Friday, September 07, 2007

The best things in life...

Although gambling and bad investments are one of the most conspicuous ways of losing money, if you want to be seriously out of pocket you can't beat having children. Goodbye eating out and foreign holidays. Parents often complain about the cost of school clothing and equipment, but in my experience the biggest drain on finances is the day out.

It always seems like a good idea to take the family to a local castle, zoo, aquarium or science park until you get to the admission gate. Then the horrible truth sets in - we cannot afford to go in. We always do buy the tickets, but the knowledge that I have just blown over half a day's wages does tend to nag in the back of my mind, particularly when my oldest son seems bored after 30 minutes.

This year I decided to spend more time visiting places that didn't cost a penny. We are very lucky to be living in the middle of the South Downs with a beach less than 8 miles away, so it should be easy enough to keep my children happy without spending a fortune. But would today's media-savvy, product-consuming children accept the simple pleasures of nature?

The answer was a resounding yes.

Last week I took my oldest soon and his best friend to a local beach and they were perfectly happy exploring the rock pools at low tide and climbing the ledges at the bottom of the cliffs. If you look carefully, you just about see them.

The cliffs are amazing, particularly when you think that they are comprised of the remains of billions of aquatic creatures spanning several geological eras. I find it all slightly mind-blowing. But to return to the point, apart from spending three pounds on ice creams the day was completely free and the boys loved it.

I'm not surprised. My happiest childhood memories all revolved around simple pleasures: damming-up a stream, fishing in a river, building a den and exploring rock pools. Children need an environment that allows them to use their imagination and discover things for themselves without being spoon-fed information or told that they are violating rules.

People often moan that today's children are spoiled and have too much. They also complain that we have become too child-centered and children no longer respect adults in the way that previous generations did. But that is only part of the picture. I can't help feeling that in today's child-friendly society, many kids are worse off than they would have been 50 years ago.

Today most of us don't hit our children and they have more toys than we ever did, but are they any happier for it? I'm concerned that the things that really make children happy: exploring the outside world, playing in the street with other kids, climbing trees etc are being denied to the current generation in the name of safety. In some cases this is because of a legitimate fear of traffic and a paranoia about strangers. In others - inner-city London or Manchester for example - this is because the urban environment doesn't provide spaces for children to be children (is it any wonder that gang culture is rife in these areas?).

If I was a dictator, I would ensure that no child had to grow-up in a high-rise flat and also make sure that everyone was within a five-minute walk of a park. I would limit schools to a maximum of 500 pupils, bring back cottage hospitals and introduce no-car zones where kids could play in the street. In other words, improve people's environments and restore a sense of community to the poorer parts of our cities.

And if that didn't work, then I'd send them all to the Isle of Man.


Goncalo Veiga said...

Beautiful picture.

I'd certainly vote for you if you ever think about running for PM! ;)

The world is quite interesting. From my personal experience, I've found out that children coming from what we call developing countries seem to live better off than those in the "first world". There's nothing like enjoying the riches of nature and feeling you are a part of it, even as an observer. In Portugal you can still get a glimpse of that small Edden for children, but only in small villages, where you can explore the vinyards, ride your bike across the empty fields and stop at a water stream to have a bath or just to try to hit the lillies with a slinge...

Steerforth said...

I agree. The happiest people I ever met were in a small town at the foot of the Atlas mountains in Morocco.

They lived primitive lives by modern standards, but always had enough to eat and their houses - plain, mudbrick boxes on the outside - had beautiful, comfortable interiors.

In many ways I envied them.