3 Good Reasons to Lie to your Kid

wpid-imag0611_1.jpgIs there ever an excuse to lie to your kids? Of course there is! However when it comes to fairy stories and ideas about magic Richard Dawkins has said on a number of occasions that fantasy might (and I emphasise he says might) lead to supernaturalism. Lets just leave to one side whether ‘supernaturalism’ really is something to be feared, and instead concentrate on Dawkins’ assumption that we somehow brainwash our children and remove their capacity for scepticism by exposing them to fairy stories. Whilst I see where he’s coming from, I just don’t see his argument holding water. Dawkins has been quoted as saying: “Is it a good thing to go along with the fantasies of childhood, magical as they are? Or should we be fostering a spirit of scepticism?”

I’m actually inclined to think that fantasy and scepticism are far from the apparently opposing perspectives that Dawkins paints them out to be. In fact I think more exposure to fantasy can allow children to gain a greater understanding of the difference between fairy tales and things that are real. Logan loves superheroes but he knows they’re not real, he likes the idea that there might be fairies but I can see the doubt in there somewhere too. Without these props to exercise my scepticism as a child I’m not sure what kind of world-view I would have right now, but I’m pretty certain I’d be more caught up in dogma in some form or other.

There are many great reasons to lie to your kids in some form or other but here are just three that I think actually do them some good in the long run:

1. To provide a hint of the fantastical in their world. The fantastical builds up imagination, it bolsters creativity and allows children to develop the skills required for thinking outside the box. This all seems pretty positive to me. Angelina Jolie certainly seems to belong to the same camp on this score.

wpid-imag0612_burst001_1.jpg2. To keep their innocence alive. This is probably the weakest of the arguments I’m putting forward here but I’ll still hold on to it. For example, when asked where babies come from we of course tell our kids the basics (with ‘seeds’ and ‘eggs’ galore) but often we include ‘when two people love each other very much’. We want our children to think that everyone they play with comes from love (I’m sorry for being a little mushy here but it feels necessary). You aim your children at a fantasy but lay in hope that it becomes reality.

There isn’t a doubt in my mind that a portion (I’ve no idea what quantities) of the children that my kids play with resulted from more complicated emotions than love but I don’t want to complicate my kids’ friendships with them by letting them in on an issue that is extremely complex, and may be difficult for them to understand (and easy for them to misinterpret) at the moment. Sadly this amounts to an argument for ‘ignorance is bliss’ but I think that, to an extent, children are one of the only groups on the planet who can really take advantage of ignorance and they should enjoy it whilst they have the chance. We can expose them to the more varied and colourful aspects of reality as they become more mature and can better understand the subtleties of human emotion and behaviour.

3. To make them feel comfortable about testing authority. This last reason for lying is by far the best. When I was a child my dad used to tell me blatant nonsense with a straight face and even re-assert his point if I called him on it. He knew exactly what he was doing. It may have been aggrieving, to say the least, but it pushed me to come up with better and more persuasive arguments to prove his obvious nonsense wrong. I do the same thing to my kids, I challenge them, I’ll push nonsense as far as I can to the point where they feel comfortable calling me on every detail of the nonsense with which they’re being presented. Far from dulling a capacity to ask questions and challenge the ideas put forward to them, I’d say that this particular kind of lying can sharpen your child’s wits and make them more than happy to call someone out (anyone out) when they fail to persuade them with an argument (one would hope this would work for advertising too).

Am I wrong, is it ‘always’ wrong to lie? Is fantasy dangerous or is it to be cherished? Do more adults need to open themselves up to fantasy? Can there be ways of honing an assertive scepticism in children without lying? As always I’m really glad you stopped by here, and I welcome any comments you feel like sharing below. Please feel free to have a nosey around at my other posts and follow me on twitter if you’d like to have a blether about toys, life and people, Cheers, John

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A Storm a Brewing!

wpid-imag0049_burst010_1.jpgOutside right now there is literally a storm brewing but I thought I’d talk about how absolutely nuts the emotions of a toddler/pre-schooler can be. As a parent I’ve already gone through this stage once and I’m also currently smack-dab in the middle of it with my youngest. The thing that really amazes me is how striking some of the emotional developments can be that happen at this time in a child’s life.

