Children and power

superman and the flash duke it outWhy is it so important to be the ‘fastest’, the ‘strongest’, etc. etc.? It’s a question I’m asking myself more and more now that my two are hitting that wonderful ‘isn’t it fun to hit my brother’ stage. I understand that competitiveness is to be encouraged but sometimes it seems genuinely nonsensical. I’ve had squabbles over who can fly the highest (basically bound by the laws of imagination; i.e. infinite) and other utter insanity that I just can’t get my head around. So again (and again) I find myself asking myself, why is it so important to them?

Ordinarily I can get myself into my kids’ shoes fairly easily, despite the fact that so much of their play makes no ‘real-world’ sense, there’s normally some internal logic to it. However, this imaginary one-upmanship looks like nothing more than an exercise in futility to me.

At the start of Toy Story, Andy has the toys duke it out in this kind of competition but the key thing is that his imaginings stop after about two rounds (basically because there’s only one child playing):

“I brought my attack dog with the built-in force field.
Well, I brought my dinosaur who eats force-field dogs.”

The story is alarmingly, brain-achingly, different with two children in the mix. Thankfully I’ve had a dry spell of this for the past few weeks but there isn’t a doubt in my mind that the spectre of the debate over ‘strongest’/ ‘fastest’/’furthest’/’most immune to damage’ etc. etc. returns.

It will no doubt start along the lines of “well I’m lava proof!…well I’m as hot as the sun!…”well I’m sun-proof!…” and it will degenerate (along with my sanity) from there.

Is it just me that get’s utterly sick to the back teeth of this or are there others out there with a similar dread for what I call the pretend-power arms-race? Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments below. As always thanks for reading, Cheers, John

Teach your child to pick up the pieces

LEgo-city-collapseHuman beings fail, this is a fact, and to be honest of all the times in your life that failure happens it perhaps happens most frequently as a child. We call this trial and error, we see it as an important step in acquiring any new skill, but what about the skill of accepting failure, digesting those negative emotions, and starting all over again?

kragle legoRecently I received a comment on my post on kraggling Lego (kraggling = gluing it together), the commenter  pointed out that kraggling may be defensible if it avoids the devastation a child can feel at seeing a play set demolished. Basically their argument was that kraggling can prevent heartache. I get where they are coming from but this comment brought some ideas to the fore that made me realise what it is that I truly love about Lego: it allows for utter, unadulterated, and truly epic, failure or loss. You can spend hours working on a Lego set only to see it crumple in seconds. Sometimes the devastation is wreaked by a sibling and sometimes it comes as the result of a catastrophic accident as you try to place that last piece on and push just a little too hard.

The key thing for a child to realise is that no matter how much blame is thrown around (either at themselves or at a friend/sibling) no amount of words will put that model back together. If they’re lucky the model was made following instructions then all they have to do is follow the steps again and their model will be restored, but if it’s a full on self-made master-builder-style creation then it may be gone forever. What better primer to grief can you expose your child to?

89292-will-ferrell-elf-NO-gif-MQ21Loss is hard, it’s something that can tear a human being apart, we like to think that there is nothing quite like the grief of losing a loved one but perhaps the small losses we experience as children when our creations are destroyed or ruined (for whatever reason) provide us with the early beginnings of the coping mechanisms we use to deal with losses that come in a much larger and more deeply emotional scale.

Another issue that broken Lego sets expose children to is the fact that blame and even punishment can sometimes be entirely futile. When something has been destroyed, no amount of talking, recrimination, or punishment will bring it back. Of course we feel vengeful when something important to us is lost due to the actions of another, it’s a normal, healthy, human reaction to this kind of event. However, it’s important that we develop the ability to distinguish between recrimination and reparation.

Sometimes, as with theft, we can simply receive something of equal value back but with destruction like this the only option is recrimination, there just isn’t a suitable reparation. This is still the case even when a child breaks their own Lego creation (accidentally or otherwise). Life does not have ‘rewind’ or ‘undo’ buttons (much as we’d love it to) and our kids need to be exposed to this, it’s a harsh lesson that can be less harsh if learned early. In the comfort of a loving home (or other learning environment) a child can experience the reality of the impermanence and transience of the human condition with the assurance of strong emotional backup from their parents/carers.

