Bringing a child up for free – Breaking the tyranny of the “Must Buy” culture

Can you bring up a child for free? One mum is trying!

Hattie Garlick and Johnny (credits: Parentdish)

I came across a report yesterday about Hattie Garlick – a woman with a two-year-old son who has decided to try and spend no money on him during this next year.

This might sound like cruelty but I find it rather sensible.

She does not, of course, mean that she will not give him food or medicine as he needs it. Instead, she is talking about breaking the control of the insane world of consumerism we all seem to be stuck in.

Frankly I wholeheartedly agree.

You can read the full report here:

Can you bring up a child for free? One mum is trying! – Parentdish.


DIY Dolls House (credits: Free Our Kids)

Better still, do what I did and sign up for her blog “Free Our Kids” and see for yourself what she has been getting up to so far. When I last looked there was this wonderful post of a Doll’s House they made together entirely out of cardboard and bits and pieces lying around the house. It took me back to happy, happy days in the 70s when I grew up and this kind of activity was the staple diet of playtime for us kids. I grew up in the grey area between working and middle class in Wigan, a northern England town and there wasn’t a great deal of money to spare for toys. The few I got were precious and my parents made it clear just how much of a struggle it was to afford any at all.

So paper, card, string, glue and a whole lot of imagination was the order of the day and I don’t regret a minute of it.

Living in Bangladesh now, in another northern area experiencing great poverty as well as great economic change, all of this hits home again.

My children’s peers in England enjoy, by and large, 24/7 broadband internet, TVs in their own rooms, laptops, X-Boxes, Wiis and mobile phones amongst a whole host of DVDs and other incredible luxuries that are now being considered necessities. Just recently, a German court declared the internet an essential commodity enabling one man to sue his internet provider when he lost connectivity for a period of time.

I don’t have anything against all of this per se but when it all goes hand-in-hand with everyone feeling the pinch in a global recession and increasing problems with children being unable to socially interact and greater obesity and so on, I question the value of such luxuries which bring an unhealthy gratification to the young and cause so many problems both now and for the future.

I have always maintained that children here in Bangladesh are much, much happier than those in my home country and after four years of living here I am still convinced this is the case. Most of these kids have precious little resources so they go out and make them for themselves – together.

And I think that is my point  here.

My own children do have laptops to do their work on and limited access to the internet to keep in contact with friends around the world, so I am not ‘anti-technology’. Nor is Garlick. She uses the internet to swap toys with others as a way of not having to buy any. My point is that I believe we need to stop listening to the voice of the ‘Must Buy’ culture even when our own children are hooked on it and demand more. Some things are helpful; others are just lazy.

The clue, I feel, is this: Are we interacting with our children or are they spending the majority of the time alone in their rooms on computers, watching DVDs or TV or on solo games? If so, maybe we’ve got the balance wrong. What Garlick has done costs her time – not money. She has to play with her son, do activities with him, aid him to see his imagination come to life. He’s not placed in front of the TV for hours on end.

Doing (unusual) things together

I’ve tried to do the same with my children. Thing I and Thing II have virtually no access to TV, they have limited ‘screen’ time for laptops and ipods outside of doing school work and almost all videos watched are done as a family together. We play games together one night a week (usually) and we eat all our meals together. They spend a lot of time playing outside with friends and reliance on ‘toys’ is limited. What’s most wonderful for me is that we actually like being together! Family time is a fun experience for us all despite my daughter hitting the teens soon and my son reaching the age of 10 in the next couple of weeks. This is a precious gift I don’t want to lose.


I have life in Bangladesh to thank for all of this. I’m not sure we would have succeeded had we lived the last four years in the UK. The temptation to ‘do what everyone else is’ is far too strong.

Hats off to Hattie Garlick, then, for being stronger than (I suspect) most of us.

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24 Responses to Bringing a child up for free – Breaking the tyranny of the “Must Buy” culture

  1. NannySavvy says:

    I enjoyed this post so much I followed the story back to the free our kids blog and subscribed to that, your blog, and then wrote a story about it myself….