Is this intensity of emotion simply a hormonal thing or is there something more to it? On top of this is it really such a bad thing when you also get sways into the extremes of more positive emotions? For example, mid-play they hurt themselves in a way that would have an adult swearing quite colourfully but because they’re being happy-go-lucky at this exact moment they bravely brush it off and just get on with things.

There’s a depth of emotion there and a broadening of their emotional range that you don’t see in any other group of people other than teenagers (and perhaps artists).

Pretend play with a pre-schooler can be an immersive and surprising experience, watching them demonstrate at one moment a gentleness of character and at the next a boldness of spirit that allows them to challenge their fears/ an authority figure in order to get the right thing done. Children at this age can have a fairly unremarkable vocabulary but they make up for this in droves with dynamic, evolving personalities and an unmatchable range of emotions.

Thaaars a storm a brewin’ in that thar little person!

What are your experiences of a pre-schooler’s emotional character? Is there anything that’s just surprised you as you watched it unfold? I remember playing knights and castles with Logan years ago and popping in some elements into the game that subtly showed discrimination in action when an Ork toy was unfairly treated by ‘brave’ knights. After a tiny (and I mean tiny) bit of thought a giant pre-schooler joined the game and smashed the knights away to keep the Ork safe from harm. Ever since then ‘Ork’ has been a gentle giant, protecting castles (and occasionally boys with nightmares) from harm. The emotional understanding of a pre-schooler should never be underestimated, they pick up on an awful lot!

As always thanks for reading and feel free to share pre-schooler surprise stories below in the comments. I’ve recently started work on a book about childhood, toys and how play shapes the adults we become so I welcome any anecdotes etc. that I could pass on in the book (though if you’d rather they weren’t in the book let me know and I’ll be sure to avoid referencing them). All the best, John

The Philosopher in the Toy Shop

owl cuddly toy toy shop crieff fun junction perth perthshireOK I’ve not mentioned this for a while but I just happen to be a philosopher who sells toys for a living (BAHons, MLitt, MPhil and Toymeister, OK I made that last one up). On a day to day basis you would think these two things have little in common but I like to think, as I approach my 100th post (this is number 99!), that I’ve managed to show that this isn’t the case. One of the key things that makes me feel comfortable about my cross-disciplinary position is that philosophers (good philosophers anyway) never stop asking questions, it’s built into us, it’s why we picked a subject made of questions and it’s the attitude to the world that our training has enforced in us. In short we like to ask ‘why?’ a whole freaking bunch, does that remind you of any other demographic group perhaps?

427276_10152018994445401_531008992_nChildren enquire as a reflex, it’s like it’s coded into their brains that their primary function at that point is to find out and experience all that they can. Children are like a heap of mini Aristotles, Platos, and Socrati (that’s probably not the right plural of Socrates but I like it and I’m sticking with it). They question things, they’re even brave enough to ask us why they’re not supposed to ask questions (at those really awkward moments like ‘why is that man doing that?’ shouted within earshot in the middle of a crowded street). We hit our teens and everything gets very internally analytical, we all resemble Descarte’s meditator, knowing only what we think, feeling less inclined to understand the thoughts, feelings and attitudes of others.

To an extent that’s probably a good thing, at that stage in life it is important to know and understand yourself but what happens when we leave your teens behind? Can we go back to the fun enquiring-minds attitude again? I obviously did but perhaps its harder for others. Depending on what you choose to do with your life, your training may require a degree of accepting what your instructor tells you ‘just because’. I’ve always been lousy at retaining that kind of information. Even at school I only really learned when I was the one asking the question; I don’t do well with force-fed information.

