Wednesday, August 03, 2022

"Please Sir, I Want Some More"

"The last thing we need is another $9.99 toy that's gonna break in a week." 

The boy was silently pleading with his mother, holding the boxed plastic play set, wearing an expression that Oliver Twist must have worn as he begged his master for another serving of gruel: "Please sir, I want some more." His mother's scolding was without heat, almost as if she was reciting it as part of a well-known ceremony. "It's not your money to spend," she said, "Your father and I work hard for that money."

I recall my own mother making similar arguments, of course. "Money doesn't grow on trees," she would say when we wanted to play games of chance at the State Fair, shoot a round of mini golf, or get Sno-Kones from the vendor at the park.

There is nothing new about being budget-minded, of course, although it struck me that my brother and I had generally begged for experiences, whereas this boy was begging for a plastic fantastic toy, one that, as his mother knew, in the spirit of our buy-and-dispose world, would be garbage within days.

We see our economic system at work in this little, everyday tableau. A busy, overworked mother forced to take her child shopping because there is no other option in her two-income household. And the boy was doing exactly what the system trains us all for, which is to buy and consume, even if it will break in a week.

"Neoliberal economics changed things," says Pennie Brownlee, New Zealand-based early childhood expert and Teacher Tom's Play Summit presenter. It wasn't that long ago that most families could get by on a single income, she points out, which allowed families to prioritize their children. Today's parents, according to Pennie, are forced to make the hard choice between what's best for their children and putting food on the table and a roof over their heads. Of course, there have always been families that struggled with this, but as Pennie points out, it is now the norm, even for middle class families.

It's popular to blame parents, to accuse them of selfishly buying into the consumer society. Others even put the blame on feminism, placing it on the shoulders of uppity women who should just suck it up and stay home with their kids like mothers did back in the "good old days." This is like blaming global warming on those of us who prefer plastic drinking straws while ignoring corporate practices that account for almost all of the world's pollution.

And while there are plenty of inspiring examples of families that have managed to rig their lives around something other than the economic treadmill, the kind of economic system Pennie bemoans is relentless in its goal of maximizing profits at the expense of such things as childhood and Mother Earth. Increasingly, the system is leaving families living hand-to-mouth, frantically striving to keep their heads above water, with no way out, prioritizing economic necessity over the things that really matter. 

It strikes me that this modern-day Oliver Twist pleading for an over-priced, crappy plastic toy is an almost perfect metaphor for where we find ourselves. 

When we remove children from the center of our lives, says Pennie, "We lose our humanity."

When we hear our policymakers talk about families and children, they invariably, no matter what party they are from, talk about the economy: about jobs, about wages, about preparing our youngest citizens for those damned imaginary "jobs of tomorrow." It's as if we are all simply resources existing to serve the economy rather than the other way around. This is what happens when we value soulless systems over humanity.

And it is children and families who are left begging, "Please sir, I want some more."

What we need are policies that prioritize children, families, the environment, and authentic play.

I have no illusion that my play summit will result in opening the eyes of our policymakers, but I can hope. I can hope that some of you will listen to Pennie and the other presenters and be inspired to demand change wherever you are, to unite with similarly minded people, or to at least be reminded that there is more to life than working, consuming, and finding someone to watch the kids while we do it. 

As another play summit presenter, Sonya Philip said to me, speaking of her native India, "I wish I was 20 years younger because there is still so much to do." Maybe my hope is that we can pass the baton to those of you who are 20 years younger who will, in turn, pass it along to the next generation.


To watch my full interview with Pennie, please join us August 13-17 for the free Teacher Tom's Play Summit. Click here to get your free pass and learn more about all 20 of our incredible sessions with early childhood experts and thought-leaders from around the world. You will be inspired, informed, and challenged. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access. Please share this far and wide. Together is the only way we will change the world.

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