  2. Ray says:

    Reblogged this on Wordsummit and commented:
    So much gold in this story….


  3. Love this post AND your POV, Ken.


  4. saradraws says:

    YES~! We are trying to cut down on our collective screen time which is pretty anti-social when there’s people right beside you.
    Imagination is a far better toy than anything else you can find. Portable, stores easily, self-cleaning, no batteries needed.


  5. Bindu says:

    The post and the family snap inspire me a lot. Here in KSA we have a very secluded way of life. We have to spend a good share of our free time in front of TV or computers. But I am glad that the minute we turn off these devices we find our kids engaged in innovative games full of creativity and imagination. Of course video games don’t leave behind any mess but they take the life out of our lives.


    • That’s true. Again, I have to say I’m no anti-technology. We use computers and watch DVDs a lot of the time – but we do it together as a family for a good amount of that time! My daughter and I often do our writing together and discuss storylines and potential blog posts on our laptops together and I teach my two children a lot of music stuff using the laptop too. We also have a Wii here which we use to keep the family fit. The problem is when we end up leading four separate lives within the same house! That’s what we have always tried to avoid and I why I am very glad we don’t really have any TV to watch in bangladesh!


  6. wanderfool says:

    Fantastic post, and it’s not just true for children, it’s true for adults too. Materialism is, indeed, the bane of an entire generation. And unfortunately, though we often blame “western values” for it, the scenario is pretty much the same even in India. The more time technology frees up, the more we bury ourselves in it. And as we move higher up the social ladder, our definition of happiness changes from peace and fun and togetherness to material possession.


    • Thanks for the support Wanderfool! I think you are quite right though I would still lay the blame on the Western culture. India used to be known as the land where time slows down – or at least it was for the British! It is still very much true for most of Bangladesh but, increasingly, it is being eroded away as more and more have TVs, mobile phones and internet. I’m pleased that India is now on the edge of being a world leader and taken seriously a major player in world affairs, but sad if that means that India has taken on all the trappings of Western culture in doing so. It’s almost like a voluntary form of colonialism!


  7. I feel refreshed after reading this post and I sure will check out Hattie Garlick’s blog too and give as much coverage as possible. If I calculate how much time I spend in front of the TV its around 3 hours a week that that 3 hours is usually to watch news – this does increase when I watch my favorite programs that are aired seasonally mainly about gold mining on discovery channel – other then that I am far to busy with my business, personal life and PhD study.

    I think more and more people are beginning to realise how technology and excessive use of it is harmful and can be damage relationships around them and in their respective environments.

    What’s important and at times is to decide when and for how long should technology be used. I mean, surfing the internet for information/research or studies is acceptable but doing it just because you are bored is indeed a lame excuse, likewise with TV – you watch what you want to watch now what you find interesting to watch.

    Overall I am so glad to have read this post today and I agree with wholeheartedly.


    • That’s good to hear! I think you are right and yet I know I’ve done it myself in the UK, when at home and on my own: if I’m bored I’ll spend ages flicking around the satellite TV channels trying to find something to watch rather than go do something! And I’m someone who hates this TV-watching culture! It is so easy to let it suck you in.

      I think we need a radical new way of thinking in society that gives us time to get out, about and with others.

      Isn’t it ironic that in a world, today, that we have made super-fast, we didn’t learn that this super-speed should give us more free time to spend with others. Instead, we just put our lives into fastforward. Hmm…I feel another blog post coming on here…


  8. Lunch Sketch says:

    Great and challenging post!

    I think you have it in a nutshell when you said, “What Garlick has done costs her time – not money”. It is so easy to let our kids be babysat by technology instead of playing with each other or with us.

    Our middle child (13) has a hard time getting along with our youngest (8), but she seems to get along very well with her iPad. We occasionally resort to banning the iPad for a week – cruel parents as we are – and magically the girls start playing and making craft together within a day.

    It is so tough to go against western culture when immersed in it and it is also tough to avoid laziness as parents. I find camping with the kids a great way of doing both.