There’s a growing population of adults who enjoy mind-altering objects and literature: from Rubik’s cubes to science fiction, from strategy games to game of thrones. A growing portion of the population are taking a chance to think about the world in a different way and toys can be, and are, a big part of that. Obviously some adults take this interest in toys a little far and turn a little (sometimes a lot) creepier but overall I think we’re doing well from it.

pulp fiction winnie the pooh

Gansta Pooh (Pulp Pooh just sounds…wrong)

So what happens to kids toys as a result? Sadly the potential income generated from the disposable income that is ‘pocket money’ has lead companies that traditionally appealed to teens to start venturing into a younger demographic. In this climate it’s going to be hard to tell a kid who’s a few years shy of thirteen that they’re better off playing with toys instead of play-acting being a teenager. Remember the go-to of any child will be ‘why?’ and if they don’t get a good answer they’re going to investigate this new world and absorb all they can about this new culture, that’s so different from that of childhood, and so alien to the world their parents belong to. At that age it’s not rebellion it’s a thirst for knowledge and a yearning for new experience.

That’s why I like to look at toys philosophically, I like to think about whether any manufacturers are managing to step up to the plate and offer kids a chance to enjoy that feeling of wonder and interest without having to leave their childhood behind. It’s an ongoing quest, a fierce battle ground, where toy companies battle against ‘teen-centred’ product for a person’s very childhood. It’s a fascinating thing to watch and it’s hard not to feel the need to step in with your own voice raised to the heavens crying for the continuation of childhood and the holding back of the floodgates of adolescence (at least for a few years). Why wouldn’t a philosopher enjoy working in the midst of this?

As my 100th post looms on the horizon I’d love to know what people have been thinking about this blog and I’m open to suggestions on how to make it better. If you have any questions about toys or ideas about topics I haven’t touched on yet please pop them in the comments section below or pop over to twitter and tweet me here.

Now a public service announcement: If you know any philosophers or have been effected by philosophy in any way there are departments around the world who are there to help. Philosophy can effect you at any stage in life, symptoms include a tendency to ask questions about questions, a need to see every side of a problem and an emotionally detached approach to arguments. If you think you may have been effected by philosophy please contact your nearest philosophy department immediately.

How to play

Giraffe eating a dinosaur

Puppets are a great way to stimulate pretend play, pop over here to have a look at some of the puppets stocked by Fun Junction.

This sounds like a bit of a ridiculous question but can you remember how to play? Strange as it sounds I’ve heard of adults who have genuinely lost the ability and there also seem to be a great number of parents who struggle with certain types of play. One of the key difficulties seems to arise during what we might call ‘pretend play’. The primary worry I hear is that there is a feeling of obligation that you, as the parent, will be expected to plan out a whole story and create a host of characters out of the toy figures in front of you. This is an intimidating prospect, especially where playtime comes at the end of the day when your mind is dulled after a day at work, or a day filled with housework and running the kids around to meet their busy social calendar (our kids always seem to have better social lives than we do).

Fortunately this isn’t really what’s involved in pretend play. I’m sure your kids would love it if you mapped out a whole story for them and then played it out before their eyes with a vibrant array of exceptionally voiced characters (who wouldn’t?!). To be honest though, that’s not playing, that’s more like a high-end puppet show. Scale it back, and remember how you used to play, but if that fails here are some tips:

