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 in school uniform, 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 and more than 2,000 had read the blog entitled Free Our Kids that I’d published that morning, announcing to the ether my New Year’s resolution for 2013: to raise my son cost-free for a year.
It is not exactly a revolutionary idea. On December 19, with the new year in sight, our son Johnny turned two. We were on holiday and so had avoided any present-buying hype. Instead, we pulled into a garage on the day and bought him a 50p water pistol.
He was ecstatic. It was a weapon, then it was a tool for watering plants; no wait, it was definitely, actually, something to feed bedraggled dogs from. The Hamley’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. 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 just 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 at soft-play centres. We could go a whole year without engaging in any kiddy consumerism, barring essential items such as medicines. Johnny wouldn’t even notice.
Back home, I recounted my vision to Dot, my elderly neighbour. She leant against my garden wall, had a think, and 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” £500 buggy. 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 adverts 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 £218,000. Another survey found that British families spend more than £10,000 on toys before their child turns 19.
No, if I was mad (and looking at the unnecessary spending I’d fallen prey to, it looked uncomfortably clear that I had been), then I wasn’t alone. It wasn’t even a middle-class madness. It may not have existed in previous generations, but all the symptoms pointed to a nationwide epidemic.
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 adverts for Viagra.
Instead, people I had never met began saying that 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 travel system alone, £1,000!” wrote Charlie. “She has 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 first-hand that cloth nappies and second-hand/hand-me-down 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 is 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 of typical homes last year found that two thirds of toys were not being played with. Worse, all those toys might not even be good for them. In a report on the state of children’s play in Britain, the child development specialist Sally Goddard Blythe noted that British children were engaging in “less play that develops gross and fine motor skills, less robust, physical play experiences and less social interaction and communication” than previous generations.
The strange thing is, we know this already. 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.
Could it be as simple as keeping up with the Joneses? “We moved from London to rural France a couple of years ago,” wrote Sharon. “Hand-me-downs and second-hand things are completely normal for everybody here. I can honestly say I am a different person more content and less highly strung.”
There is a more complex, emotional dynamic to modern shopping, too. One woman recalled visiting a toy shop with her colicky baby and sweeping the shelves of toys and comforters that promised to “soothe”.
“How silly,” said Dot when I told her. “What happened to 'mother knows best’?” For lots of modern parents, however, faced with adverts, blogs, magazines and shops, in moments of self-doubt it has become all too tempting to hope instead that “advertisers know best”.
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. Did Just William have less fun because his adventures were built of sticks and mud? Did I miss something, or didn’t Veruca Salt’s “I want” bring her to a sticky end?
We are only at the very beginning of the year, and we are by no means experts. The one and only time that I have 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 is at least one empty cardboard box under the tree. And I hope it is still the favourite.