My Toy Manifesto
All this talk about GoldieBlox is why I would never want to have to grow up again. It is so damn hard to be a kid today. A case in point: when I went to elementary school, we were expected to get from Point A to Point B (for instance, our classroom to the lunch room), with minimal noise and with all body parts still intact. As long as no arms were lost along the way and no one made arm farts, we were okay. Actually, there were probably some kids who made arm farts. But they did so discreetly. Spend any time in an elementary school today and students are expected to line up quietly and walk silently, a completely unnatural state of being. Can you imagine adults walking in a single file line, silent as ghosts? Picture your office mates traveling from their desks to the conference room with one finger against the wall, mouths shut. We ask kids to suppress every human instinct at a time in life when they have so little control over their body, mind, and mouth. These are people who were peeing in diapers and babbling nonsense words only a few years ago.
Wait, but we were talking about toys.
Image: Deiby via Flickr
I couldn’t grow up today because there is too much pressure down to choosing the right toy. My parents (as far as I know) looked at appropriateness and price, and that was pretty much where their toy direction ended. They wouldn’t let us play, let’s say, with a bag of glass. But beyond Prostitute Barbie or a real crossbow, they let us choose our toys without thinking of them as anything more than toys. We had a lot of Playmobil, Barbies, Bristle Blocks, Legos, Smurfs, and Strawberry Shortcake. We had a play kitchen that my father built for us. We had board games and a ViewMaster. Most of the time, we used our toys as a storytelling device.
How many of us (and be honest) have purchased (or would purchase) a toy thinking about how it will help shape a child? I certainly have. The only place I’ve drawn the line is that I’ve never purchased toys before my child has shown a clear interest in said toy. But that’s only because I’m cheap, and I would be worried about purchasing something and having it go unused. But I took a step back when we were discussing GoldieBlox because really, this idea reinforces how much we are meddling in childrens’ lives. Sometimes in a good way, but sometimes getting in the way of allowing them to be themselves. You don’t have to be a parent to be guilty of this: I was guilty of it as an aunt, a teacher, and now as a mother.
I think I really need to stop doing this.
I think the fact that we’re not even letting little girls choose their own toys without comment ties into the fact that we’ve also stopped giving kids unscheduled, unstructured play. Don’t you remember that? Having plans after school was the exception; not the norm. Our afternoons were spent playing tag with neighbours. Or drawing at the kitchen table. Or building a fort with the sofa cushions and curling up underneath with a blanket and pretending it was a cave that also contained an invisible unicorn. That play was really important.
My toys — by which I mean my playtime — didn’t create my future interests; my toys reflected my current interests.
Throughout this discussion of GoldieBlox, I’ve been trying to think about how different I would be if my parents had tried to guide me toward a career field that they had chosen for me, which was clear from their toy choice. Would I feel ashamed if I chose a different profession knowing it was clearly not what my parents wanted for me? If they had pushed me to be an engineer by giving me all these engineering toys, and I decided to be a writer instead? Would I have found a job that was a natural fit; or would work always have been trying to shove my round self into a square hole? If a child isn’t naturally drawn towards science, is it a good idea to push them towards science? Or will they forever be walking an uphill path, fighting their natural desires? We aren’t the first generation who has guided their children towards a certain field — family businesses beget familial workers — but we are the first generation who has done so via toys. Who has pushed our kids towards fields that we don’t work in ourselves.
I don’t think you can create a science-lover. You can only show a child YOUR love of science and hope they love it too. And if you don’t have a love of science, no amount of GoldieBlox is going to generate that love in a child without our input. Think back to teachers who made you excited to learn, and think back to teachers who clearly weren’t emotionally invested in the subject matter for the lesson. I think the same goes for parenting; our kids can tell when we’re guiding them towards things we aren’t interested in ourselves, and they latch onto things where we bring our own expertise or excitement.
Look at the kids you know: your children, your students, your nieces or nephews, your neighbours. What are their interests? And what are your interests? Can you nurture theirs? Can you show them yours?
It has always seemed so simple with my boy. The Wolvog loves computers. He passionately loves them to the point where I fear that he will one day marry a robot and give me android grandkids. What he doesn’t groove on is art, despite having a sister interested in art and a mother with an MFA. I would love it if he’d take an art class, but the closest he’ll come to art is drawing on the iPad. And let’s be honest: he’s only doing that so he can be touching something electronic.
I wouldn’t dream of ignoring his interests and foisting art supplies on him every time there is an opportunity to buy him a gift. I wouldn’t even make it one of his gifts if I was buying him multiple gifts. I may buy myself art supplies and introduce him to my favourite form of play. But really, when it comes down to it, gifts should reflect the personality and wants of the receiver. I shouldn’t get him what I want him to play with; I should get him something I suspect would fill his little electronic heart with joy.
And the same goes for the ChickieNob. Just because she has a vagina doesn’t mean she should be treated differently from her brother. So, yes, from this point on, I am not purchasing toys unless she shows an interest in it on her own or if I am going to bring my passion to introducing her to a toy.
I guess this is my toy manifesto. Free the toys. Allow the kids to follow their interests. Don’t withhold toys if they do show an interest: give the boys dolls; give the girls Legos — if that’s what they want. At the same time, don’t do the opposite: don’t give toys where they haven’t shown an interest. As the great Bruce Springsteen once said, “You can’t start a fire without a spark.” (I believe the dancing in the dark was just a song about enjoying those glow-in-the-dark planetary stickers.) We need to be present, to notice that spark, and then fan those flames until we have our kids burning with their passions.
P.S. I’m not saying you’re doing this, purchasing a toy that your child hasn’t indicated that she’ll love. I think everyone who commented either has a STEMy little girl OR they themselves are passionate about science and want to hopefully transfer that love to their kid. But I have seen a number of commenters in the mainstream media coverage of GoldieBlox talking about how they want to buy the toy because they want to make sure their kid becomes an engineer. And the toy’s manufacturer stated herself that the point of the toy is to build those engineering skills early in young girls. So… yeah… my toy manifesto is for those people. And I am probably preaching to the choir.