  • Go to my previous post ‘5 hints for telling a good story‘ some of this is specific to reading but the explanations of how to change your voice and animate character traits should be useful.
  • If you genuinely struggle with pretend play then DON’T, and I’ll repeat DON’T, use a character they know from TV/films. Doing this will result in one of two things: EITHER you’ll crack it and perform that character flawlessly (or at least well enough for your kid to be happy with it) OR you’ll be terrible and your kid will just laugh at your attempts, disrupting play and bruising your confidence. If you crack it then there’s a strong chance that that is the only character your child will let you play as and this will get tedious fast (this character could also become a crutch, limiting you from enjoying all the fun that pretend play has to offer). Neither of these outcomes is particularly great.
  • Pick one or two character toys to play with and give them a character ‘quirk’. Don’t make them a ‘baddie’ or a ‘goodie’, of course that’s what kids often do but as an adult you can bring something different into the mix. Here’s an example, try a character who thinks everything they are presented with is edible. Your child will likely find it hilarious as they chase after the character trying to explain that they shouldn’t eat a cushion/a sock/ the TV/ someone’s hair.
  • Allow your character to develop. Even if you’re only playing for ten minutes or so you’ll find an easy ‘plot point’ in allowing your character to change their mind about something. If you need it, the development can be also used as a means of setting a time limit. Using the example above, the character could come to realise that not everything is edible as dinner time approaches (‘OK, OK, so I can’t eat your shoe but can I eat whatever it is that’s making that lovely smell?’ ‘Yes, that’s dinner!’ ‘Great let’s eat dinner!’).
  • Finally have fun, have as much fun as you can. They’ll only be playing like this for so long. Also, to keep things interesting, try occasionally throwing in some behaviour that breaks the status quo, this should help your child to think on their feet and it can lead to much more entertaining playtimes as well.

I’m always interested to hear how other parents play so feel free to pop a comment below and tell me about your own experiences. Hope these wee tips help someone out there. As always, thanks for reading and if there’s anything else you’d like me to post about please get in touch, Cheers, John

Does part of you still look at the world like you did as a child?

bruder figure b world 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?

let toys be toys logo no girls toys no boys toysThere 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.

Peggy Miller

Peggy Miller

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.

leader of teh autobots transformers childhood icons memes

Barbie icon meme

Pop along to see the new ‘Dream House’ cartoons, they are genuinely hilarious, well written

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

Is play the first step on your career path?

bruder poseable B world figure figurine typing PC blogging blogIn this post I’m heading back to the topic of identity. Do toys determine the career paths we end up following? This is a hard one to gauge, if only for the reason that we’re talking about a pretty hefty time-scale to assess. I only have about 10 years on-and-off experience in toys (spanning about 15 years) so I can’t say my personal experiences will be worth much in this instance. Children who I sold toys to back in my Saturday job at school will probably at the most only be about 25 years old just now, and out of them there’s only a handful who I might recognise in the street. So for this post I’ll be leaning quite heavily on numbers and making something of a ‘case study’ out of them.

BBC LogoMy ‘case study’ is farming. Some of the most popular toys sold in a rural toy shop focus around the world of agriculture: tractors, animals, fences etc. So how does this translate into real life jobs? You could be forgiven for thinking that it doesn’t, as a  BBC news story from May last year would appear to show. The BBC article focuses on interviews to drive home the fact that there are a lot of farmers out there who are beyond retirement age. They also cite  some research done in 2004 on the average age of a farmer, which showed it to lie somewhere in the region of 50 years old, with many farmers either forgoing retirement for financial reasons or because they just couldn’t quit the lifestyle. This data seems to show that the children who go mad for tractors etc. at 7 don’t seem to be turning into farmers as adults. The BBC report would seem to show farming to be a job of the past, something that only older generations are hanging on to.

yourfileHowever, it’s a different story when we look at the intake numbers in agricultural schools which are apparently on the up. It would seem that the young adults who were buying tractors etc. from me back in the 90s are part of a generation which is steadily seeing agriculture as a more viable career option than say teaching or architecture. So why don’t they show up in the BBC article or in the 2004 study? Perhaps the reason they don’t show up as ‘farmers’ is that these people aren’t instantly becoming farm owners. And the reason for that may be the same as that faced by all of generation Y and beyond: boomers.

