Somewhere buried deep inside that jaded and cynical ‘grown-up’s’ mind is there a younger version of yourself trying to make itself heard? In a recent post I put together a quick ‘case study’ to see if the toys you played with as a child influenced the career you ended up in. Of course it wasn’t a real case study as the data was far too circumstantial but it was a chance to try out a theory I’ve been ‘toying’ with for a while. Schools of thought in Psychology and Anthropology highlight childhood as a (if not the) key stage in your personal development to become a responsible adult within your culture. The question I want to ask is what role do toys play in this?
There are more groups than you could count out there discussing the negative impact that some toys (and toy-like things like computer games) have on a child’s development; Groups that insist that toys are responsible for the heightened division of gender in our culture. Groups that claim that toys glamorising violence can encourage children to develop more aggressive personalities. Groups that think that ‘non-educational’ toys can be a distraction from ‘normal’ childhood development. At the heart of this is a standing assumption that the types of nurturing provided by toys plays a pivotal role in shaping who we become.
There has always been debate about the roles of nature vs. nurture but it’s generally accepted now that nurture plays a solid role in personal development. This is a position that few people would be likely to dispute which makes saying ‘it’s just a toy’ all the more surprising. I would agree, that some toys really are ‘just toys’ but not all toys are and even those which don’t stand out as ‘favourites’ will still have an undeniable influence on a child’s fledgling world view.
I looked at the work of psychologist/anthropologist Peggy Miller when I was working on my MPhil thesis and I saw seeds of this idea here. Miller looks predominantly at personal storytelling (stories about the child) and the role it plays in the development of self-image but I wonder if the ‘pretend’ stories which develop during play could have an influence on this too. In a household full of anti-war sentiment would an Action Man shake things up? Would seeing a soldier as a hero influence a child’s perspective in ways which aren’t made explicit by their parents/carers?
If we’re going to condemn the negative influence which toys can have we should also be willing to consider the positive role they could play. Toys may well be the first true choices made by a child. What they ask for for birthdays and Christmases will open up possibilities that may not be presented otherwise. In many respects choosing a toy is a first step towards autonomy; it is the stage at which we decide what kind of play we want to participate in, what kind of children we want to be. I have trouble seeing how this could be any different than an adult, say, choosing a subject to study or sport.
Adults have this peculiar notion that toys are somehow inferior to ‘real’ pursuits. We even use the word ‘toy’ as a contrast to the word ‘real’. Not only this but the term ‘childish’ has negative connotations in our culture: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” (1 Corinthians 13:11) This common quote comes from the Bible and is often used out of context to highlight an important developmental step which we all ‘must’ take (must we though?). This means that for at least 2000 years (and probably a lot more) we have contrasted ‘childish things’ with those things which are ‘important’. However, I’m of the opinion that toys are important.
Toys can have remarkable influence over cultures, and now that we’ve reached an age of intensified consumerism the evolution of the toy has been stepped up by an order of magnitude. With this in mind we could perhaps best understand toys as solidified ‘memes’. The word ‘meme’ was devised by Richard Dawkins to describe cultural ideals/ modes of thought etc. which are subject to selective pressure and which can be readily transmitted. I think we can safely say that something like Barbie or Optimus Prime are both examples of memes, and strong ones at that. They evoke specific emotions and responses which follow a set pattern and those of us who used these toys as children have particular types of reminiscence based on them (see this post about the current trend of toy companies reselling us our childhood for a bit on the power of these types of memes).
What’s more, simply having a toy in common with someone can sometimes be enough to initiate positive feelings towards them: just consider the last time you talked about a childhood toy with someone who shared that experience: ‘Oh my God I had a … too, didn’t you just love how it …, did you have to beg your parents for it like I did?’ You start to like the person, based simply on the shared past-ownership of a similarly shaped piece of plastic/wood/other. Toys are powerful and I’ve decided to dedicate a bit of time each week to getting feedback from other people about the role certain toys have played in their life. What toys have (or even do) play a significant role in your life? Do you think a toy is ‘just a toy’ or do you think there is something more to it than that? Who knows, if I can get enough information together I might get to finally merge my philosophy background with my toys background and write another philosophy book on the philosophy of toys (you can find my other, ‘non-toys’, philosophy book called ‘Living the Good Life in a Modern World’ here.
Apparently not many have ventured into the topic of the philosophy of toys but I found a few. A quick run through goes as follows; Charles Baudelaire’s ‘A Philosophy of Toys‘, and some interesting blog posts by Eyes Wide Shut and The Home of Schlemiel Theory. It looks like I have an interesting journey ahead of me if I decide to get stuck into writing this book, Just to put the feelers out do you think you would buy a book on the philosophy of toys written by a philosopher and toy shop guy? Anyway thanks as always for popping along here for a read, hope to see you here again soon, Cheers, John