Now that we have stopped moving and are settled here in our house in Missoula, I have had some time to think and to absorb my surroundings. Over these three months, I have watched the seasons go from the height of a very hot summer, through a glorious fall to the very early beginnings of winter. And you can’t help but notice the seasons here as they are loud and extreme and in your face.
About a month ago, E and I decided to do our bedtime reading outside. I happened to look up from my book and noticed a strange glimmer just at the peak of Mount Sentinel. I thought it was a light or perhaps some hikers wearing headlamps crossing the mountain which would have been very weird, but hey this is Missoula, maybe people do this kind of thing here. The light grew and I nudged E and said, “The moon is rising!” We sat for the twenty minutes or so that it took the swollen, milky disk that was a full harvest moon to rise and take its place in the darkening sky. We ended up going to bed far too late with thoughts of planets and moons and the cosmos in our heads. The constant greyness of London is not only depressing; it keeps us away from being able to imagine anything beyond the next tower block. In London the lack of sky limits my thinking. There was a reason Thoreau went to Walden for his two-year exile and not New York City.
Linked to this awareness of the cycles of nature is something I have touched upon in a previous blog, and is also something I am still fascinated by: the behaviour of the children in Montana. When I am not picking my jaw off the floor, I am punching the air over the fact that there are places in the world where kids ask if they can help clear the table after a meal, eat all their food without a fuss and when you say it’s time for them to leave, they get their coats. The other day one of E’s friends ended up staying for supper and all I had in the house was curried fish stew with ginger and coconut milk. When I told this eight-year-old girl what we were eating, she said, “Oh, yum, I’ve never tried that before”. I was expecting “I don’t like fish. Curry is yuck,” or any number of complaints, because to be honest, that is probably what I would get in London.
Part of me is awed by this behaviour because it is something I recognise. Not so much from my life as a mother, but from my life as a child. So how has Missoula managed to be our own little Walden Pond? How has it retained this element of simplicity? How have the children managed to remain unentitled—children whose biggest demand for the day is a round of hide and seek, not an iPad. And I think I know the reason. I think it is as simple as not being exposed to advertising everywhere you look. There isn’t a Bratz doll or a girl’s negligé imprinted with Playboy bunnies anywhere in sight here in Missoula.
And of course having nature on your doorstep is simply too hard for any child to resist. E spent entire days playing with a friend in a pile of leaves. A pile of leaves. Her demands are lessening, but in comparison to the Montana-born children, she still has higher expectations. We’re hoping the laid back acceptance of things as they are, as opposed to how they should be, will rub off on her. Her London veneer is there but very small patches are starting to wear thin.
There have been endless studies done on happiness, and the thing that always emerges from them is that in order for a person to be happy, there musn’t be a huge gap between what they want and what they have. People can be happy with very little as long as they don’t compare themselves with people who have a lot more. Getting people to want stuff is exactly what advertising is all about. In small-town Montana, there is nothing and no one to tell you that your life is lacking. The demands for the latest Barbie whose hair changes colour, the latest version of Minecraft, the latest pair of shoes with heels that light up, creates a pattern of desire and disappointment. When children want stuff, they rarely want ‘stuff’. They want to be noticed and to be heard. But somehow in an uber-capitalist environment like London, this need for love is alchemically transformed into a need for just the opposite. It is turned into a financial exchange that ends up with the child getting what they asked for only for disappointment to set in when they realise what they have been desiring doesn’t look anything like it does on the box. So the next wave of desiring begins to grow. And so on. Capitalism is based on exponential growth and you can see it so clearly in the marketing to children. Hence the joke about the box being more fun than the present it came in. It is actually true.
And as a parent, we haven’t got a hope in hell when it comes to fighting this battle. The corporate powers have people whose job it is to create ‘pester power’. Selling things directly to children via whatever means possible has blossomed to the point where companies in the US now spend 17 billion dollars marketing toys to children, whereas 30 years ago this figure was 100 million dollars. And is it a coincidence that children’s toys are now so gender-specific? Or is it, among other nefarious things, another way of creating two distinct markets instead of one.
I used to think when I lived in London, that there was no way of battling this, that the corporate powers had infiltrated my daughter’s life to the point where I simply had to throw my hands up in despair because there was no point in fighting it. This grasping, this mania for pink and princesses and a million other things was in the air my daughter breathed and I couldn’t stop her breathing. Moving to Montana is an extreme way of removing the capitalist seed from one’s child’s life, but maybe it takes something as extreme as this to confront and win out against the forces that are taking over our kids’ lives. Maybe the only way to win is to turn on, tune in and drop out. And Montana is about a good a place as any in which to do this.
But then again, another voice tells me that even though we can’t fight the commercialisation of childhood, we can teach our kids to ask questions and see beyond the glittery exterior of the latest craze. Maybe living somewhere like London actually helps kids navigate their way through the capitalist jungle of gadgets and branded clothing and fashion accessories by teaching them the limits of this artifice. Maybe being cynical and suspicious of Apple and Nike and Disney and the rest of the brands who specifically target children is part of the knowledge needed to be a child in the 21st century. Rather than fight it, maybe I should be simply teaching E to see through it.
I certainly haven’t got the answers, but I find myself asking a lot of questions here in Montana. And I know that for me, a game of cat’s cradle or a walk in the snow with my daughter is infinitely more rewarding than a trip to Top Shop on Oxford Street. Whether one is better than the other in the long term remains to be seen.
(I would love any thoughts about this from other folk out there. Are there any studies that compare rural childhoods today with big city ones? How do you fight the battle of consumerism and instil deeper desires into your children, or a deeper acceptance of life? Do you wildly disagree with this post? Am I onto something here or am I seeing a sickness that isn’t there? Comments and questions please greatly appreciated!)