So it’s my son’s seventh birthday today. Over the previous few days, parcels have arrived containing toys from doting relatives. Many of them have been sent via amazons gift wrapping service with their distinctive packaging and printed message slips. It’s never been so easy to send gifts, just a couple of clicks and thirty seconds of typing and you’re done. That’s probably why my son has received so many of them! The various packages have colonised one end of our lounge, and the discarded wrapping paper and plastic clam-shells have flooded the rest of it as the morning has unfolded.
Toys are getting more complicated, that’s for sure. We are on the receiving end of decades of product development and sophisticated marketing strategy. I can remember the toys that I grew up with, the pose-able action figures and plastic spacecraft with spring-loaded launchers of neon coloured projectiles. My sons toys are similar but have evolved into something more intricate in design and construction, and the imaginary worlds they are supposed to inhabit are more sophisticated and perhaps more cynical.
My son, to his credit, has a substantial stab at trying to build these things himself. At the moment, he is trying to build some sort of Lego kit with an instruction manual the size of a telephone directory. It has occupied him for the past hour, and part of me admires his concentration, even as his howls of frustration elicit sympathy.
Perhaps this is surrogate training for survival in the modern world. He has to grapple to understand a complex product which is an amalgam of different film and toy franchises. He has to interact with it, follow its logic and work out what to do with the results.
Before he can get started though he has to learn how to deal with ‘packaging rage’. Nothing causes one to question the propriety of fate as firing some vital plastic component under a sofa from a recalcitrant clam-shell. Patience is required, as is cooperation with muddled but well-meaning parents and their insistence on the use of scissors. Even as my Son howls for the umpteenth time as he realises he has made an error and will have to go back several stages and correct it, my wife is sweeping his bedroom, finding old toys that have not been played with for a while and surreptitiously squirrelling them off to the garage to be recycled. Because toys take up space. And my son has many of them.
Maybe too many.
At recent birthdays and Christmases, I have become increasingly horrified at the amount of ‘stuff’ my children are getting. Whereas there would have been one or maybe two main gifts when I was growing up, now my children get whole ranges of collectables in one sitting. This is not the fault of any one individual though. From one perspective this is merely one facet of western culture in the 21st century. Aunts, uncles and cousins are all singing from the same hymn-sheet, an online hymn sheet with an express-checkout option!
Perhaps this is just the moral panic of a sententious parent approaching the middle of life. After all, the spectre of moral decline in the latest generation has been perennially present, perhaps from the dawn of time. We were young once too. We wanted lots of stuff too, and we turned out OK, didn’t we?
What do we say symbolically to a child when we flood them in a tide of new possessions? Whatever our family says about what it values, our actions speak at least as loud as our words. I worry that what we are saying to our kids is that ‘stuff’ matters. To express love for someone, you give them stuff. Spending time with our stuff or money on our stuff is a major goal of existence. Our amusement and entertainment should be front and centre in our lives.
Toys and games are designed to be so immersive that they can easily consume disproportionate amounts of time. This is part of the problem I have with the status quo, in the past Toys knew their place, but now they have delusions of grandeur.
But my deeper concern is that although we are a Christian family, perhaps we are teaching our children to be ‘functional materialists’. It is almost as if we are reversing Christ's teaching in Luke 12:15:
"Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions."
One of the downsides of having lots of stuff is that it needs storing. It needs looking after. It needs maintaining and repairing and protecting and tidying away when you have finished with it. Although interacting with your stuff can be pleasurable, it can become burdensome. And the more sophisticated stuff can stop working altogether. And when the novelty wears off, what do you do? Well, it’s simple really. You get more stuff. You’re on a treadmill, in case you didn’t realise. It’s almost as if someone had designed it this way to keep your wallet open...
Raising children with a viable faith is surely about teaching them real sources of value; supremely God Himself is the source of all value, and we want our children to experience this through a relationship with Him. This will not be easy in competition with so many sources of distraction, and yet it must be attempted if we are to remain faithful to our Lord.