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Does materialism dominate family life?

Do Britons spend too much money and not enough time on our children? Sarfraz Manzoor and Mariella Frostrup debate the findings of a new report

Sarfraz Manzoor, writer and broadcaster

As a new father, I read this week’s Unicef report into child wellbeing with more interest than I may have done in the past. The report paints a bleak portrait of family life in this country. The UK came last among developed countries in terms of child wellbeing, and the report suggests we are a nation of overworked parents who try to compensate for not spending time with our children by buying them gadgets and clothes. The most heartbreaking quote was from Dr Agnes Nairn, the report’s author, who said that “parents in the UK almost seemed to be locked into a system of consumption which they knew was pointless but they found hard to resist.”

When I was growing up our family had very little money and consequently there were no toys, no birthday presents, no holidays and no new books. I wouldn’t wish that on my little girl but I do think that those absences forced my imagination to grow – through library books and writing my own stories. I worry that too many of today’s parents are paralysed by status anxiety. The things that are most precious are the things you cannot buy.

Mariella Frostrup, Observer agony aunt and broadcaster

I couldn’t agree more that money can’t buy love, and that is what children both need and desire. But let’s backtrack a bit. No offence to Unicef but a UK riddled with shopaholic parents trying to assuage their consciences with expensive toys for their unloved children is one I don’t recognise. Most people I see are struggling to pay their utility bills let alone splash out on Xboxes. The vast majority are simply battling to make ends meet.

I see that the recent riots are also now deemed the responsibility of materially obsessed parents, rather than disaffected frustrated youth in a nation with ever-increasing numbers of jobless teenagers. Often both parents are obliged to go out to work in order to make ends meet, and even then one out of three parents struggles to pay for childcare. Sweden, one of the countries we are compared with, offers free childcare and flexible working hours – childcare in Britain is among the most expensive in Europe.

Our entire financial system is built on our ability to work and consume to keep the economy afloat. And now we’re in the wrong for buying the odd toy for our kids?

SM If only it was the odd toy. You suggest that hard-up families cannot afford an Xbox but I am not sure I agree. One of the most illuminating findings in the report was that, irrespective of social class or race, families in Britain are less likely to spend time, eat or play games together. I recently revisited my old comprehensive school in Luton, where the majority of children are white working class, and the head told me that one of the reasons that this group is struggling academically is that their parents buy them TVs for their bedrooms, computer games and the rest. When they could all be eating and talking round the dinner table, the children are staring silently at computer screens .

I agree with you about the prohibitive costs of childcare but, in the end, isn’t there an element of choice in this? My point is that perhaps parents don’t want to live with the true price of their choices – to work insane hours will have an impact on your relationship with your child, and buying things is a way of trying to assuage that guilt and pretend that one can have it all.

MF We don’t disagree about choice, but to lay the blame for materialism on the shoulders of hard-pressed parents isn’t on. Our economy depends on us being consumers. In school, children aren’t taught to sew, make or mend and as adults we become more useless at practical matters with every generation that passes. So, yes, we are in thrall to replacing rather than repairing. But it’s part of a much wider malaise.

Take a particular bugbear of mine – Sunday trading. During my childhood, one day a week was the enforced preserve of peace and contemplation. Now, despite the fact that we can shop until we drop the other six days of the week and 24 hours-a-day online, it has not occurred to our leaders to resurrect the Sunday no-trading laws That’s because we have created a world run by big business, not governments; where we can’t afford to stop purchasing even for one day. For evidence, just look to one of the key indicators of economic health – consumer spending!

Capitalist societies are reliant on the populace’s ability to spend, spend, spend from the cradle to the grave. Only a full-scale social revolution could change the status quo, and that’s the only thing we don’t seem to have an appetite for.

SM I think it’s too defeatist to simply throw one’s hands up and say “it’s society wot made me do it”. We spent virtually nothing ahead of my daughter’s birth – the pram is borrowed, the clothes and crib are secondhand. I know people – and I am sure you do too – who would insist on everything being new and branded.

I agree with you that we are living with the consequences of the rapaciousness of free-market capitalism; I also think its no accident that the rogue trader Kweku Adoboli was “obsessed with material things”. I can’t overthrow capitalism but I can opt for wooden toys rather than plastic; or encourage reading rather than computer games. I can also accept that there are work opportunities I may have to decline because they will negatively impact upon my responsibility as a parent. I still believe that we all have the ability, if not to incite a full-scale social revolution, to at least inch the pendulum away from rampant materialism and towards a better world for both parents and children.

MF Again we are in agreement. I just think the situation is so much worse than the oversimplified conclusion that guilty parents are showering their offspring with unnecessary things. Unicef was clearly looking at how the way we live impacts on our children, but it is impossible to divorce the rampant materialistic impulses of hard-pressed, time-starved parents from the rampant materialism of hard-pressed, time-starved humans. To do so just adds to the burden of guilt already borne on our shoulders.

Like you and many others, I am trying to negotiate my way in a world that is fast becoming a giant shopping mall where our sole responsibility is to covet the goods on display. My argument is that a slavish devotion to shopping cannot be foisted on to one section of society and not the rest. Parents, for the most part, are doing their best against insurmountable odds to bring up healthy children in an era where increasingly we give in to the status quo because we are too hard-pressed to challenge it.

Mariella Frostrup’s series Bringing up Britain returns to Radio 4 in December © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds