Thursday, May 24, 2012

Once The Marketing Has Rubbed Off

I know people my age and older who swear that as children they owned, perhaps, a handful of toys: a doll, a ball, maybe a wagon. I was not one of those kids. My bedroom had much more in common with today's children with their dozens, if not hundreds of toys: a resource both cheap and plentiful. It's probably not a coincidence that I also recall our first television set, then our first color set, the second of which brought lots of toys into our home for trail runs in the form of commercials.

But TV commercials probably weren't the biggest driver in our household, at least during my early years: mom was. To this day she's fond of toys -- not the big expensive ones, but all those small gadget-y things that get carried around in pockets for a few days before being allowed to filter their way down to the bottom of the toy box, left there to be re-discovered at intervals separated by months, incorporated into some sort of play, then forgotten again.

When I worked for "the man," my cubicle was decorated with a large assortment of toys, including many that still live with me at the school. If I were a childless, unmarried man, I'm pretty sure my apartment would today be entirely furnished in toys and plaid sleeper-sofas (thus guaranteeing my continued bachelorhood).

But I'm not a childless, unmarried man and I've seen toys from both sides now.  I witnessed marketers spark the flame of craving in my daughter, causing her to desire some piece of crap or other, setting her up for life in the consumer society in which we live. And I've not been a curmudgeon about these things, giving in often enough. She will not, I'm certain, grow into an adult who remembers her father as an "old mean-y," neither will she curse me for having been over-indulgent. I feel pretty good about the sweet-spot we hit through most of her girl-dom. 

When we moved from our house of 13 years a year ago last January, part of the process was to purge her bedroom of the things she'd outgrown. It looked like it was going to be a daunting task, so I helped her by taking a first cut at things, disposing of some, but collecting and organizing everything questionable into piles on the floor, the plan being for us to go through them together one-by-one. She came in, looked at my handiwork and said, "Throw it all away." I was struck by a mild panic, "Are you sure? All of it? What about this? This? Certainly not this?" But she was firm and we saved nothing.

You see, that's the way humans are about cheap and plentiful resources: easy come, easy go. I didn't actually throw away much of the pile, divvying most it up between the school, Goodwill, and Woodland Park families with older children. Not all of the toys that came and went in our life were brought to us by TV commercials, in fact, as I went through them I was conscious of how many of them were marketing items themselves -- cereal box and Happy Meal toys -- "free" things designed to sell us on movies or lure us in for a junk food lunch, items that have by now lost their commercial viability and are now loose parts in the world, there for children to pick up and use as their imaginations dictate.

It's both easy and correct to critique our culture as a "throw-away" society, to point out the environmental, economic, and social damage of rampant consumerism. Parents should worry about the impact of television and that their children will become afflicted with the psychological disease that causes us to always want the next hot thing, often to the point of sacrificing necessities to have them.

One of our most popular sensory tables at Woodland Park is what I call "the bottom of a kid's toy box," our huge collection mostly made up of these junky, temporary, free and inexpensive items, almost all of which are there by virtue of having passed through my own life. I'm struck that none of the kids any more recognize the characters from Barney or even The Teletubbies, figures that played huge roles for a time in my life. The movie-linked merchandising items mean nothing to them. Occasionally, they come across something they recognize, but mostly they see dolls and wheels, shapes and colors, containers and sparkles, balls and things that jingle when you shake them. The children make collections, take things apart, create games, and generally fiddle around with what they find there. 

Working with children, I've lost my love for toys: at least in the way I loved them before. I now see them as inevitable and even useful. They're not going away.

I don't really have a conclusion for this piece, other than that I've found that my daughter had it right, "Throw it all away," because there's always more where that came from and, you know, once the marketing has rubbed off, they're not so bad.

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Unknown said...

My 4yo will often repurpose his old toys. I highly encourage it of course, but its often his own doing. Toys can be very useful in the real world as models and parts for something new entirely. Just some thoughts.

Anonymous said...

At least weekly I have reason to thank my lucky stars that we decided to "cheap out" and not have cable TV in our lives. I am blissfully unaware (as is my son) of what toys are being advertised right now. We get a certain amount of "trends" because my boy talks about what his friends are talking about, but that's where I really love our peer group and play-based preschool. For the past three years it's been a steady rotation of Spiderman, pirates, fire trucks and garbage trucks... we have toothpaste with somebody called "Bakugan" on it, and Simon has made up his own story about who this guy is and what his special powers are.

I guess the point of my comment is to say that it's possible to drastically cut down on the marketing being directed at a child, AND save $60-100/mo, just by going without cable TV. We may not be so lucky next year when he goes to kindergarten, but we've enjoyed five blissful years without Dora OR Barney.

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