Essay I

Untempted in toy land

A stick from the park can be more fun than a pricey electronic toy

PATRICIA PEARSON December 15 2003
Essay I

Untempted in toy land

A stick from the park can be more fun than a pricey electronic toy

PATRICIA PEARSON December 15 2003

Untempted in toy land

A stick from the park can be more fun than a pricey electronic toy

Essay I

PATRICIA PEARSON

TIS THE SEASON for Hottest Toy Lists, fa la la la la, la la la laaaa.

Oh lord, I hate these lists. They correspond not at all to what my children play with the whole year through. The toys they promote are trumped-up, fleeting and a colossal waste of cash, because most of them are electronic and last approximately 48 hours before getting trashed or disembowelled.

Consider the new plush Neopet, a sizzling hottie this year that contains more sophisticated gadgetry than my Mazda. This toy responds to voices. If I were coming down the hall, for example, a toy like this might burble—“Help! Help! Don’t throw me in the trash!” To which I—responding to its deeply annoying vocal timbre with my own, built-in capacity to

distinguish sounds—will say: “The trash is too good for you, toy, you’re going into the FIRE! Ha ha ha.”

Honestly, I defy my fellow parents to think of a single electronic toy that hasn’t driven them completely bananas within hours, and whose batteries haven’t either been ripped out and hidden or lost under the couch. What parent fails to anticipate the fate of Hokey Pokey Elmo in a house full of preschoolers, even as he or she forks over the dough for this waltzing puppet, currently claiming pride of place in Toy Wishes magazine’s “hot dozen”? I know, Sesame Street’s Elmo seems cute, and the song is endearing— at first.

But let me tell you, for several years now I’ve had a bouncing Tigger in my home that has become as familiar a bit of detritus as dust balls and never-used extension cords. I come across it weekly, actually, on Saturdays, in my attempt to move Useless Things to new Useless Thing Containers. When I try to throw it out, my daughter intervenes on the magpie principle. It glimmered once, this Tigger, for roughly two weeks, and so she cannot let it go. I replaced the batteries once, thinking that would thrill her. She made Tigger bounce for five minutes, and then ignored him again.

For the record, here are the 10 hottest toys in the Pearson household:

‘WHAT happened to the world in which the excitement of Christmas involved getting oranges and handmade doll quilts?’

1. A stick found in the park. This comes in a variety of wood hues, and is, ideally, three or four feet long, with shorter versions available after the prolonged temper tantrum about huge stick’s inability to fit into the car.

Sticks can function as a dragon, to menace one’s elder sister, can be poked into desiccated mice, and can be rattled along a picket fence.

2. The phone. This is a versatile object that rings, and has buttons. The receiver can be picked up, and put down again to miraculously end the ringing noise. The buttons can be punched endlessly, dialling 911, and 411, and the mayor. The cord can be attached to the dog as a leash. Six-hour conversations with fellow adolescents can take place without the kids ever getting out of bed. Recommended for children aged one to 18.

3. A bottle of $18.50 Lancôme nail polish. Possibilities include: hiding the nail polish in a boot, applying its contents to a doll’s lips, the cat’s tail, or one’s pants.

4. Toilet paper. Several uses: spitballs, fake breasts, Barbie bedding, bathtub experiments, cardboard role turned into telescope. Simple act of unfurling and trailing all the way down the stairs will entertain kids for as long as it takes a parent to notice.

5. A sack of Robin Hood flour, a spoon, the garden hose, and a pot. Add twigs, paint, chewed gum or other easily available ingredients to taste.

6. The cat. Preferably asleep, and therefore willing to wear a kerchief and be transported in a stroller.

7. Dirt. A chestnut found on the sidewalk. Fantasies of planting said chestnut in the dirt, and waking up to a 50-foot tree.

8. Food. No toy beats mashed-potato sculpting with “found objects,” like one’s thumb, or a pen. Mashed potato accessories, like ketchup, sold separately.

9. The Internet. Outlasts the Eveready Energizer Bunny.

10. Dollar-store stuff. Perfect. Quality matches attention span.

Under the circumstances, I now resent virtually every toy I have bought for my children and proceeded to trip over, retrieve from the toilet, or find caked in dirt in the garden. The entire Christmas shopping exercise seems to me to have become a process of alienating parents from their own progeny, in order to fulfill commercially pushed fashions.

Needless to say, this is not done for the benefit of parents or children, but for the ongoing health of the toy industry. Consider the practice of brand extension, which is a marketing concept in which you take one reliable product and spin it off in endless variations. Apply this concept to the old kitchen playset. A standard playset, involving sink, oven and fridge all rolled into one object, can last for years, which isn’t good for the toy industry. So now, if you scan the toy store shelves or watch TV commercials, you’ll note the plastic fridge, the pretend microwave oven, and—for parents who have totally lost their minds—the PBK Pie Cabinet at Pottery Barn Kids, which retails for $229.

Whatever happened to the world, so magically evoked in the book series Little House on the Prairie, in which the excitement of Christmas involved receiving fresh oranges and handmade doll quilts? Gone: a vanished era of keeping material wealth in perspective.

The great irony of this is that children themselves are capable of keeping wealth in perspective, in the sense that they can rest content with far less than what we shower upon them. True, they will jump up and down in glee when you present them with the Barbie Cook With Me Smart Kitchen that they saw advertised on TV. But, they’re just game for the hype. It is our job, not theirs, to stand back and ask ourselves what we wish for them.