A Lesson In Materialism


Jun 21, 2016


Our recent house-move disrupted many things, notably my toddler’s schooling and day-care facility. Like any pair of anxious parents today, my husband and I spent a considerable amount of time choosing a new one, looking up ratings and reviews of all neighbourhood preschools and day-care facilities.

We didn’t find much to choose between; all schools have ‘international curriculums’; all do the ‘play-way’ method; and all use Teaching Learning Materials, which are educational toys and games teachers use to teach. We finally chose the school where the children looked the happiest. (It appears to be a time-tested criterion among parents; my mother later told me that over 30 years ago, in the absence of any facility-based information, she and my father also chose a school for me based on how happy the other kids looked).

But since my son has started attending, this happiness has become a source of concern, not comfort. His school seems to emphasise happiness by way of things. The school provides ‘exposure’ to tablets, a dizzying array of toys in many colours and textures. Even activities like music and dance rely on plastic drums and pom-poms. The teachers and principal assure me these things will make my son turn out to be a confident, world-beating boy. Books and unstructured free-play are mentioned in passing.

This quest to provide the children with more and more things has invaded my home. One Monday morning, I open a note from my son’s school: “Dear Parent, we are celebrating Baisakhi on 18th April, please send your child dressed up in Indian traditional clothes.” Another note: “Dear Parent, we are celebrating Red Day on 19th April, please dress him red clothes.” Yet another: “Dear Parent, we are celebrating Napkin Folding Day on April 20th, please send a coloured table cloth napkin.” “Dear Parent, we are celebrating family day on April 21st, please send a framed family photograph,” and finally, “Dear Parent, we are celebrating Earth Day on 22nd April, please send a sapling.”

A sapling.

I appreciate school celebrations, I do. I think they go a long-way in encouraging toddlers to mingle and understand special days. I just don’t see why each one requires our son to procure a new thing.

The school’s Mother’s Day celebrations, which lasted all of a half hour, was the last straw. The school had requested we send him to school in a red shirt and carrying family photographs.

Leaving the irony of mother’s day celebrations aside, I sent a note back: “I’m sorry I’m having a tough time complying with the requirements for ‘things’ and Monday is a working day.” The principal of the school sent me a long e-mail about my son feeling left out and lonely because I didn’t send the right shirt or photographs (worse still, I didn’t attend).

My son’s education was rapidly getting out of my control.

A child’s sense of self-worth does not have to be defined by the number of things – toys, clothes, gadgets (and trees, I guess) – they own. Their participation in activities should not be contingent on how much stuff they can bring in their backpacks. This well-intentioned bid to instil more confidence in children or to create more activity time for them is at the cost of more important times – teacher-time, story-time, play-time, free-play time or parenting-time – and experiences that actually instil confidence.

In theory, what my son’s school (and many others) is doing is not bad. With or without a school’s prompting, it is not bad to buy your child a new toy or even nice clothes – we all aspire to give our children the best that we can.

But a surfeit of things is a different matter altogether. It teaches dissatisfaction. It teaches children that perfectly good toys (and gadgets and clothes) have an expiry date that is not a function of durability, but a function of being out-of-date or not new enough. It teaches that you have to keep accumulating, competing, own the ‘latest’ and the ‘best’ in order to be worthwhile. It teaches ingratitude. A culture of materialism means our children treasure and preserve less, are less grateful for what they have.

I had expected my son’s school to teach different lessons.

We have tried to counteract a growing materialism at home, though toy-free play, when we pretend to have toys; through tall-tales, when we’re allowed only to talk and describe; through a game called ‘ordinary folk,’ which focuses on learning about, appreciating and doing everyday actions like sweeping floors with a mini-broom. But I am still bothered. My son spends close to seven hours a day in a place that continuously plies him with new things.

It is a problem of the times, the principal of my son’s preschool finally tells me, when I voice my concern. We give children ‘stuff’ because their parents don’t spend time with them, and kids want attention. Find out what is fueling the desire for things, I shoot back. If it is attention, let’s give attention, not things.

But the principal doesn’t understand my “problems” with materialism.

“Look at this,” she says excitedly, “your son is all over the school newsletter, and so many parents told me he is so cuuuteeeeeeeeee….”

It is true my son’s photo is on the school newsletter a lot, but he doesn’t seem to be smiling very much in any of the photos, I say.

And I can’t find a single picture where he isn’t staring glassy-eyed at a ‘thing.’


Written By Varna Sri Raman

Varna wants to live in a world where kindness and intelligence reign. A researcher by trade, she’s fascinated by human beings, wombats, velociraptors and other queer creatures, in that order. When she’s not working on her day-job, PhD, son, photography-firm, part-time projects or any of her other gazillion pursuits — you can find her curled up by the window, watching leaves fall or howling at the moon.



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