The Gift Shop Challenge


We had a lovely time at the Tate. Alexander Calder’s wire sculptures and mobiles were clever and gorgeous and… yes, there were a couple of tense moments that involved the kids boinging up against the security cords around delicate pieces of carefully preserved exhibits, but all in all the four children we’d brought along were very interested in and genuinely appreciative of the art.

Shame then – although not a huge surprise –  that it all had to go wrong on the way out, in the gift shop… Isn’t it annoying how they’re strategically placed so you can’t get out without being visually bombarded with stuff that’s not exactly tat (actually Tate tat is pretty good) but it’s just EXTRA stuff that we don’t need. When did shopping become an obligatory part of the experience of going to a gallery or a museum anyway? It’s hard not to get drawn in by the whole business: I want the thrill of the purchase even though I know I don’t need anything, but for this time anyway, I resist.

The children on the other hand succumb completely to the desired effect of the shop: wanting – no, needing! – this pencil, that rubber, that magnet, that silk scarf! Nothing wrong with a souvenir every now and again but our pen pots are already overflowing, the fridge door is crowded and our bookshelves are loaded with exhibition catalogues we never look at. So, as usual I say the kids can choose a postcard each; always useful, biodegradable and I love seeing which ones they choose, sometimes a real surprise.

But May also has her heart set on a nondescript rubber and Lulu wants a £35 scarf (expensive taste, that girl). I stick to my original offer: a postcard or nothing. Cue cries of unfairness and some good old-fashioned stomping but eventually May chooses a postcard. Lulu would rather have nothing; I’m briefly impressed by her strength of will but that’s quickly replaced by frustration at her bawling her eyes out at the injustice of it all.

Sometimes their lack of understanding of how fortunate they are drives me a little bit crazy. How could they tantrum over a rubber when they’re being treated to the kind of day out that many children will never experience in their lifetime? Don’t they understand how lucky they are?!

But of course they don’t, they can’t. All they’ve ever known is abundance. An abundance of abundance. Toys, food, clothes, gifts, sweets – there is an almost constant stream of new things flowing their way, from generous grandparents, aunties, uncles and friends, on birthdays, Christmas, Easter (Easter presents! Noooo) or just because…

I don’t want to sound ungrateful; I’m incredibly thankful for all these wonderful people we have in our lives and their kindness, and many times the gifts are great and very useful, but the fact is that what all their combined generosity results in is simply is too much stuff. So, sometimes it’s good to say no.

We don’t like to see our children upset, but actually those moments of saying no can be a brilliant opportunity for observing feelings and being mindful of them. It can be interesting to wait until a neutral time (when no-one is feeling tired, hungry or emotional) and then dig into what feelings arose and what happened. So asking the child, without judgement or criticism, what it feels like when you really REALLY want something in a shop but you don’t get it (hey, we’ve all been there) and gently drawing attention to the fact that although it might feel really bad, or painful, or like you might actually die if you don’t get it (yes that’s how dramatic my child is), the feeling passes and it’s all OK.

Life will always throw disappointment, pain and stress our way – it’s how we deal with it that counts. Can we acknowledge it, feel it and let it go? Or do we hold onto it, feel resentful and hard done by? I know plenty of adults in both camps and it’s obvious which makes for an easier, happier life so I’m building up the kids’ resilience by letting a few disappointments filter through.

Sorry kids, I feel your pain! You might hate me for it in the moment, but this is your training not just for becoming independent-minded consumers who can resist the temptation that will be thrown in your path, day in, day out when you’re just a little older than you are now, but also resilient human beings who can navigate the choppy waves of life with as little seasickness as possible.

P.S. As a final thought, a line which stuck with me from this great post on Raised Good: ‘[We have now] entered a unique period in which, rather than struggling to provide enough parents are unable to resist providing too much.’ Check out the article for some very pertinent arguments for simplifying childhood.



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