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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.


1 Nicoleandmaggie { 11.24.13 at 8:10 am }

My parents pushed stem on us. My mom pushed feminism and women’s lib. It worked. We love math and science. We’re in male dominated fields. We’re each making 6 figures, something easier to do in a male-dominated field than a female one. Letting people alone would be just fine if these choices were made in a vacuum. If there wasn’t sexism and misogyny and marketing and a dearth of female role models. My mom is a humanities prof because her uni adviser told her there were no jobs for women in Econ but there were in languages. He was wrong, though she would have had to work for the government at least initially. When there already is a message out there, that message needs to be countered. My sister and I were brought up to be trail blazers as a responsibility to help make the world a better place. Now we weren’t forced into careers we didn’t like, but we were offered opportunities and educated.

And with stem these days it’s no longer just women who need more encouragement. I’m getting record numbers of men who are getting the message that they’re no good at math and math is hard and they too have to be reeducated, sometimes against their will. But they thank me in the end when they find out they can do it.

Also, pretty sure that over scheduling trope is inaccurate. Laura vanderkam posted something about it a while back. Pillow forts still exist.

Ok, gotta nurture my future little feminists so they know they have options and should help in our fight against the patriarchy.

2 Aerotropolitan Comitissa { 11.24.13 at 8:36 am }


Well I think this is where it gets tricky, because on the one hand, I am also cheap and I don’t tend to buy things unless they’re on my child’s List.

On the other hand, it’s hard to say what will unlock an interest. A case I’m thinking about is PB unlocking a classmate’s interest in maths and graphing by checking a book out from the library for her (it had a picture of the Titanic on it and she’d made a vague mention of having been to a Titanic exhibition) and then insisting she read it.

She was (is) a very princessy girl – all pink, all barbie – and she spent the first five minutes trying to explain that she just wasn’t interested. Then she relented and by the end of the book she was a convert and now she’s a princess-barbie-maths freak (and her mother invites PB to all her birthday parties just in case he wants to foist any other scholarly interests on to her).

But she needed a push. And whilst PB was obviously enthusiastic about getting her to like the book, he is not a mathematician (he’s actually not even that into maths) – he just thought she should be.

So in conclusion (hum, what is my conclusion?) I think there’s a time and place for just mixing it up and throwing some stuff out there even if they haven’t shown a prior interest *and even pushing a bit to give things a go* because sometimes we don’t realise we like something until we’ve tried it.

I guess I would just like it if I could do this without spending a lot of money on things that don’t get used. Toy library membership, perhaps. Play dates. Etc.

3 Mel { 11.24.13 at 8:53 am }

There is an enormous difference between the organic nature of a peer introducing your child to a new interest, as is the case with PB, and a parent foisting a new toy on a child. There is a power dynamic in one case, so it isn’t really a suggestion; it’s a request.

I would love it if peers introduced my kids to new interests, but I’m less interested in adults directing it.

4 Kasey { 11.24.13 at 10:51 am }

I can say that nothing was pushed on us. There was no demand to know what we wanted to be when we grew up. There was no fostering of skills to be whatever they wanted us to be. None of my siblings, nor I, finished college. That’s not to say we aren’t successful, but I do think if we were pushed a little more we may have reached a little higher in our dreams. Who knows since we cant go back in time, but when have kids I do plan on at least trying to push them a bit. Not to say I will start that with toys they aren’t interested in, but more so like you with Wolvog, foster and help the things they already love.

5 Aerotropolitan Comitissa { 11.24.13 at 10:55 am }

I get your point about the adult-child power dynamic (although let’s not start on peer power dynamics) but I still think there’s a place for a bit of a push.

Maybe to flesh out my perspective: if I never pushed anything onto PB, he would never, ever try anything, ever. Alright, it’s a slight exaggeration to say he hates anything he hasn’t done before at least twenty times, but he tends to be one of those default-refuse people.

So yes, I feel that the right thing to do is to nudge him into things now and again to see what sticks – especially those things he doesn’t get natural exposure to at home. Sometimes we end up dropping it and sometimes he ends up saying it’s the best thing, like, ever, and for those times I will keep foisting stuff onto him, even as an adult in a powerful position. For that, and for the social opportunities he gets from having more than a single, focussed interest that persists for years on end to the exclusion of all other activities and interactions.

I suppose as he gets older his peers will take over some of this foisting. I just hope they’re as respectful about it as I am.

6 Kimberly { 11.24.13 at 11:34 am }

Sometimes, I think parents overdue it. Not just with toys but with activities and groups as well. I’m a leader with brownies and we deal with 7-9 year olds. And we love to get on their level and just talk with them. And sometimes its something they say, while other times it’s something the parents say, but they will tell us how every day is filled with dance, brownies, hockey, soccer, one for each day of the week. The kids have no time to just amuse themselves. We love to lead the girls in activities but let them do their own thing too. Before we start our program each week, we let the girls run around and play and you really can tell which ones have no free time to just amuse themselves because they stand there confused and just wait for us to start things. It’s always great to have your kids in sports and groups to help them learn new things and foster a love of new things, but sometimes I feel parents overcompensate. Some do it because their families never did it for them, others think that having every moment of their child’s life planned out is a good thing. If I could say one thing to the parents of some of those kids, it would be to let them have some time to amuse themselves, time that isn’t occupied by play dates, groups and activities.

7 Mel { 11.24.13 at 11:39 am }

We definitely don’t have enough free time. Each kid is allowed two activities. But they end up needing to go to each other’s activities too. They’re also in language classes. Which means that we have activities 5 days per week. 4 of them are on weekdays. This means that when you add in dinner, homework, and bath, they have maybe a half hour to play. It’s not enough.

8 Nicole { 11.24.13 at 12:22 pm }

I think the encouragement is not about steering girls to STEM careers so much as it is to no longer discourage them from STEM. I got out of engineering grad school 7 years ago and I experienced subtle bias and out right sexism from other students, professors and even a couple of deans. I felt alone and discouraged and stupid but once I opened up to the few other women and found a couple of the women professors I found out that I wasn’t alone. We all felt the same but we were isolated because of both embarrassment about admitting our feelings and the fact that there weren’t enough of us. I got through by sheer force of will but not every girl will.

At the same time we are showing girls they can compete in math and science I wonder if we are ignoring boys. Where is the initiative to encourage boys to pursue female dominate fields such as early childhood development? Is that because the traditionally female dominate fields are as traditionally low paid?

9 a { 11.24.13 at 12:30 pm }

I have tried to push toys on my kid. It never works. My main focus is broadening her horizons so that she can tell me what she’s interested in. Sometimes I push things where I know she just needs to keep practicing (swimming and tumbling), and those work because she likes having an activity. But toys – if she’s not interested, it’s a waste of my money.

We are mostly activity free around here right now. We might start something new after the holidays. My kid has plenty of time to exercise her imagination. I’ll have to remember that for her college application.

10 Lisa { 11.24.13 at 3:48 pm }

Girl! It’s obvious you didn’t go to Catholic school. Yes, even 25 years ago I was expected to walk down the hall, not only silently but single file and in a clockwise direction. Not kidding. We walked the hallways in a circular fashion. I got detention once for laughing at something I over heard someone else say in the halls.

This is an interesting post. I’m a STEM person, but growing up I think I pretty much chose toys that were “cool.” Cabbage Patch Kids and the like. Most of my play time was creative and free, like yours, and that’s what I remember best about my childhood.

I didn’t discover that I loved science until I had a great science teacher in the 6th grade. Maybe if I’d had some science focused toys I would have figured it out sooner. If I never had that science teacher and stuck with my “cool” toys would I ever have known how much I jive on the scientific method? I don’t know! But I do think that having something packaged up with a story like Goldieblox would have made me less likely to toss the toy aside as something mom wanted me to have.

I for one don’t plan to foist any hobbies or career choices on my daughter. I want to make sure she’s exposed to plenty of opportunities so she can flush it out for herself, and I’m really excited to see where her interests fall naturally. That being said, if music isn’t on that hobby list I will be crushed!!

11 Pepper { 11.24.13 at 4:44 pm }

This is a great topic, one that I consider a lot. I’m sure I’m pushing interests onto my daughter but I really try to rein it in. She is asking Santa for a baby stroller for Christmas because she plays with one at a friend’s house and loves it. Done.

But she also loves to play with a doctor kit at my parents’ house – again, with baby dolls. It is so much more about the baby dolls than the doctor-ing. She loves babies. But I was showing a picture of the doctor-ing to an old acquaintance (who is now a doctor) and she said, “That’s right – start her EARLY.” And something about that made me so uncomfortable. I do not want to be “starting her early” with anything except what she likes.

Which is why I have said all along that, even though I will really dislike it, if she becomes interested in princess stuff, I will play princess with her because I want her to be who she is.

Toys should not be this stressful.

12 GeekChic { 11.24.13 at 6:24 pm }

I asked my Dad if he ever thought about the larger “meaning” of my toys or activities. His reply:

“Only once for toys, I wanted you to have reasonable hand-eye co-ordination so I bought some Lego and Mechano sets. You loved Lego but hated the Mechano – so I played with the Mechano. Otherwise, I just watched what you played with from things other people bought you or at friends’ houses. It quickly became clear that you hated dolls and dress-up and kitchen sets and almost every typical girl toy. On the other hand, you loved cars and trucks and sports and action figures and Lego. So that’s what I bought.

