Why buy a kid a toy castle when a spoon will do just fine?

So many people in my life are having babies now and I’ve learned more about kids without even trying. Before I knew it, I was sharing advice on what books to read or what tips to avoid to new parents with such confidence, people would have thought I was a mom myself. Mamma Meesa? NOT!

How much stuff do kids really need?

One of my former colleagues has a son who is two years old and he told me, “We got him all of these toys and all he’s entertained by is his spoon.”

Fast-forward a few months, and I’m in Koh Pdao, a small island in Northeast Cambodia seeing how kids “entertain” themselves. I find it funny when people are so shocked at how happy “poor kids” are when they have so few material things. The kids grow up playing with their neighbours and use their vivid imaginations using what they have around them without ever experiencing toys as we know them. Last time I was in Cambodia, one of the founders of an NGO told us when, “People in the village didn’t know they were poor until they were told so.”

I went to the community centre on the island and fifteen kids were working together to build what I first thought was a train, but was actually a motorcycle that could hold five of them. There haven’t been to many times where I’ve seen so many kids working together so well so everyone can enjoy the activity at such a young age.

When I was staying with a homestay family for a few days, I went by the river with them, including their six-year-old daughter. Since we couldn’t communicate with words, I thought we could throw rocks in the water together. I’ll never forget, the daughter would always pick a rock for me first before getting one for herself. She would never throw the rock until I was ready and we would throw it together at the same time. She has the consideration of many of the people I’ve met in Cambodia at such a young age. I hope I see her again before I leave the country.

What are we teaching them?

I’m not against getting kids nice toys. I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same thing if I ever did have kids. But are we training kids to expect things from people and distracting them from what are really important lessons?

One Christmas, my high school teacher’s five-year-old son got 20 toys, he said, “Choose three toys and we’re giving the rest to charity.” He regularly takes his son to the Downtown Eastside, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in British Columbia, Canada to show his son how other people live and not shelter him.

I couldn’t believe I caught myself sounding like a parent when I see the toys that kids get now. I thought, “When I was a kid, this never existed. Kids are so spoiled these days.” I too was spoiled myself when I hear stories of how many things people gave me. But I have absolutely no memory of these things as a kid.Considering how much stuff people bought for me as I was growing up, I am actually quite minimalist and non-materialistic.

I’m honestly not sure why, you’d think I would have been trained to be used to having the toys I want and live in very comfortable places. But I actually like seeing what I can do with less stuff, eating street food and sleeping in huts in the mountains. Had I had nothing but a pile of sand an a bucket to play with growing up, I’m sure I would have turned out the same.

Existing as a community, not an individual

This is one of my favourite examples of how people co-exist as a community, which is the norm in so many parts of the world. I think we would be considered weird and possibly going against our nature as social beings when we don’t share what we have, help each other when we can and working together to build community.

“An anthropologist studying the habits and customs of an African tribe found himself surrounded by children most days. So he decided to play a little game with them.

He managed to get candy from the nearest town and put it all in a decorated basket at the foot of a tree. Then he called the children and suggested they play the game. When the anthropologist said “now”, the children had to run to the tree and the first one to get there could have all the candy to him/herself.

So the children all lined up waiting for the signal. When the anthropologist said “now”, all of the children took each other by the hand ran together towards the tree. They all arrived at the same time divided up the candy, sat down and began to happily munch away.

The anthropologist went over to them and asked why they had all run together when any one of them could have had the candy all to themselves. The children responded:

“Ubuntu. How could any one of us be happy if all the others were sad?

The fact that we are so touched by this story shows how unusual it is for where we grow up. I think if I tell this story to some of my friends who grew up in these communities in different parts of the word, they would laugh at my and say, “This is normal where I am from. Why is this so special?”

I think other cultures should study Western culture more and I’d love to hear what they think of our behaviours and their perspectives on us. For my next posts, I will do my best to talk about what we do differently in the West in relation to Cambodian culture rather than the other way around.,

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