One of the saddest things about this learning stage is that it isn’t recognised by a lot of people as anywhere near as important as it is. When your child first breaks a Lego set (or other toy) right then and there they start to develop coping mechanisms which will shape the way they deal with loss throughout their life. If you want this to be a positive learning experience (since there’s nothing else positive going to come out of a broken toy) then you need to be ready for this and help steer them towards healthier reactions to loss.

This brilliant little guy comes from Andrew Bell's 'The Creatures in My Head'

This brilliant little guy comes from Andrew Bell’sThe Creatures in My Head

My dad used to have a wee catchphrase that annoyed the hell out of me as a kid: “Dinnae sit in a puddle and greet, (translation: don’t sit in a puddle and cry); all you’ll get is a wet bum.” In short, when life knocks us back, we need to get up and deal with it as best we can. Perhaps this isn’t the perspective you yourself take on how we should deal with setbacks and losses but, the thing is, unless you involve yourself in your child’s experiences of these events (and this means exposing them to situations where they’ll encounter this kind of event) you can’t influence the coping mechanism they’re going to develop as a result.

What do you think? Is childhood the wrong stage to expose kids to permanent loss and the transient nature of human experience? Should we shield kids from this kind of experience until they’re more mature, or do these experiences themselves help us to develop towards maturity? As always I welcome any opinions readers may have, feel free to share in the comments section below or strike up a conversation with me over on twitter, All the best, John

Is it good to be bad?

by Zotto1987

Image by Zotto1987

Do you miss something if you always play the ‘hero’? My eldest son is obsessed with superheroes, so much so that it’s basically the only thing he’ll play at the moment. The down side of this is I often have to be a bad guy and a fairly inept one at that, I’m constantly having to back-track on my bad guy antics as I’m informed that the bad guy ‘can’t run that fast’ or that ‘they aren’t that clever’, or ‘that strong’.

Thwarted at every step by a superhero with the power to change the very fabric of reality, my bad guy is doomed to failure, but should he be? Am I missing the opportunity to teach my son some hard lessons in a safe environment? Sometimes the bad guys win, sometimes being ‘bad’ is a matter of interpretation, sometimes the ‘hero’ is simply the one who gets to tell the story. History favours the winners after all.

There are some big life-lessons there, possibly more controversial than the birds and the bees, death, and the difference between real and imaginary all put together. These are realities that even most adults have trouble with. We tell ourselves that karma will catch up with bad people, or that they’ll be judged by a deity but often we’re looking at their behaviour through a lens.

karma-quote-funnyIt’s easy to see good and bad as black and white but I’m not sure it’s either useful, or helpful, for us to think about the world in that way. To be fair a lot of us recognise the grey area between good and bad but even that has its limits, to really get to grips with the way motivation works we have to understand that few people choose to do something that they themselves truly consider to be bad.

Some people get annoyed with police presence, with surveillance cameras, parking attendants and with other features of an organised society. When you hear someone put the police down or say that they ‘hate’ police officers it can be hard to understand, in some ways it’s easy to assume that they have something to hide or that they have villainous motivations. However, these features of society all include a human element behind them and you can see why someone might be mistrustful of this degree of power being offered to a select group of human beings. Sometimes, with as little as the press of a button, a person’s liberty can be compromised and it seems fair to worry about the type of person standing with their finger on that button.

Supermanredson

You can get it over on play.com

DC comics released a fantastic spin on the Superman storyline called ‘Red Son’ in which Superman’s ship lands in soviet Russia rather than in the good ol’ US of A. Instead of a Kansas farm he grows up on a soviet ‘Kolkhoz’ (collective farm) and joins the communist party to become an upholder of communist ideals (whilst being the antithesis of them at the same time). He helps Russia to take over the world, creating a working (if hyper organised and fairly corrupt) communist world society. The last bastion of freedom (yep, you guessed it, the USA) is headed by president Lex Luthor.

