Last week I stood in the middle of a street talking to a couple of kids about their favourite toys. Like most young girls, they loved to chat and were keen to do a quick 'show and tell' of their most prized possessions. Nothing unusual about that, you’d think, but I was standing in a slum in the Indian town of Goa, where the kids lived among rubbish tips and recycling sorting 'centres' where said prized possessions were sourced.
The younger girl (who'd just turned four) showed me the discarded garden hose her mother had tied together to make a small hoop, expertly twirling it up and down her tiny arm as she beamed at her own physically prowess. Not to be outdone, her older sister pulled the remnants of a clown mask from her back pocket. It was missing half its face, but their mother had also lovingly attached string to it once again.
The scene was heartbreaking and with daughters of a similar age of my own back home, I felt it as a mum – even more so when I noted a group of kids playing barefoot hopscotch behind them, used medical supplies such as tubes etching out an outline instead of the usual chalk. "Don't feel sad", Rob, the director of charity outreach program Goa Outreach told me later as we got back on the bike (I'd joined him for the afternoon to help him with his monthly drop of soap, toothpaste and shampoo to the kids living in this area). "I've been doing this for 13 years and although they don't have much, they’re still the happiest kids you're ever likely to see." And you know what? They truly were.
For those of us in the Western world, it seems like a strange thing to say, but it's not an idea I’m unfamiliar with. My best friend is a foreign aid worker and regularly finds herself deployed in some of the most impoverished nations in the world. I regularly get messages from far-flung areas such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen and Afghanistan (and yes, I'm incredibly proud to call her my friend), where she reports on life - both in camps and on the street. The most common thread in her stories? How happy kids can be even when they have nothing at all. She tells tales of kids happily kicking around an empty bottle for hours, or gleefully flying kites made out of single sheet of dirty newspaper. "We're talking about kids who have been traumatised by war, who've lost parents and who've seen things no human should ever witness," she told me one day as we sat watching my eldest play in her room full of stuff. "These kids have nothing yet when you watch them play, they’re still far happier than what we see here at home." There was no judgment in her tone, but I immediately felt embarrassed by how much crap – clothing, toys and books – was in my daughter's room, and how despite being surrounded by anything a child could ever want (in the material sense), she still had the audacity to proclaim she was 'bored' all the time.
It's a common problem with Australian problem according to social researcher Mark McCrindle. His research on Generation Z and their toys is covered extensively in his book The ABC of XYZ – Understanding the Global Generation, where he writes that the average Aussie kid has more than one hundred toys each (twenty two thousand if you count every Shopkin, methinks), with parents collectively spending $1.4 billion a year to keep their little muffins happy. These figures don't take into account any hand-me-downs or second-hand purchases, only brand new items McCrindle also says we mostly fail to throw or give away (a third of parents get rid of between five and ten toys each year apparently, which really makes you wonder about other parents' clearly superior organisational skills). You’re slowly going broke trying to keep up with your child’s friends ('They've got Heelys? You NEED Heelys!') but you're not making your children happier either. Several studies reveal children who place importance on material goods are less happy, and some even suggest unhappiness and materialism negatively influence one another, pulling the child into a downward spiral, always chasing more yet becoming increasingly upset when they fail to feel the high of a new possession. At the other end of the spectrum, however, studies such as the one from The University of British Columbia suggest practising small acts of kindness is the key to boosting happiness levels in children, with researchers finding even toddlers get a thrill from altruistic acts such as sacrificing their share of a treat to give to a friend. We start off meaning well, you see, but somehow get lost along the way, crumbling under the constant onslaught of marketing and advertisements that tell us we need more to be happy. Underprivileged kids, on the other hand, tend to be more resourceful, creative and lean heavily on their communities, thus fostering a deeper level of satisfaction we struggle to understand.
I'm not about to start knitting dolls from our cat's fur or anything, but I do know that there needs to be more balance in our lives between that of the pampered princess and what I saw in the slums and I intend to do more about it. For years now I’ve forced my children to hold quarterly bake sales and then donate the proceeds to a charity (I buy them a small toy each as an incentive and match each dollar they make to donate also), but this time we went shopping for armfuls of Princess Elsa dresses (the love of a good polyester princess dress is universal, no?) plus other items. The girls appeared to get a kick out of purchasing the dresses, knowing that they were going to other kids in a country far, far away, but then I didn’t hear anything more. I took some photos of the girls wearing their princess dresses and sent them to my kids to show them how small acts of kindness and a little bit of elbow grease can make a difference to someone else’s life, but the phone remained silent. I boarded the plane feeling deflated. How did I raise such heartless girls, I wondered? Where had I gone wrong? But then I opened the door and the girls came running to greet me like they always do, with a shower of hugs and kisses. "Mum! Did you get us lots of presents?" my youngest demanded to know before my eldest yelled at her to be quiet. "Ivy! We don't need any presents, mum was doing something really important!" she admonished her little sister. "And besides, what’s cool is that mum is back and that’s the best present of all!" My dear sweet Cella - perhaps she's been listening all along. I’m hopeful.
You can donate to Goa Outreach (or send them princess dress or other items on their 'needs' list) by visiting the website.