education consultant - school advisor london

Want to see what your kids are capable of? Stop giving them things

Peter Tait
August 9th 2017

One of the consequences of living in a consumer society is that we are all surrounded by ‘stuff’ – loads of it. For young children, much of this ‘stuff’ has a limited lifespan and is designed to break, dissolve, fray or self-destruct after a short time. Often, the ‘stuff’ (think toys for younger children) is an off-shoot of the latest craze, the latest movie franchise or some trend, fashion, idea, the consequences of which will fill your house and life. We can all remember some of these crazes from our youth or even our parents’ youth  – hula hoops, Rubik’s cube, pogo sticks and so on, but the difference today is the ‘stuff’ just keeps coming and we just keep buying it. 

For young children, swamped with ever more toys and belongings, imagination becomes the first casualty. Given an endless cycle of toys, boredom sets in as one toy is replaced by another and then discarded in anticipation of the latest upgrade. It is no surprise that children complain ‘I’m bored’ when standing in the middle of a room full of toys;  too much of anything is boring; clear the decks; just stop giving them things.

If the supply dries up, children may even start to value the things they have. It might not be too late for a life-long attachment to be formed with a favourite stuffed animal rather than having to look after a whole damned menagarie. Your child may even start to respect and value said toy and make sure it is not left in a position to trip you up. Without wanting to tag brands, a few well-known toys do offer considerable creative challenges outlets (think meccano and chemistry sets from the fifties), but there is great merit in buying with an eye to the question, ‘how will this challenge my child and for for how long?’

When children get together, the main point of friction is usually the possession and ownership of toys. Because young children are acquisitive, and naturally want the latest ‘thing’, they will keep asking. Now more than ever, the walls are well and truly down in terms of marketeers getting direct access to your children, so it is even more important for parents to be the gatekeepers. Succeeding in this requires a strategy, an agreed set of rules, even a whole new philosophy (try, ‘every possession is like a rock tied to your leg, pulling you down’ or the like - and stick to it).  It is often suggested that parents should spend less money on their children and more time. But accepting that time is a rare commodity, gold dust in many insensibly busy lives, you can take solace from the fact that children benefit even more from open spaces, blank pages and learning to entertain themselves.  If adults are always on tap to answer every question and provide every amusement, children will never learn to be autonomous human beings who have to think and you will, indeed, be driven to distraction, probably in that battery-powered car you'd forgotten you'd bought them.

The same parallel, of course, can be drawn in education: all the resources in the world can make no difference to the learning process – indeed, they can impede it, unless hunger, thirst, interest, imagination are also engaged. The problem comes when education requires none of these to obtain for its measurable outcomes (ie to pass A Levels) and any deviation from achieving the best statistical outcome is frowned upon.

What happens when children have to spend time together and don’t have any toys at hand? They improvise. They imagine. They make up worlds

They race sticks down a stream, fly a home made kite, play with old boxes, make up imaginary worlds. Of course, it seems easier just to buy them that toy they have been clamouring for to gain some peace and quiet, but the long term consequences of appeasement are more friction, more demands, more booty, possibly long-term fall-out. It’s happened before. Be warned!   


Peter Tait is a former Head of a leading UK public school and is part of the William Clarence Education Advisory Board