Finding a new normal: how children and stuff can help us.

March 28, 2013

A friend sent me this link to children from around the world with their favourite material possessions. It is fascinating and instructive, bewildering and prayer-provoking.

children and their favourite things

One of the most striking photos for me was Maudy from Sibanda, Zambia.

maudyMaudy not only has a couple of dozen pairs of sunglasses – but she is surrounded by other people – a community of older and younger than her friends and relatives. She has a gorgeous smile. She is not the only child smiling – but she is the only one placed in context of her community. Indeed one of the most essential defining chracterisitcs of childhood is that it is a life lived in close connection to others – the myth of independence and idealization of autonomy is unsustainable.

If we are living our lives with children in our midst, we can’t help but notice all the stuff that goes along with childhood.

The messages of needing extra special ‘stuff’ for children often begins before a child is even conceived. Apparently I should have been taking folic acid supplements to strengthen my children before trying to get pregnant. (Note the assumption that this is a process that I would be completely in control of.)

And from conception on, the market is flooded with ‘must have’ equipment for child rearing. Everything is carefully graded in developmental increments. Our children and our lives and relationships with them are so often regulated and ordered by this narrative – the narrative of  ‘what are they up to?’ and the corresponding product, designed to become obsolete in a short, while as a symbol or perhaps trophy of the child’s progress.

I am all for dressing kids in clothes that are more or less the right size – comfort , warmth and safety are all expressed through good choices here. But clearly we have gone far beyond these dimensions in the range of goods available, and the conversations of ‘should I get this’ that occupy a parent’s mind and many coffee conversations.

And our culture is not too keen for us to grow out of it. This pattern of being-as-developing-symbolised by obsolescence maintains a grip on us : as adults we are constantly in search of the next upgrade.

What are some of our cheapest ‘put-downs’?

“That’s so yesterday”

“Don’t be a baby”

Or how about this one from the sophisticated world of politics:

“And now, to make matters worse, they (the Tories) have elected a foetus as party leader.”  (Former Sports Minister Tony Banks on William Hague)

Our throw away lines betray our commitment to this notion of always moving forward, moving on, and in the process, abandonning former things – but never questioning the relentless process of upgrading and locating ourselves in contemporaneity with things.

This is not just greed in consuming – though that is a factor – it goes to the very core of what we think being a human is about. That we are beings who must have things and we must have things that both correspond to and thereby define our abilities. We run dangerously close to casting our identity in terms of our agency and ability, rather than in our existing. History is full of tragic examples of this – slavery, sterilisation of humans who’s reproduction may not be ‘perfect’, subjugation and forced ‘civilisation through colonisation of unfamiliar cultures. When we assess humans on the basis of their capacity for productivity, graded on a continuuum of return, we lose equally ourselves and our others – both too precious to be treated like this.

Another set of childhood images have also caught my attention this week


A thirty year old advertisement for Lego,

featuring a little girl and her beautiful construction.photo

They don’t advertise Lego like this anymore.

In fact they don’t make Lego like this anymore –

especially not for girls, but not so much for boys either.

Notice how the girl’s sets seem to have very little construction or opportunity for alternative combination of basic elements.

The level of control exerted over a girls play extends from the limited palette of colours, to the small range of  ‘plotted’ activities (shopping, cooking, grooming)  to the lack of removable and reworkable parts to re-make the world in new ways.


And this is what is so tragic about giving our children things like this.

Childhood is both a time of limited physical possibilities, and unlimited imagination. These things often go together.

When you can’t actually fly, it is much easier to imagine 5000 ways that you could possibly fly.

When all you have is a cardboard box, an eggcarton and some toilet rolls and string, it’s impossible for it to actually become a car, so you are free to make a supertransflabigulating monstrophometricator.

The children in the photos by Gabrielle Galimberti demonstrate this as well. I don’t want to romanticize the lives of some children and demonize the lives of others, but we are wise to pay attention to the story these pictures tell. One of the interesting themes across all of the photos is the presence of like sets. A complete set of Thomas the tank engine; many Barbie dolls, and a matching dress for the child; sets of tea cups, sets of dinosaurs. And among these is one child who has only three items – that do not ‘match’ each other. It strikes the eye, and it exposes the weight that pulls us towards conformity as normative. Once you start a set of things that go together – there is an unending line of extras that can be presented as complimentary to the basic set – and which do require dollars, but don’t require imagination.

I am personally confronted and chastened by this. I love a theme. I have whole boxes in my shed sorted and labeled meticulously, full of resources from decades of ministry with children and families. Class sets of rubics cubes, a whole box of frogs, another of penguins in fake salty ‘snow’ and bits of polystyrene ‘icebergs’. Even my freestyle imaginative craft ‘junk’ is sorted:  wooden dolly pegs, skewers and popsticks in one box and plastic craft junk in another. This is the way we do things.

Honestly, I am not about to go out to the shed and mix up those boxes. There’s a marriage at stake in there being a bit of order, accessibility and functionality in that space.

But I am re-thinking how I might approach using these resources.

As I design interactions for all ages, mixing the words of God (which are an everyday tangible thing), with every day tangible things (that ultimate have their ground of being in the words of God who said ‘Let there be…’) I need to consider what kind of controls and limits and what kinds of opportunities and invitations  I can provide.

Am I able to allow us all the space to rethink what is possible? What is normal? To create alternate images of the way the world is seen, or might be seen from odds and ends that might not ‘normally’ go together.  For those colleagues who are collecting and constructing their ‘Godly Play’ sets – this is worth thinking about too.

There is much that is grievously normal in our world that needs rethinking and challenging. Our children (and let us all remember that we are all God’s children and might be given a few bits of Lego, paper, strings and ceiling wax) are important players (in both senses of that word) in imagining and possibility.

Hunger, poverty,  injustice, denegration of others, conflict, judgment, abdication of responsibility, attack, greed, fear…all of these are terribly normal. As normal as pick Lego for girls and commando designs for boys, debt for affluent grown ups and competition among professionals.

I wonder which of these ‘normals’ might be shaken a little by children who are released from some of the cultural captivity of our products and their tight rules of conformity of identity and activity – and I wonder which of these ‘normals’ might be shaken loose in the grown ups who would choose differently?

Lego ad 2

The way we do life together – the way we explore the world, exercise our imagination and tell our stories, at home, in communities, and particularly our faith communities is vulnerable (thankfully vulnerable) to the integrity of the things we use to tell it.

In word and in deed.

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