Monday, December 19, 2011

Toy Envy, Consumerism, and What We Really Need

Lately, an article from Wired magazine about the 5 best toys of all time has been circling the net again. It’s a good article, but if you don’t want to read it, I’ll tell you what the list consists of: sticks, boxes, string, cardboard tubes, and dirt.

Of course, I'm all for reducing consumerism and fostering imaginative play, but it occurs to me that only someone who already has plenty of money and toys for their kids can make these kinds of assertions. The popularity of this article speaks to the culture of materialism-overload that it comes from. But for anyone who doesn’t have the means to buy special treats for their kids, to suggest that they already have the ideal toys for their at their disposal, strikes me as a bit… privileged.

Kids like variety, they like being exposed to new things, and toddlers in particular have notoriously short attention spans. There are lots of activities that don’t require money that can help keep them entertained, but when it comes down to it, having the money to buy a diverse range of experiences for your kids—whether in the form of toys or enriching activities—is pretty damn helpful.

Like many parents these days, when I was planning for my life with my child I imagined that I would limit the number of bright, plastic noise-making toys that entered our home, and instead collect (expensive) wooden toys that would last much longer (and be less of an eyesore). I would fill baskets with natural objects like shells, pinecones, and stones, in lieu of plastic doo-dads, and we would start painting and making arts and crafts as soon as developmentally possible.

Well, first of all, I was not accounting for a generous aunt who spent months scouring Goodwill to collect for us a big box of plastic noise-making toys-- a Leapfrog “piano”, a bilingual “guitar”, a talking cookie jar shape sorter, a singing “Alphabet Pal”caterpillar, a singing plastic book, a talking dog, and then some. Next, add in the grandparents and others who’ve contributed over time: a musical, flashing ring stacker, a musical dump truck, a singing bear, a singing Easter bunny, a musical remote control airplane, a musical activity center, a singing train, and before you know it, we are one of those families whose house is chock full of plastic, noise-making toys.

The truth is, Cedar loves these toys, and most babies and toddlers do. It's the parents they drive crazy. Some are not that bad—in particular the ones that play music without words. The ones that drive me mad are the ones that sing, talk or giggle in syrupy sweet, incredibly annoying "kid-like" voice. Why do manufacturers think that kids will only respond to such voices? You can sound friendly and sweet without being nauseating.

In any case, since the relatives have bought Cedar plenty of toys, I have not felt the need to buy much-- until recently that is. We've reached a point where Cedar is not very excited about any of his toys (unless of course another kid comes over and starts playing with them). And while I am somewhat proud of the fact that I've only ever bought Cedar a handful of toys (mostly from Value Village) and I think this makes it that much more special for him to experience new toys when at preschool or friends’ homes, I also have recognized that I get toy envy when I go other parents’ homes.

Mostly, I get wooden toy envy. Wooden toys are more expensive and harder to find used, so we don’t have many. I covet those cute little Plan Toy xylophones and shape sorters, those Melissa and Doug puzzles and blocks, those expensive push toys and wooden kitchen sets complete with wooden fruits and vegetables that can be cut apart with a play wooden knife. I also covet those sturdy little easels, those velvety plush beanbag chairs, those tunnels and tents for toddlers to crawl through. And the more I’m exposed to, the more I start wanting more stuff for Cedar.

One built-in limitation is that our home is small (850 square feet), so there isn't room for us to collect too much, without it feeling like utter chaos. There isn't much storage space to store stuff away, so we have to live with it all in sight.

Our other built-in limitation is that we simply cannot afford to buy a lot. Instead, I borrow a lot of board books from the library, trade toys now and then with my neighbor, find random things in the house for Cedar to play with (radios, flashlights, dominos), and scan Value Village now and then for a treat (more of a way to help pass a long day, than anything).

Enter the Christmas season. I wasn't planning to get Cedar much; I figured he'd get plenty from the grandparents and this would be enough of a toy windfall for one month. But somehow, I've gotten suckered into the materialism of the season, and found myself buying more than ever. A few books here, a used few puzzles there, a couple things from Fred Meyer (yes, plastic), a set of wooden stringing beads (relatively expensive), and some stickers and dot paint tubes from the art store. Once I caved and started to spend, suddenly it was as I'd given myself permission to access a long-harbored, unconscious list of coveted things. This toy lust was compounded by a few Amazon searches prompted by my dad who requested a Christmas wish list, not to mention my joining a new mom’s list serve with daily deals and offers.

I’ve felt a tad guilty about my recent splurge, but I've countered this with an entitled sense of “I/we deserver this” to at long last be the one to pick out a few special toys for my son. I've spent about $100, and depending on who you are that may seem like nothing or like a whole lot. For me, it's a lot to spend in a few weeks, with the purpose of giving it to a child all at once, so I am spreading it out. A few of the presents have already come out of hiding in fact-- we've been having some looong afternoons, and I've needed it. Why wait till Christmas, after all, the day when he'll have way more than enough to keep him stimulated? It’s not like he knows what Christmas is yet.

