneers and the usual plethora of spam.
Instead, people I had never met began saying they would take the challenge with me. They added to and improved my rules, suggesting places to find free clothes, and ways to source second-hand shoes that would fit properly.
But the biggest surprise was the range of people attracted to the idea.
"My first baby is eight weeks old and I have been on a bonkers spending spree!" wrote Charlie. "She's also been showered with gifts. I'm now thinking it's all a bit mad, am mortified at the extent of the baby wardrobe and plan a slightly less 'cold turkey' change along your lines."
"I grew up in a low-income family," wrote Laura, "and know that cloth nappies and second-hand clothes and toys never hurt anyone. I'm also very careful not to get drawn in by advertising for 'must-have' items, because a background in child care has shown me how few things children really need."
I hope she's right. The day after we gave Johnny his water pistol, I was made redundant. An initial enthusiasm became more of an imperative as our income could no longer support frivolous spending.
The statistics, at any rate, are on our side. A survey last year found that two thirds of toys aren't being played with. The strange thing is that we know this already - each Christmas the adults wink at each other and say, "Of course, all he wanted to play with was the box it came in." Yet each Christmas brings more flashing plastic.
Of course, not every comment on my blog is positive. "He's only two, for God's sake, he doesn't know what consumerism is," tweeted one reader. Yet Tim Gill, one of the UK's leading writers on childhood, says: "There is evidence to suggest that brand recognition starts at a very young age." He also points to a nursery in Ohio that replaced all its toys and learning materials with cardboard boxes. It claimed to find not only that the children did not care, but that it made them more imaginative.
Other readers worried that it would be joyless and restrictive. That, I really fail to understand.
We are only at the very beginning of the year, and we are by no means experts. After the one and only time I tried to cut Johnny's hair, someone asked if he'd had an accident. So I suppose anything could happen. We take delivery of the reusable nappies next week. I am not looking forward to it but I am determined to try.
And however battered our resolution has become by next Christmas, I hope there's at least one empty cardboard box under the tree -and I hope it is still the favourite.
- The Telegraph, London