Parents have been wasting money on toys, according to one of Britain’s leading child psychologists, and should be spending it on holidays instead.
“Do you have any idea what an extraordinary proportion of presents we give children aren’t actually wanted or valued?” asks Oliver James, Britain’s best-selling psychological author, whose numerous books on the relationship between children and their parents includes Love Bombing: Reset Your Child’s Emotional Thermostat.
The answer ranges from one-in-five to two-thirds, depending on the survey you choose.
“The whole business of providing material commodities for kids — in ever more expensive forms as they get older — is entirely, 100 per cent, about propping up the industry that profits from it,” continues an animated James.
“On the other hand, family holidays are definitely valued by children, both in the moment and for long afterwards in their memory. So if you’re going to spend money on something, it’s pretty clear which option makes more sense.”
Research, of course, repeatedly indicates that, despite the fact that we go on buying more stuff, adults really regard experiences like travel as far more fulfilling. Children, says James, are no different. It’s just that they value different aspects of that travel.
“The first and simplest mistake that an awful lot of parents make is confusing what they find exciting about a holiday with what their children will,” says James. “So many of the ‘interesting’ things about a new place are deathly boring to the vast majority of children — high culture, for example, in almost all forms. So your child, if at all typical, will grumble at the ghastly business of being dragged round.”
What kind of holiday is best for children?
Crucially, however, that does not mean that the holiday is wasted on them. “Children see the world differently,” explains James, “through consumption for example: the way that French cafes have Orangina instead of Fanta is fascinating to kids, and details like that will stick with them for long after the holiday ends.”
It is a compelling argument for not imposing culture on family holidays. “Give a two-year-old a present and she’ll get absorbed in the box instead,” says James. “It’s similar with children and travel. We should let them explore their own ways of finding wonder in their surroundings.”
He gives the example of taking his own children, then aged 10 and 14, to Paris: “She was quite interested in the art. The only thing that even vaguely interested him was a shop that was essentially the French equivalent of Sports Direct. They both, however, really enjoyed mocking me for the cheapskate, appalling accommodation I’d booked. After the holiday, it became the stuff of legend. And that’s not to be sniffed at.”
Because, according to James, what children really value about holidays is the rare possibility they create for prolonged periods of playfulness with their parents.
“The exam system that we put children through these days can be incredibly stressful, just as much so as the strains of adult life,” he explains.
“Holidays remove us, physically, from our highly pressured everyday lives where everyone’s focused on meeting targets. They are times when everyone can relax and be playful together.”
Of course, toys are all about play too. Or they should be. But then the days of the cheerful board game are over. Increasingly, modern toys put distance between family members, removing children to their own room, screen and insular worlds.
The play Oliver is talking about is collaborative. It is also silly, not educational, and it is, he says, “a crucial human experience, for children especially, but for adults too. Without it, life is very empty and lacking in joy.”
It is “talking nonsense with your parents, sharing an ice cream and moments of time in which your interests are genuinely taken into account.”
That is what children value, James argues. It is certainly what they remember, long after the latest toy lands up as landfill.