Now Lex Luthor’s mistrust of Superman looks well founded, his efforts to take down the man of steel are understandable, reasonable even. No one man (or woman I should add) should have that much power and Lex Luthor knows it. In essence Lex Luthor becomes the good guy simply thanks to a change in our perspective.

Should I use pretend play as a way of demonstrating not just the ‘greyness’ of morality but also the relative nature of how we judge goodness? Perhaps I’m over-philosophising my parenting again but I can’t help but feel that it’s important for my sons to grow up aware of the fact that people’s motivations for action can differ significantly from their own.

Sometimes it may be very difficult to understand why some people do the things they do and we don’t live in a world where those with darker motivations wander around telling people that they are ‘baddies’, ‘villains’ or ‘evil’. They think they’re doing the right thing, or at the very least they don’t think that what they’re doing is ‘that bad’. If my sons learn anything from me I want it to be that good people can do bad things, bad people sometimes do good things and that often neither type know which one they are.

I’ve a feeling that my ‘baddie’ persona is about to get very interesting. As always thanks for reading and feel free to chat with me over on twitter. Are there any pearls of wisdom that you really hope your children can pick up from you? Do you think the black/white perspective on morality is something that should be maintained through childhood? Are kids unable to recognise the subtlety? Let me know what you think in the comments bellow or (if you can fit your comment into 140 characters or less) pop on over to twitter and get the conversation going, Cheers, John

When parents stop being heroes

The IncrediblesNow don’t freak out, I’m not sitting judging every customer who comes into the shop but I do notice trends in the kinds of things people buy and I can’t help but notice a slow change in the kinds of toys children are asking for. A common theme that still comes up when children are choosing toys is that a lot of them like get toys to do with a parent’s job. The strange thing I’ve noticed (and the topic of this post) is that this trend is waning, from an earlier and earlier age children are less inclined towards the traditional hero-worship of their parents’ jobs.

BamBamFirst off the job thing has probably been done since little Ug junior got a club just like his daddy’s and went through a stone-aged world trying to bop unsuspecting pre-historic creatures on the head. Nowadays there are more subtleties, I’d imagine, in the kind of jobs parents do. For years the definitions and responsibilities of different jobs have been changing, there are new technology-based jobs that never existed before and a growing industry of information processing and content creation which make it harder for parents working in these fields to explain their job to their child. When this happens you either find that the child ends up mimicking a simplified idea of what their parent(s) do for a living or they give up on the whole thing and get into superheroes and other non-ordinary characters (like Barbie and characters from cartoon shows).

This is before you even get into how exciting or boring the parent’s overall job is. I work in a toy shop, exciting right? Well yes, sometimes, the toys are exciting but I’m not sure how exciting they find the shop work so when my kids get tired of playing shops they’ve got a mummy that works in a swimming pool, a grampa who’s a farmer and another grampa who’s a ‘fixer’ (my dad ran a handy-man company then went into fixing up properties). Out of all of these my kids are pretty much sorted for emulating jobs but when families that have more unusual/difficult to explain jobs come into the shop I have to admit you see a lot more super heroes and other fantasy jobs getting looked at.

I can’t help but wonder what this feels like for these parents. These parents probably emulated jobs as kids but now their own jobs are so hard to define that their children just give up on the early-years hero-worship of their parents’ profession and plunge right into the avengers, frozen, spider-man, batman, disney prinesses etc. etc.

the thinkerI had a small taster of how difficult job explanation can be when I was doing research for my MPhil. Back then Logan was only four and he just didn’t get what I was writing about. He often got upset when daddy had to go to the library to write for the day or when I had to head through and teach in Edinburgh. Far from something he wanted to emulate, for the most part I think he kind of resented my work. There were of course times when he would sit at his toy laptop and do his ‘writing’, he clearly wanted to understand what I was spending my time doing, he’d often choose to do his ‘writing’ when I was working at home. I loved it when he did this,  but at the same time his interest would wander and fairly quickly he’d be back to being a zoo-keeper, an animal doctor or a palaeontologist. The thing was, even if he managed to understand the nature of my work, at the end of the day it just wasn’t very exciting.