As for activities, I became aware very quickly that things could possibly be tough for you because you were so not interested in “girl” things. You got kicked out of gymnastics and brownies for scaring the “other kids” (really you were scaring the instructor because you had no fear) so you were the only girl in cub scouts at the time. You were the first girl to wrestle and play football in our area. It was actually funny having a jock for a kid given how much of a geek I was – but you threw me a bone by loving computers.”

I don’t ever remember my Dad guiding my interests – just that I had to stick with something once I started. I do remember him coming to every wrestling match or football game – even though sports puzzled him. And I remember him supporting me against other parents who didn’t like it that I was playing “boys” sports.

13 Pepper { 11.24.13 at 7:28 pm }

GeekChic – I love your dad. My husband is this way with my daughter and it makes me so happy.

14 Alexicographer { 11.24.13 at 10:40 pm }

As already described, I don’t buy my kid toys (though he has plenty), though to the extent that I participate in their selection I favor things that aren’t electronic and don’t have added noise. I also tend to prefer things he can and will manage by himself rather than those that require parental involvement/assistance.

I am fairly to moderately obsessive about limiting his screen time (against his will, so this is imposed by me), so pretty much anything with a screen has been out so far, though we do own a Wii that he is allowed to play on, some, and a tv. So far, he only has access to a computer when we’re helping him access it, which has been for some school assignments, some websites intended as educational (Starfall, abcya), and some youtube (Octane blue playing Mario on the Wii). We haven’t ventured into tablets or smartphones, though he does have one extended family member who allows him to play games or her smartphones when she seems him — pretty rarely, but he does know such things exist.

As for selecting, I’ve chosen camps and other activities based on a sense of their quality, convenience, affordability, and suitability. We’ve tried a pretty wide range of things-organized-for-him (soccer, bball, martial arts, swimming, golf), and tended to return to the ones DS reports enjoying and not those he doesn’t (though there aren’t many of those). I did pull him out of one set of swim lessons with a teacher who frightened him (a legitimate reaction IMO) and one martial arts ditto because the teacher couldn’t maintain enough order within the group of kids to accomplish anything, but mostly we’ve stuck with (or returned to) stuff we’ve done because he’s more or less enjoyed it. There’s also a set of activities we do as a family some of which we do in part because he enjoys them (camping, kayaking, cycling) and some of which I drag him along on (hiking/dog-walking) because I need to, to get them done.

Nicoleandmaggie’s comment above notwithstanding, I can say that for my kid the amount of unstructured play time with other kids is phenomenally tinier than what I experienced as a child. We rode bikes all over our neighborhood as kids, I routinely went to neighbor kids’ houses uninvited (by parents), and there were large neighborhood kid-organized activities such as nighttime games of kick-the-can. My son has had none of these sorts of experiences (though we do as parents organize some kid get-to-gethers — I refuse to call them playdates — where other than getting them together and vague supervision, we parents are uninvolved, and there are no kids anywhere close to his age (6) engaging in them in our neighborhood (I definitely was engaging in them regularly before that age, as a key co-conspirator moved away when I was 6, and I know I pursued them with her). Interestingly one of DS’s favorite camps is one that seems to foster these sorts of activities (e.g. kick-the-can games), albeit in the context of guidance by older teens/young adult counselors. So that may be a solution, but it’s not (exactly) the same thing. At a younger age, we did also to some extent choose daycare/preschools on the basis of their providing plenty of undirected opportunities for the kids to interact with each other, though we’re lucky to be somewhere where had lots of varied options of good such facilities available to us, and to be able to afford them — I know not everyone is so situated.

Not sure how this will develop as DS grows older, we’ll see.

15 chickenpig { 11.25.13 at 7:00 am }

Ah, you speak the truth, oh wise woman.

I think the best toys you can give your kids are blocks, lots of blocks, books, crayons and lots and lots of time to themselves 🙂

I find it interesting that a lot of the artsy fartsy expensive toy catalogs that I’ve been getting are emphasizing open ended creative play. However, a lot of the toys border on the ridiculous. A piece of sparkly clothe that can be draped over a bunch of sticks called a “fairy hideout” for $100? When I was a kid it was called get some sticks from outside and borrow mom’s scarf. Buying my daughter most toys is as pointless as buying toys for a cat. She asks for something, and 9 times out of 10 she ends up playing with the box…decorated with crayons and filled with blocks, of course.

16 Ana { 11.25.13 at 10:38 am }

I definitely wouldn’t push my kids into anything they didn’t naturally show an interest in, but if you don’t have a variety of things around, what do you know what they are interested in? (Maybe this is silly, but my kids are still young, so I can’t imagine them just TELLING ME). I can tell a bit based on what they gravitate towards at school or at friends’ houses, but sometimes its the “newness” of it that draws them, and they would tire of it quickly. So my husband and I do occasionally supplement their copious grandparent-bought toy collection with a few items we personally find interesting (art supplies, building-type toys).
The same with activities. I don’t want to push activities, nor do I want to cut into our free time as a family. But how will they ever know if they have a passion for playing musical instruments, or playing soccer or doing gymnastics if they never actually try it? Neither of us do those things, so only through formal instruction would they ever get the exposure.

