Almost every year at this time I write a holiday column about holiday stress (avoid it) or holiday manners (promote them). I have also written about toy overload so often it can seem I’m nagging.
This year, at the risk of being both a scold and a Grinch, my holiday column begs parents and grandparents to go easy on the toy shopping. And to buy toys for children thoughtfully.
Why am I so concerned this year? Because too many children in our community and nation live in poverty. Nationally, close to 1 child out of 4 lives in poverty. In Arizona, the percentage of children whose families fall below the poverty line is 26.97, up nearly 7 percent since 2007.
I find these figures sickening, especially when the stock market is reaching record highs and bank profits are the highest in years. As Charles M. Blow wrote in The New York Times: “It’s a great time to be a rich person in America. The rich are raking it in during this recovery.” At the same time, the number of Americans getting food-purchasing assistance approaches record highs and food insecurity, the euphemism used for going to bed hungry, is a real problem for many families.
Yet children lucky enough to live above the poverty level or have parents willing to go into credit-card debt for holiday shopping have too many toys. I first wrote about Toy Overload in 1993. I called this is the most common, but totally preventable, mistake parents make. Disclaimer: As a doting grandmother I admit I contributed to toy overload in the past, but I have become a reformed toy-shopaholic.
That child’s play is important is obvious. It’s how babies and children learn about the world and practice being grown-ups, and toys are the tools of play. Yet I am beginning to realize that too many toys can actually interfere with play. I have watched babies surrounded by a surfeit of toys. They go from toy to toy in a frenzy, not really playing with anything. I am beginning to wonder if having too many toys also interferes with a baby’s development of attention. Rapidly changing pictures on TV and dashing from toy to toy are somewhat similar.
I frequently rant about how children (and parents) are exposed to intensive and very lucrative marketing for what I call “junk toys.” Those plastic, breakable, un-fixable, anti-imagination (the child can do only one thing with them), widely advertised, and widely displayed toys that often come in a series so children want the whole set.
My current pet peeve is toy noise. Where is it written that toys have to make noise?
A couple of years ago, 16 toy experts (kids) and their parents were recruited by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to “test” Christmas toys. I did a totally unscientific study analyzing what percentage of the toys described in the article were silent. Of the 50 toys mentioned, 46 percent made noise, and often flashed lights as well. Toys for children 18 months to 3 years had a higher percentage of noisy toys, 67 percent, and only four out of 12 toys were silent. When I was a child, the only toy I had that made noise was a doll that cried “Ma-ma” when you put her down.
I sympathize with parents and grandparents who struggle to avoid being brainwashed by the clever advertising of the megamillion-dollar globalized toy industry. I realize children may feel “entitled” to have whatever they see advertised. Affluent parents may indulge the kiddies because they can afford it. Struggling parents may feel sorry for their children so they buy what they cannot afford. Working parents may think that toys substitute for time. And all parents cave in to a kid’s demands once in a while just because it’s too darn difficult to resist.
Here are this year’s suggestions to help parents and grandparents prevent and combat toy overload:
— Resist marketing: Teach your kids that a commercial is designed for only one purpose: to get people to buy the product.
— Be selective: Avoid junk toys. Buy developmentally appropriate toys, “nutritious toys” that are sturdy and can be used in several different ways.
— Take corrective action: I advised the parents of my newest grandson, who celebrates his first birthday this month, to remove all but five or six toys from the playpen, put away the rest, and rotate every couple of days. Older children? Set up a toy bank. Store many if not most of the toys and teach the kids that in order to get a toy out of the bank they have to deposit a toy.
— Avoid noisy, flashing toys: My daughter-in-law recently complained about a baby bouncer loud enough to be heard from another room and questioned whether it could hurt the baby’s ears. Yes, some toys are so loud that repeated use could harm hearing. Such toys can also be boring.
— Prevent toy confusion: Teach the children how to put toys away so they can find them. Show them how to store small pieces in clear plastic boxes or jars and help them label containers, first with pictures then words.
Finally, this year is the perfect time to talk with your older children about children who have no toys and why the economy is so hard on families. Contribute to toy drives. Take your children with you to a toy store to buy toys for a needy child. It is important your children begin to understand there are those less fortunate than themselves. Take your kids with you when you bring outgrown toys or clothing to a thrift shop. On Christmas morning? If there are duplicates or an obvious overload, involve the children in deciding where these would do the most good.
I truly feel the best and most lasting “present” you can give a child is an understanding of what a life in poverty means to a child, the adult that child becomes, and our community.