Perhaps that’s the tricky point so many parents are having to deal with, underneath all the difficult explanation lies a job that is quite simply boring (at least in the eyes of the average pre-schooler). With this in mind perhaps it’s better leaving a hint of mystery around what they do for a living, at least the mystery itself can make the job seem a little more exciting.

Do you have an unusual job, or just one that’s hard to explain to your kids? How have you gone about describing it to them, do they try to emulate it? Feel free to share in the comments area below, chat to me over on twitter or if you’re feeling particularly nice you can subscribe to get e-mailed my new blog posts as and when they come out (box off to the right). As always thanks for reading, Cheers, John

Stop tantrums dead in their tracks!

This epic 'Baby Hulk' is by Carlos Sastre Antoranz

This epic ‘Baby Hulk’ is by Carlos Sastre Antoranz

Want your child to stop screaming for what they want? Simple, just give them it! Want them to stop complaining about being somewhere they don’t like? Simple, just take them where they want to go. No one wants to sit through some speech or other when they could be at the park or the cinema anyway, it’s a win win, and the best part is you can use your kid as an excuse. It’s exhausting constantly fighting over issues with your kids, not to mention stressful. Just take the strain off, lower your blood pressure, put your feet up and give in. Conflict isn’t for families anyway, surely it’s better just to keep everyone happy.

What’s the alternative anyway? Say no to even the most reasonable request just so that your kids know who the ‘boss’ is? and boss of what? (we could add) Families aren’t businesses with a product or service to sell, they don’t have to worry about beating last years performance/revenue. Why would a family need a boss? On top of that, two-parent/carer families would have to have two bosses and that can’t go well as there’s no guarantee they’ll always agree.

step-brothersI should point out that the unfortunate side-effect of the first option is a very high set of expectations, but it seems more appealing than the potential side effects of option two including a lack of drive and individual motivation in the absence of being told what to do and the increased risk of members resigning from ‘Family inc.’ when they tire of towing the party line. I mean, kids brought up via method one might be spoiled beyond belief but at least they’ll never want to leave right? Like they won’t want to leave ever, it’s great, you can fix up the attic/basement and make them a little home of their own.

Happily, we all typically pick a spot somewhere in the middle of these two extremes and with any luck our kids won’t run away from home, turn into mindless drones, or end up lodging with us through our retirement. That said, we still have this gruelling problem of tantrums: how do we deal with this unreasonable, high pitched audio visual attack? Do we just ‘pick our battles’ and give in occasionally? How do we decide which time is best to give in? and how far do we give in when we do?

The short answer is that it’ll be different for every kid and every parent. The long answer is that there is another way, I’ve seen a lot of meltdowns in my line of work and one of the most effective ways of dealing with tantrums is not to let them happen in the first place. There are parents among us who have developed the uncanny ability to foresee tantrums and take the wind out their sails before they even get started. I have to admit I’m not always one of these kinds of parents, my two have both had their share of public meltdowns, hell some of you reading this may even have had the pleasure of experiencing one. I’ve met a number of these hyper-aware parents but here’s just one example.

professor-xThere’s a dad that comes into the shop fairly regularly with his son, the boy must be about 7 or 8 years old now but they’ve been coming in for a few years and in that time I have never, and I mean never, seen the boy have a tantrum. One of the key things I’ve noticed about the two of them is a mutual respect and a willingness on the dad’s part to be clear, explanatory and reasonable with his son. He’s clear about why they’ll be going into the toy shop (I can hear him at the door), he listens to his son and responds positively to reasoned arguments for things to buy. I should point out that by ‘positive response’ I don’t mean he instantaneously rewards good arguments with a toy, but he does acknowledge a good point well made. Probably the key thing that I’ve noticed about their interactions is that the boy understands that a shopping trip is not all about acquiring stuff for himself, sometimes it’s not even going to lead to any purchases. In short, his expectations are set pretty low and he seems genuinely pleased with even the smallest occasional purchase.