For now though, I'm done. I highly doubt I will buy him another toy for many months. I'd rather put money towards going to a music class together, or to check out more drop-in play spaces. We need to get out of the house every day, preferably for several hours, and not just to the grocery store; but with our rainy weather in the NW, we can't just rely on playing outside at parks—or sticks, boxes, and mud.

It's important to point out how we don't need lots of expensive toys for our children, and how they can be happy with much less. But the truth is, it's hard to get around needing money to keep a child entertained. After all, we all need a break from parenting, especially stay-at-home parents; none of us can be entirely present, patient and engaged if we are on 24-7. So, there are a number of ways we get these breaks. If we have plenty of money, we can pay for babysitters and daycares to get our “recharge/adult time”. We can also pay to bring our kids to enriching classes, which we may or may not participate in ourselves. Or, if these are not viable options, we can buy more toys or, evil of evils, turn on the T.V. (a subject of its own).

Sure, the most creative and resourceful amongst us will create budget-friendly craft projects for our little ones, and although I don’t consider myself outside the realm of those who might do such things, I do have my limits. A 20-month old's attention span is not long. When I'm tired, I don't really feel like getting out messy paints for what might be a five minute project. I can only invent so many new games or find that many new household objects that might be interesting to my son for two minutes of a day. And so, I’ve found myself resorting to letting him watch an Elmo video or Sesame Street clips on youtube more and more. Or-- I find myself realizing the value in having a healthy supply of toys. Enough toys so that you actually have enough to put a bunch away for a while, with the idea that they’ll seem “new” again when you cycle them back out in rotation.

There is, I believe, only one true antidote to feeling like you need to spend lots of money on your child-- and that is being surrounded and supported by a strong community. That means: relatives who will babysit for free, trustworthy neighbors with similar-aged kids who will swap childcare, and friends who will meet up often for playdates to make full-time parenting a bit less mundane.
Finding and sustaining this community, however, is harder than it may seem. As a relatively new stay-at-home mom, I’ve taken my child to plenty of play gyms, storytimes, and music classes, participated in PEPS (a great support group for moms in Seattle), enrolled my son in a toddler co-op preschool one morning a week, and reached out to lots of old friends and acquaintances who have kids of similar ages, but despite all this I still find it hard to create the kind of community I seek.

Everyone is busy—working long hours, caring for multiples, keeping up with complicated schedules. Everyone is tired. And it takes effort to foster a connection that goes beyond a familiar face you exchange a few pleasantries with at playgroups. Even if most of us parents end up passing long afternoons at home with our kids during which we wish we had a more creative option, for some reason getting a playdate on the calendar- and following through- can still be a hard feat to accomplish-- especially if your kids have different nap schedules or once we’ve entered the season of perpetual colds. Although I feel fortunate to know a good number of moms in Seattle right now, sadly, much of this community remains online and via good intentions. There have been many with whom I’ve wanted to nurture a friendship, but after too many failed attempts to get together, I’ve let go of my former hopes.

Community is the true secret to enjoying parenthood and childhood—not toys, whether of the natural or manufactured variety. But it takes a lot more than having kids of a similar age to foster a sustaining connection. Sometimes the viability of a connection does come down to scheduling, proximity and convenience; sometimes, for example, driving all the way across town for a playdate can seem like more effort than it’s worth. But ultimately, creating community has to be something that is mutually sought out and desired. All too often, it ends up being easier to go into default mode—which for our culture means staying isolated within our own nuclear families, sticking to what we already know, and buying stuff to fill in the voids.

1 comment:

  1. Hi there! It's 1 am, I'm exhausted by a 19 month old who thinks sleeping 8 hours a night is just peachy...and yet, I am up with insomnia while he sleeps because I've been brooding over exactly the same issue you describe here. If I weren't so tired, I could've written this blog post.

    My son has enjoyed new toys from grandma and grandpa, but seriously, his eyes *light up* when friends with kids come over--especially kids he has an ongoing relationship with. It breaks my heart to see him lonely so much of the time, especially on the weekend and holidays, when folks disappear into the family and we go for long stretches of kid-less days.

    It didn't used to be this way when I was a kid.

    So anyway, I wanted to say that you just might see me in one of your classes next year. I am really hoping I can make it work out. I've been writing for many years, did a creative thesis for my masters degree, tried like heck to get an informal writer-mamas group off the ground earlier this year. Not sure why we couldn't sustain it. It was a lovely group of women, but everyone got busy and stopped coming.



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