It was a parable, but I didn't listen. My neighbor and her husband gave her two boys a big Thomas the Tank Engine train set for Christmas. It had miles of track, a lot of trains, trees, buildings, bridges, you name it - and it had its own table to set the track up on, and a drawer to store it in. This was no small piece of furniture, either. Bigger than a coffee table, it was a substantial thing. And on Christmas morning, a half hour after providing everything a train-obsessed child could ever want, my neighbor came into see that her children had taken the trains away from the track, and were running them along the living room floor, and up over the "mountains" of the couch pillows. The track, the buildings, the bridges were all left behind as the two boys happily raced two small wooden trains around the room.
I should have listened. But a year later, when Grandma wanted to get my children a big gift for Chanukah, she proposed a train set, complete with table. My husband and I were excited - we had forgotten the lesson above. They could set up whole villages, we thought! It would be welcoming, exciting for any child who comes to visit. The kids would spend hours playing with it! And they did, for a little while. But half the time, they were racing the trains over the floors, or making up stories about the trains crossing bridges - not the premade wooden bridges that came with the set, but blocks. It turned out that the person who spent the most time playing with the trains, setting them up and arranging them "just so" was my husband. The kids didn't care about just so - they just wanted to play train. The box it came in, the table, the track and the accessories make clutter in my house. And what my kids really wanted - four little two inch wooden trains - could have provided the same amount of pleasure for 1/100th the waste. With a little practice, Daddy could have made them.
The thing was, the people who wanted the toys were us. Oh, the kids envied their neighbors the train set and loved to play with it when we went over there. But their wanting was innocent - they weren't supposed to notice that the neighbor kids only played with the trains when the guests were excited about them. And, of course, the trains themselves were the more wonderful and fascinating for living at someone else's house. It was Daddy and Mommy and Grandma and Grandpa who wanted the children to have the trains. We had a fantasy of what pleasure the trains would give. We had a dream of providing them with something wonderful. And how often is that true about the toys we give our kids and grandkids, nieces and nephews? How often is it that we want to give them, more than the children themselves really want the toys?
If you are like a lot of parents, the last few weeks you've been going through your kids' toyboxes and either throwing things out or heaving a sigh of relief when you find that you don't have any lead contaminated toys. If you haven't done it, or kept track of all the increasing number of recalls, here are some places to check;
We got off easy - we don't own any of the relevant toys. But, of course, that doesn't mean there are no lead contaminated older toys in our house. And while we've already purged pthalates, we know that they aren't the only endocrine disrupting plastics out there. http://www.nypirg.org/consumer/2002/phthalates.html. For those of us who want our kids to grow up healthy and safe, this is troubling stuff.
Now a lot of people are made at Chinese toy manufacturers. How, we ask in outrage, could they do this to our kids. May I suggest that perhaps, just perhaps, such anger is misplaced. Here's the thing. All of the relevant toys were cheap plastic crap, manufactured in a developing country, with lax standards on environmental, child and worker safety. They were being manufactured in a comparatively unregulated economy by people making tiny wages, often in poor working conditions on a contract given to the lowest bidder. The average action figure that retails for 10.99 was actually cost far less than a dollar to produce. And every single parent and grandparent who bought one *KNEW THIS* or could have if they stopped to think for 2 seconds about where the toys came from. We either didn't bother to think, or we trusted that other people, far away and with no incentive would care more about our kids than we care about theirs.
I'm not blaming anyone here - I'm as guilty as anyone of this. I buy my toys at yard sales, but it was just luck that got us off the hook. But that's the reality - we buy cheap toys without thinking about it. And because we think our kids need a million toys, we need them to be cheap. That way everyone who knows them can afford
to buy them a ton of stuff for Christmas, their birthdays, and whenever Grandpa comes to visit. They can have gift bags at every birthday party, a toy in every Happy Meal, a bunch of cheap crap for every occasion. And they can have toyboxes full, closets full, houses that look like stores full of things.
Meanwhile, the people who make the toys often didn't have many growing up. And for all the lead paint on Elmo's face is dangerous for our kids, it is worse for them. They are the ones who work 12 hours a day with lead paint - many of them young women at the beginning of their reproductive years. Cheap toys aren't just bad for our kids, they are bad all around. The factories emit greenhouse gasses that warm the planet, and use up limited supplies of petroleum for what - for a toy that will be broken in a matter of days or hours because the toy itself is made of cheap materials and the child has so many toys she cannot fully understand the need to preserve them.
What's the solution? Fewer toys. Many fewer, and better ones. Toys made of natural materials, that are demonstrably nontoxic. Toys you make yourself, or toys your children make. Toys made from non-dangerous recycled things. But most of all, fewer of them. Not fifty dolls, but four. Not 100 stuffed animals, but 10, or 5 or 2. A set of blocks. Some scarves and old clothes for dress up. Pots and pans and empty cans and boxes for playing store. A blackboard and chalk. Some crayons and the backs of paper. A few balls. A bat. A glove. A few games. Lots of books. Perhaps one big thing - a dollhouse or a battle cruiser or some trains and track. Legos. But not everything under the sun, not even if it is educational. Nothing with batteries, as little made of plastic as possible. Nothing cheap - we have to pay the people who make them enough to live on and have a powerful incentive to keep our kids safe. Better fewer toys then more cheap ones. And greater generosity on our part, so that those who can't afford to pay well for toys can still have some good ones, that won't poison them or deplete their future.
I have a doll that my grandmother bought when I was a little girl. It was my favorite through my whole childhood, so much so that "Big One" went through 3 cloth bodies, each one replaced when they wore out by mother or grandmother. My youngest sister loved her too - by the time she got her the doll was bald, with only a fuzz of her remaining hair, and had permanent gouges in her cheeks. My sister loved the doll for her childhood. After she was done with it, my mother cleaned it up, replaced her body again and dressed the doll in the dress I wore home from the hospital when I was born. For a decade and more, she sat on shelf in my closet, until, one day, I brought her down and showed her to my youngest son. To him, she is "baby" and he holds her as he nurses to sleep each night. And she accompanies him to his bed each night. I suspect that I will have to replace "Baby's" body again - and I wouldn't be surprised if someday, my son sits over a needle the thread and does so for one of his children.
And if we're honest about our motivations for giving our children toys, I think we'll find that this is what we're seeking - the child inside us who loved a particular toy, or a few particular toys, and felt powerfully about them. We give our kids toys because we want them to have that magical and imaginary space in their lives with a toy that feels real to them. So we give and give and hope that the next one will be the one. But the reality is that it is more likely that we will create magical experiences for our children and grandchildren if they have fewer toys, rather than more. If they have more incentive to imagine and thus don't have a toy to fill every imaginary gap. If they receive things that last and last and outlast their own youth, and are still there to look at fondly as they grow up.