A seven or eight year old is a far cry from a toddler (or worse still a three-year-old) but I can even see this working (in a diminished sense) with younger kids. The key issue on top of the responsiveness and reasonableness will be figuring out the time of day to expect their reasoning to be at it’s highest (i.e. not at nap time/snack time/after exertion/any time their mood is generally off kilter), for a lot of young kids the window of reasonability is small though, so to be perfectly honest your best bet may be a set of ear plugs (and some to pass round to other shoppers).

Have you found an effective way of avoiding these experiences of high conflict? Do you think they’re just an unavoidable aspect of parenthood? Have you been through this and reached the other side? What’s it like over there? Is there anything you would have done differently, looking back? As always, answers and comments are welcome below and I’m always up for a blether about toys, life and people over on twitter. Thanks for reading and I look forward to hearing your views, all the best, John

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

To Play is Human (My 100th Post!)

wpid-imag0460_1.jpgNo one likes to be pigeon-holed but it’s an undeniable fact of life. There is no escaping the differences to be found in human beings, these differences can differentiate individuals in a variety of ways relative to the culture in which they belong. If you are a different gender (including any variety covered by ‘queer studies‘) or a different race from those who hold power in your culture, this could mark you out as ‘different’ regardless of population density. You can also be marked out as ‘different’ on an individual level based on these kinds of characteristics.

buzz and jessie toys by bullyland from Fun Junction Toy Shop Crieff PerthshireSometimes we embrace these ‘differences’, especially when we find others who share this feature in common and, more importantly, share our perspective on what it means to have this feature. Often, when this happens we don’t feel so different any more. These features are what philosopher Ian Hacking calls ‘human kinds’ and according to Hacking it is by being responsive to these kinds, by rejecting some and embracing others, and by providing input into how these ‘kinds’ are defined, that we develop and augment the original cultural understanding of said ‘kind’.

The way in which a culture understands a ‘kind’, for the most part, can be changed by the actions and attitudes of those who identify (or are identified) as belonging to a kind. That said there is one human kind that seems to be recognised in almost every culture on earth. Individuals belonging to it are treated in very different ways to those who don’t belong and there is no escaping it, you have no choice about whether you belong to it and you have no choice about when society deems you unfit to be associated with that kind any longer.

That kind is ‘child’ and there is so much that we adults do and say which defines the kind (and often a little too little that we take from children themselves that contributes to it): things can be ‘childish’ or ‘infantile’, but they can also be ‘naive’ or ‘innocent’. If there is anything truly universal about human culture it might just be the belief in the existence of ‘children’. Of course there is a great variance in the way different cultures think children should be treated but there is little doubt that cultures accept that we have a very distinct sub-group of human beings living among us.

wpid-imag0003.jpgThere may even be some simple correlations in the way a ‘child’ is defined by different cultures. Primary among these will obviously be age, but another important and undeniable feature of ‘childhood’ is the way that children learn: they learn by seeing, then by replicating behaviours and actions and further to this they learn by experimenting with these behaviours and the ideas they’ve picked up. It might not be the case that every culture has a set name for this but in English-speaking cultures we call these behaviours ‘play’.

One of the trickiest things for any philosopher who looks at the nature of human existence is the difficulty of providing generalities, absolutes, and/or ‘universalisable’ ideas. In the face of sometimes overwhelming anthropological evidence it has become clear that for many ‘intuitive’ ideas about ‘human nature’ there is often a counterexample where some culture out there in the world, enjoys an existence which is contrary to what ‘common sense’ would expect. There are cultures without numbers, cultures in which criminals are ignored as if ‘dead’, and countless cultures with a far less solid marking between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ than we are familiar with.

Click here to see loads of animals playing football

In response to this, if there is anything that we might have a chance of seeing as universal I doubt it will be a grasp of basic numbers or even some kind of over-ruling ethical principle.  I would be willing to take a fairly large wager that one of the most universal traits that define human existence is the fact that we have all, at some point in our lives, played. As a species we share play (in fact some other species can also be said to play in the way we do), in my opinion play is as close to a universal human behaviour as you could get. I’d also be inclined to say that most adults still play without even noticing it.

Play and childhood are features I’d bet you can find in any human culture (and in many other animals too), is it any wonder that a philosopher with an interest in the meaning of human existence would find so much to talk about in the world of toys?