People born in the wake of WWII are reaching retirement age at the moment but many of them are choosing not to for one reason or another (often this is perhaps less of a ‘choice’ and more of a necessity because of the decreasing usefulness of pension payouts). As a result many people of my generation and younger are moving into ‘make-do’ jobs or at least getting themselves heavily trained up in anticipation of the job market opening up a bit.

Whatever the cause of the high average age of farmers it is clear that many young adults who were once children playing with farms are at least trying to make headway into the field (pardon the pun). It would be interesting to see how many of these young adults were avid collectors etc. I’d also love to hear from anyone who moved from some profession-linked toy to a matching profession, are you an architect who played with Lego or an engineer who played with Meccano?

Parents seem to place great weight on the toys they buy their kids, expecting massive changes in their future to occur as the result of the choices made in the toys they play with. I’m inclined to agree with this (to an extent) as I personally think toys are the first means by which we develop a world-view and if a tractor is central to that early world-view I’d expect some part of you to always hold farming close to your heart.

tractor with load of blackberriesPersonally I still dream of owning a small mixed use farm/smallholding (just a few acres) and I did love playing with my farm as a kid so for me at least I can see how my toys influenced part of my view of the world and how they contributed to my ongoing goals in life. Pop a wee message bellow and we can all compare toys and life goals, it should be an interesting discussion. Thanks again for reading and I always welcome any new subscribers, just click on the subscribe box to the right to keep up to date with posts about toys, life and people. Cheers, John

Harry Potter and Rise of Fantasy

Harry Potter dragon cerberus three headed dogNext month at Fun Junction is fantasy month and to be honest most of the crew are big fantasy geeks. I’ll read just about any fantasy fiction out there Karen (‘the boss’, and yes she is a Springsteen fan) is the same and our facebook guru (and inventor of Winston) Jo is like a walking Harry Potter encyclopaedia. I can safely say we’re looking forward to this.

Thinking about fantasy though, I can’t imagine a shop would have bothered with a whole month dedicated to fantasy and magic before the arrival of Harry Potter. ‘The boy who lived’ brought an awesome genre into the public eye and allowed millions of people access to a form of escapism that used to be associated solely with children and ‘geeks’.

Harry Potter expelliarmus by kidchewyI was a fan of fantasy  long before Harry Potter (I was/am a geek, for proof see my Starfleet uniform in this previous post) but I have to confess that I unfortunately initially overlooked the young Gryffindor as I though the books were just ‘kids books’. On reading the books I felt pretty stupid as I’d been missing out on something fantastic (get it ‘fantastic’? ha ha boom boom…ahem…sorry). I think that this, the awareness of childish things as fun for adults too, is possibly one of the most important contributions which J K Rowling has made to the world. Once you realise how enjoyable something ‘meant for kids’ can be, you start to wonder what else you’re missing out on (previous posts have looked at adult play and age appropriateness in much greater detail).

Lord of the ringsWhat’s more, Potter opened up the world of fantasy to the masses, I’d even go so far as to say that Lord of the Rings wouldn’t have got the budget it did if it wasn’t for the success of Potter. Tolkien’s masterwork is phenomenal but prior to the rise of popularity of fantasy in the 90s and 00s I don’t think the budget would have been there to do it justice. I have to admit though that I think the exclusion of Tom Bombadil was a crying shame, he was one of the only characters who changed the pace of the book, if only for a short while, and his presence added depth and an extra hint of mystery to the first book of the trilogy.

is twilight fantasy?The genre of fantasy is seen to include witches, wizards, dragons, fairies, goblins, vampires, were-wolves, mermaids etc. etc. With such a wide cross section of creatures this means that even the Twilight series can count as fantasy, as would many other ‘magical’ stories. With Fun Junction’s approaching fantasy and magic month this leaves the crew with a question, just exactly what counts as fantasy and what doesn’t? Are there any particular stories/characters/creatures that you think we definitely should/shouldn’t include? And possibly more importantly should we dress up? Thanks for reading, hope to hear lots of ideas from you all, Cheers, John