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A few years ago we had a party. Knowing that everyone coming would have small, fidgety people in tow I decided to nail up the toy cupboards. It was bliss. And the cupboards stayed sealed for the whole summer.
Children have too many toys. The urge to shower them with plastic seems too strong to over-ride. My 6 year old has 2 enormous plastic dustbin lorries which sing, if he holds them steady, in hideous unison. TWO. Neither were presents from me. Neither will submit to the charity shop collection.
I had thought that moving to a bigger house with lots of cupboards would help, but the toys seem to have swelled behind closed doors and chaos is upon us. I met a pair of architects last week, living in an open-plan flat in London in apparent harmony with young children. There were, I realised, no cupboards. Everything was consciously on display, and therefore everything was ordered and valued. They admitted to frequent ‘toy culls’, and stuck to strong Montessori principles of only letting their children play with one toy at a time, and insisting they put it away nicely before getting another one out. “If you see everything, you remember to use it- whether it is a toy or a kitchen spice,” one of them told me from her beautifully ordered kitchen. “Children respond well to order and structure. They need to learn to value their possessions, and that means looking after them carefully.”
Returning home, and wading through the deep litter of Lego and toy soldiers that carpet my 10-year-old’s bedroom, I could not help but feel I had missed a trick. But as I opened the toy cupboard doors, determined to begin the cull, an entire box of Playmobil fell onto my foot. I hopped off to look for the hammer.
There was a pick axe moment last weekend: either they came outside to help with the wood, or the ipods would be for the chop. There were complaints, excuses, delaying tactics, but once outside and put to task they were soon pink-cheeked and back to the violently physical, deliriously happy boys I thought I knew.
There is nothing like a hot ipod to tell you that your son is lying. Somehow the electronic devices that Boys 1 (10) and 2 (8) have patiently (and admirably) saved for have become the source of almost every argument (bar the one about flushing the loo). They say they are brushing their teeth when in fact they are playing Minecraft. They spot my laptop and beg for apps, seeking boyish fulfillment in Heligunners and Ishotgun Pro.
These shiny, long-coveted devices have become portals to an alternative reality, one which can make real life boring, and engaging seem far too much like hard work.
We now work on a rota of confiscation. Boy 1 lost his within days of buying it, got it back and then swiftly lost it for an entire week. For lying. About his Ipod. Boy 2 is fairing slightly better, if only for tempering his stories.
Boys need exercise. They need danger. They need to be challenged physically and mentally. You need to be brave to give a child an axe. You need to be clear with them about how to swing it, how not to hit their brothers, how not to take off their own fingers. But give them some real responsibility, in this case in the shape of a kindling axe, rather than fobbing them off in front of a screen, and they will shine. Mine did, and my log pile is now wonderfully large.