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.

Parenting without toys

cake mould on his headThis might seem a strange one a for a ‘toy shop guy’ to talk about but bear with me. I recently came across this Daily Mail article, about a school of parenting called Resources for Infant Educarers (or RIE), the reporter (Margot Peppers) describes this as the ‘latest trend’ in parenting, despite the fact that it’s been around since the 70s. RIE encourages parents to dispense with ‘helicopter parenting’ and stand back to allow their children to develop in their own way. Peppers describes RIE as advocating “…treating babies and children like adults”, she also describes ‘orthodox’ RIE practitioners who ‘ban’ things such as as “…baby bouncers, sippy cups and high chairs… rattles, pacifiers, baby talk and toys” (my emphasis).

I think the content on the Daily Mail article has been a bit sensationalised (pulling sombre/sad pictures up of kids brought up in a RIE environment) so no surprise there. However, even if there’s an element of truth I’m confused as to what kind of treatment RIE are advocating. What degree of autonomy is expected, how can you treat someone ‘like an adult’ when their brain is literally undeveloped? At what age do you introduce certain mundane activities, and, when you do so, do you leave them to figure out how to wash dishes/bathe/prepare food, etc. on their own?

Some of the RIE approach sounds sensible, modern kids are often cocooned from the world outside so perhaps making a child more aware of reality, and they way they fit into that, isn’t a bad thing but surely a line must be drawn in regards to what a child can understand about the world.

turkey dinosaurs in meteor showerLogan (my son) has a growing understanding of death and this is starting to tie in with his love of animals. This can really hit home when it comes to meat. He obviously has lots of questions about meat and where it comes from, he’s 5 (will soon be 6), and though I’d be reluctant, I’d be happy to produce a vegetarian diet for him if he asked. The thing is though, he is currently capable of a form of irrationality only possible for children: his world-view is in a very early stage. As a result conflicts between a love of animals and a love of bolagnese don’t get flagged as a problem. Typically I make bolagnese with beef (which Logan loves), though I do make a veggie version with courgettes and mushrooms, which he’ll eat sometimes, but he’s not a big fan.

This is often/typically not the way adults think, we assume less from the world (we’re more cynical), we accept less contradiction (though we’re still not perfect) and we are more able to enforce willpower over ourselves (especially in regards to principles and ideals we hold dear). As I said, Logan has been offered veggie alternatives and though he will eat them, and despite his love of animals, this conflict doesn’t cause him the same kind of discomfort which it might in an adult. Logan won’t compromise taste for something higher. I have my own reasoning behind being a meat-eater, which I won’t be spelling out here, but suffice to say as a parent I won’t force my child to solidify his beliefs at such an early stage. It takes a childhood, and quite a bit more, to even develop the most basic world-view and supporting set of principles. I just don’t see the sense in asking a child to be a ‘mini-adult’ prior to their developing this awareness, I’m not even sure if the word ‘adult’ is applicable here.

rie.logo.color.tagThis said I’ll confess that so far I’ve made a straw man of RIE. They don’t, in fact, discourage play and they even display a host of toys on their web site, the difference is the type of engagement they intend for children: “The rule is: passive play object/active child” (quoting a ‘Yahoo voices’ interview with Deborah Carlisle Solomon, author of ‘Baby Knows Best’). So the key difference (when it comes to toys) is that they try to keep the play object simple in order to encourage more imaginative engagement. It’s hard to fault this kind of thinking, though I would point out that what I would call ‘out-of-this-world’ imaginative play takes a bit of help (both from more active parental involvement and more dynamic play objects). As I’ve pointed out before sometimes playing with your kids can expose them to ideas about the world, and about people, that they would be unlikely to come up with/encounter on their own. I’m not sure what RIE practitioners would think of my take on the (occasional) need for a toy that takes a child outside the mundane, if only to expose them to new ideas/concepts. I’d be interested to get some responses (pop a comment below).

