I suspect those who celebrate Christmas will be familiar with the way I felt a day or so after last Eid. Having received numerous toys, the kids took a cursory look at each and then left them to one side, forgotten. A few days after, I got a lecture from both my mother and my mother-in-law who had tag-teamed to advise me that I was spoiling my children, in particular my daughter, by buying them too many toys and gifts.
While I am good at ignoring parenting advice, when it comes from both my mum and mother-in-law, I knew there had to be something to it.
I questioned whether I was buying them off with material possessions because of some kind of working mother guilt–toys instead of time and attention. I decided this isn’t the case, because I am quite good at saying no when they ask for things. The usual working mother discourse/guilt trip doesn’t quite fit for me because I work almost the same hours that my kids are at school.
Most of the things I buy them are what I think are appropriate and not what they want—educational toys, sports equipment, arts and crafts materials (although I do have a weakness for pretty, girly things for my daughter). I have always tried to provide an enriched environment for my children through their toys and possessions and then allow them to get on with their play and learning rather than tutor or steer them too strongly (I’m probably too lazy to do this as well).
Despite this, I was left wondering whether buying them lots of toys and clothes was spoiling my children. To find some answers, I had to dig deeper. People often shop when they are anxious. People my age have been raised on a diet of advertising and marketing. We are told that if we buy one more product we will be beautiful, happy, and young and that all of our problems will be solved. Shopping has become a kind of therapy for us–the right shoes will make our work problems go away, the right cream will make us young and we won’t have to think about our self-image or confidence issues. This kind of thinking has become almost second nature for us. As Dave Ramsey (The Total Money Makeover: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness) said, “We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”
As much as I have become aware of this over the years, I haven’t been able to avoid this behaviour completely. I wonder, is this what we are passing on to our children? We don’t own a television, but I notice when my children watch cartoon channels at their nan’s (grandmother) house, they come back with a list of toys they would like, most of which I have never heard of and certainly would not buy. What do the adverts tell them—owning this toy will make them happy, popular, cool and free from boredom?
On reflection, my mum and mother-in-law are right. Constantly increasing the number of possessions my children own is not doing them any favours. Instead, I feel it traps them into a love of material possessions, which goes against the spirit of my faith.
Islam teaches that this world is temporary and a short stop on a much longer journey. To acquire too much baggage on that journey is to create hardship and distraction for yourself. We are also reminded in the Quran to consume the earth’s resources carefully and to avoid wastefulness:
“Children of Adam, take your adornment at every place of prayer. Eat and drink, and do not waste. He does not love the wasteful.” (Al-Quran, 7:31)
“And render to kindred their due right, as (also) to those in want, and to the wayfarer; but squander not (your wealth) in the manner of a spendthrift.” (Al-Quran, 17:26)
So on the one hand we are told to spend on those who need and deserve it, like our families and those in need, and on the other hand we are told not to be a spendthrift, i.e., waste on buying unnecessary things.
This is a good reminder to think about where I direct my resources. “What do my children and I really need?” If I am honest in answering this question, the answer has to be “not very much,” and certainly not a multitude of flashy, plastic toys that clutter up our home. I have noticed that the children most like to play without toys—play wrestling or races—or with things other than toys, such as cushions for fighting or the computer chair to spin each other around on.
I don’t want my children to be mindless consumers, chasing the next new thing. I want to encourage them to think through their buying choices and use their consumer power wisely. I hope to do this by fostering their resourcefulness so they have the know-how and craft skills—whether sewing, cooking or repairing—to know how things can be re-used or “upcycled.” As a dear friend, Elizabeth, says, “Wear it out, use it up, make it to, or do without.” They are not going to gain these skills by constantly buying new things.
In view of the resourcefulness agenda, I have stopped buying them things. We are learning to use what we have instead of running to the shops at the slightest pretext. Admittedly, the shiny, new items in their packaging, ironed or with pretty labels, have their appeal. But so does a house with less clutter and a bit more money at the end of the month, especially at a time when the cost of living has increasingly become difficult to manage.
There are certain role models who are important to us. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was known for his simple and austere life. Jesus (peace be upon him) is another role model, with his disregard for worldly possessions and his habit of travelling from one place to another with what little he had.
The other example is an elderly lady that I once met. Her husband had been an air force pilot and her son was an engineer, yet she chose to live in an almost empty house with a few changes of clothes in a travel bag, a mattress, blanket and a few kitchen utensils. She could afford much better, but chose not to burden herself with too many possessions—truly a woman who understood the meaning of being a traveller in this world.