    • Good points. Camping is a popular one amongst my friends and seems to work well. Kids love being outdoors – alas, I’m not so keen! My personal favourite is playing card games. I love all kinds from the very basic (read childish!) to complex ones like Canasta to Texas Hold ‘Em! I don’t know how long I can keep our two interested in such things but my hope is that they will still come home from university in years to come and want to play a game of Whist with us! That’s the dream 🙂


  9. Muna says:

    Yeah, you’re right Uncle Ken. Sometimes my parents too, say just the you have said! I think all good parents will think that way!
    Anyway, brilliant post again 🙂


  10. Lizz Lee says:

    Well, we had or first NCT class (National Childbirth Trust – basically birth and baby classes for anyone who’s not familiar with the charity) yesterday. One of the comments mentioned was the astronomical estimated cost of raising a child. I think £220,000 including university was mentioned, to the horror of some faces (ours included). Our point was that there are choices and it’s something we’ve been aware of ever since becoming pregnant……. women have been having babies and raising children all over the world for thousands of years and most have done it without the endless stream of designer style clothes from Baby Gap, the latest must-have gadget or even access to some of the hospital technology that most of us take for granted. Admittedly, there have been times when we’re incredibly grateful for the wonders of science and medical knowhow, and we hope we raise a health and happy child – but that has very little to do with spending money on her. In fact, in these times of recession and financial hardship, spending money is the cause of MORE stress and anguish. Thanks for the reminder Ken – and please send us tips for family time!!! x


    • Thanks Lizz. That statistic is horrific though if we split it up over, say, 20 years it comes down to £11,000 a year (just over £900 each month) which I can see being the case very easily. Isn’t it amazing how it mounts up?!

      I think our mutual point here is not that we’re begrudgingly spending this money on our kids – I’d spend it all if that’s what it took to get them ready for life in the healthiest possible way. The point is that we’re forced/blackmailed by media and peer pressure into spending money needlessly which actually turns out to not be helpful at all.

      I think one of the few things I got right while we still lived in the UK was making a habit right from the birth of both our two to make sure I always spent time playing with my kids each day. Usually some kind of educational play, it made a routine that I always did it and they were always used to doing some kind of activity with Dad each day. It means that activities we do together now doesn’t feel ‘foreign’ or ‘false’ – very important when they are reaching teenage years!


  11. Sandee says:

    Hopefully Hattie Garlick’s child will continue on the anti-consumerism path as he gets older. My sister jokingly said she’d just give her little sons empty oatmeal boxes for xmas and they’d be happy with that because they didn’t know yet about all those toys and technology. But then of course they have to go to school where they’re exposed to trends, etc. through their peers. I had an instinct against consumerism at a very young age for some reason. I used to rebel against buying clothes and would wear them until they fell off of me almost. While I do indulge myself from time to time as I have been weened on this culture, I’m still the same today with clothes when I can get away with it. I think materialism is the root of a lot of the world’s problems.


    • We used to joke that our kids, at Christmas, would throw the toy away and play with the box it came in! To an extent that is very true! I agree with you about how we get weaned on the culture and end up submitting and, again, I’m not anti-tech or anything like that. But I do see, in the UK, the desire to have as the panacea for all ills is at epidemic proportions. Alas, it is creeping into Bengali culture too and I hate that…


  12. NannySavvy says:

    I am a nanny and have worked with many families who have the means to buy much for their children. I’m always pleased when even the wealthy chose to access things like the local toy library or book swaps rather than collect mountains of things their children may not need or appreciate. One great way to avoid buying a lot of new toys it to cycle through the ones you have. Toys that have been in hiding for a few months can seem as fresh and exciting and brand new ones.
    Check out my blog discussing babies and children @


    • Thanks for the heads up with your blog – I’m taking a look at it now.
      I think what you are suggesting is just what Garlick talks about doing herself in the article. It is a great idea and not only saves money but saves waste too. Good for you AND good for the environment – win/win!

      Thanks for stopping by NannySavvy! 🙂


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