As to the ‘mini-adult’ take, (note I can’t find the term ‘mini adult’ anywhere on the RIE web site) I think there a few different ways that this can be interpreted. On one hand it could be about equal respect/personhood; something like the need to recognise your child as an individual person with their own capacities, likes/dislikes and dispositions. I can easily get on board with this, it makes for a healthy relationship when your kids feel that you can take them (and their opinions) seriously (even if you disagree with them, the disagreement itself can be taken as acknowledgement, so long as it’s not simply outright dismissal). To be honest I’m inclined to think that this is what RIE advocates.

The other possibility (hinted at on the Daily Mail article) is that children just are mini-adults; this position might hold that, although certain skills and capacities are in a fledgling state in childhood, children should nonetheless be seen as autonomous individuals making their way through the world who should be free to make their own mistakes. However, the whole point of childhood is to learn from those around you and a big part of that is learning from their mistakes so that you don’t have to, it’s a stage of development which is either minimised or none existent in other animals.

301220131670Regardless of which perspective we take, the importance placed on personal exploration and discovery in each of these understandings of childhood is clear and this is what I think jars with many people when looking at this kind of attitude towards children. The need to learn from others’ mistakes is built into human culture, in this regard we could be doing our children a disservice by not exposing them to our mistakes (i.e. taking them away from their own explorations to point out our discoveries). Perhaps it sounds like a lazy way to get to know about the world but it’s also streamlined, and often a lot more efficient, than trying to do it yourself: e.g. when you’re first learning to cook you could just improvise, taking a great deal of time to see which flavours combine well, alternatively you could simply consult recipe books and, once you have an understanding of the basics, you could begin to add your own flair.

There’s a good argument for the kind of self-sufficient perspective on the world advocated by this kind of perspective on ‘mini adults’ (after all the flavour-tinkering budding chef could end up revolutionising the way food is prepared) but I’d rather teach my sons about my mistakes so that they at least have the option to learn from them, to do otherwise seems somewhat unfair; like I’m holding back important information that they could use.

So lets take this talk back to play and toys (though we’ll get there in a round-about way). The world is changing at a ridiculous rate, as I pointed out a while ago machines and technology and the free exchange of information are demanding new skill-sets of the coming generations: e.g. keeping your identity safe, how to present yourself online and how to deal with the fact that a lot of your life will be public record. Getting in early on to provide your child with a good grasp of the basic life skills and concepts that lie out-with this strange new world can allow them to pay closer attention to this new skill-set. Certain types of toy will familiarise your child with the technology which will play such a prevalent role in their adult life and with the kind of attitudes that they may need to adopt in this new environment.

301220131674Two types of toy will help here, neither of which are particularly ‘simple’ in nature. The first (and most obvious) will be technology toys; getting accustomed to buttons and user interfaces at a young age is (sadly) a necessity now. However, it needn’t take over a child’s life and this is where the second kind of toy stands out: pretend play. By ‘pretend play’ I refer to the kind of toys which let a child explore who they are and who they want to be, these kinds of toy are very broad ranging, including (and definitely not limited to) dolls (for both boys and girls), dress-up, action figures, play sets like Lego and Playmobil, tractors, the list goes on and on. More so than ever before in history your child is going to be bombarded with the world-views, opinions and lifestyles of other people, and in order to be able to deal with these, without losing themselves in the process, they need to have a grasp of the kind of individuals they want to be.

I can hear RIE proponents crying out that this is what a RIE approach promotes; individual, self-aware, autonomous children. As I said previously, if this is their position I can see the uses of the RIE approach. However, despite the clear enjoyment that my children have when playing with wooden spoons, pots and pans, buckets etc. these will only take them so far in their play. Pot and pan play won’t allow me to play out the ethical questions of wrongful imprisonment that we can get whilst playing with a police station (and no it’s just as not as easy or informative to approach these issues in conversation with your child), nor will pots and pans allow us to explore the notion of insecurity/shyness that we could do with a doll/toy figures. The list of ways in which pretend play toys can provide venues for a parent to introduce fairly complex concepts and ideas is almost endless. Though I can see their reasoning, I (biased as I am) wouldn’t advocate giving up on toys. As my blog has always tried to show, there is a great deal that toys can teach us.

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