17 Suzanne { 11.25.13 at 1:44 pm }

I see your point, but I think that where goldieblox comes in is that some (not all) girls won’t be attracted to a toy unless it is in a color that they like or has to do with a genre that they already like and know. Most girls trend towards pink. I am NOT a pink person, yet it is still my daughter’s favorite color. She is a total tomboy too, she loves wearing her dragon or space shuttle t-shirt with a skirt. I think that is fantastic. I am also a female engineer. So, I agree with not pushing any interests on anyone, but if a girl is a girly-girl and only wants to play with pink toys, isn’t it a good think that there is a STEM related toy that is pink? Perhaps the girl will discover an interest that she didn’t know existed. I think that kids need to be exposed to all sorts of activities, STEM and the arts alike, and be allowed to choose and explore their interests from there. While I don’t know enough about the goldieblox toy to say whether or not I like the toy itself, I do like that there is an ‘engineering’ toy that is geared towards what girls trend more naturally towards. I think that it is a gentle way of saying it is ok. I feel that the natural message that society sends to girls is that boys are better at math and science. I don’t think that it is wrong to provide opportunities to girls to explore the sciences in a way that they might be more comfortable. Girls and boys’ brains develop very differently and as such, some toys may need to be geared a little different in order to engage a girl vs a boy.

18 jjiraffe { 11.25.13 at 3:22 pm }

I have a different reaction to GoldieBlox. It is certainly true that the toys that are targeted towards boys help develop their spatial skills better than the art and books girls traditionally like. The point Debbie Sterling makes is not that all girls should be engineers but they certainly can have the chance to be exposed to a kind of toy that might make spatial skills easier to develop. I remember loving physics (my teacher urged me to major in physics) but I was missing some critical spatial skills, and never was able to feel comfortable in that world. It’s not that my daughter has to play with GoldieBlox, but I’m glad it’s a toy option for her.

19 Battynurse { 11.25.13 at 10:12 pm }

This is interesting to me (even though I mostly don’t have to think much about toys at all) mostly because of the part about parents expectations that go along with toys. I over heard a coworker a few nights ago who was teaching parents how to bathe their baby. She was telling them that if they got any more preemie clothes at their shower to take them back as they would be too small soon. Then she said “if your baby was a girl I’d tell you to keep a few outfits for doll clothes but since he’s a boy he won’t be playing with dolls.” This annoyed me so much to hear someone telling parents what is and isn’t ok for their child to play with.

20 Justine { 11.26.13 at 11:37 pm }

Catching up on a huge backlog again … and couldn’t agree with you more. We tend not to buy toys anyway unless it’s for a birthday, but we tend to buy things that are creative/neutral or that our kids have wanted for a long period of time. I think the difference between toys now and toys then is that toys seemed much more open ended when we were growing up. Or maybe we just made them so? We took what we had and turned those things into whatever else we dreamed up. Bicycles became snow cone machines. Monopoly became Store. Legos created all sorts of scenarios. Even Barbies let us act out whatever scenes we wanted. That seems less possible now … though I will share a post from my friend the other day on Facebook: “Apparently if you take a rainbow loom, a lot of old yarn, a ruler and a telescope, you can make a helluva weapon.” 🙂

21 Geochick { 11.27.13 at 2:49 pm }

Gawd, I have to stop being late to discussions! My parents let me have my girly girl toys AND pushed STEM on me in a big way. It was more the pushing that was detrimental than having toys that demonstrate science and technology. Personally, my plan is to have a variety of toys around from Legos to dolls to musical instruments, but to recognize what the kids gravitate to and satisfy their want for those.

22 loribeth { 12.02.13 at 8:48 pm }

Justine’s comment is closest to what I was thinking as I read. It’s getting harder all the time to find basic toys that don’t come with pre-set storylines and instructions, etc. Even Cabbage Patch Dolls come pre-named.

A couple of years ago, I was trying to think of a Christmas present for stepMIL’s grandson. I figured most kids love Legos, so I went looking for some Legos. Try finding just a plain old box/bin of Legos that aren’t part of a kit…! I eventually did but it was an absolutely ridiculous price, something like $50 and it wasn’t a whole lot of blocks either. I’ve had parents tell me their kids will make the project in the kit, and then it gets put away & they never take it out again. I guess I’m dating myself here, but that’s just unfathomable to me. Whatever happened to building your own Lego houses & buildings??

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