This post is basically just a chance for me to talk about Barbie’s toilet and here it is. Who would have thought that Barbie had a toilet? For that matter, who would have thought that she had enough internal organs to need a toilet? (Sorry that last bit was a bit nasty, but seriously no woman has a waist that small without something weird going on)
We’ve all heard parents say things like ‘that’s not a good toy for you, that’s for…’. In fact, if we’re completely honest with ourselves, we’ve all probably said it ourselves at some point. We tell our children that a toy isn’t appropriate for them for one reason or another. Sometimes (perhaps most of the time) the reasons for this are completely legitimate, as the toy may be too advanced or pose a danger to your child. However, there are times when some parents just don’t have a reason, or at best we have a reason which is likely to wither in the face of cross examination.
I work in a toy shop, I have done on-and-off for more than half of my life. I hear what parents really say to their children and to be honest the media (/social media) can be kind of harsh on parents who are choosing toys. Despite the occasional shocker like ‘girls don’t build stuff’ or ‘boys that play with dolls turn into p*@fs’ (yes I have heard this, thankfully the boy in question wasn’t actually within earshot) the overall response of parents to their children is fairly open minded. The problem only really hits its zenith when people are buying for other children. When party time comes along parents of the children invited often get a check-list of ‘favourites’; things that will avoid disappointment and assure the buyer that they’ve not wasted their money.
‘She likes horses and fairies’, ‘He likes Lego’, ‘He’s a really active boy’, ‘she likes drawing’
I hear these descriptions (and many similar wish lists) so often that I’ve got a set list of go-to products to fit. It makes the whole thing easy, seamless, unchallenging and, most importantly for all involved on busy Saturdays (where multiple siblings might all be attending different parties on the same morning/afternoon) such lists save time.
Sidebar: There’s a lot of emphasis placed on gender targeting in this kind of situation but less people seem concerned about our growing need to force children from stage to stage whilst exclaiming ‘they sure grow up fast don’t they!’. I personally think it’s just as dangerous as the growing gender segregation of toys (I’ve discussed this before here and here) but I won’t get into that too much just now. Sidebar over.
Anyway, here’s the issue that’s really amping up the gender/age divide in toys: combine the need for speed in the choosing of a birthday present with the gender/age specific advertising that kids are bombarded with and you start to see why toy companies have been favouring the targeting of specific groups with a particular line of toys. If a box is clearly, unambiguously, proclaiming that it’s ‘perfect for an 8 year old girl’, then you can bet your butt that thousands of 8 year old girls across the country will be getting at least one for their birthday.
With this in mind of course when Christmas comes around many of these children will pick the big, expensive, heavily advertised toys from the same range to add it to their Christmas list. But the reason for this isn’t just exposure to Christmas advertising, or even in-store displays; they’ve been playing with a cheaper element/elements from the same range since their birthday. It’s part of their life, they’re emotionally invested in the toy and they want to add to the world they’ve been playing in for months.
You will not deny a child this, they won’t allow it and if you force the issue you’re the bad guy, you’re the parent who breaks their dreams and dismantles a world of play that feels comfortable and familiar. Step by step, year by year this relationship between child and brand will grow stronger, until eventually advertising won’t matter, they won’t need to hear about the next thing out, all they’ll know is that they want it. And all this because of a toy/toys they got for their birthday.
I constantly try to explain this problem when discussing gender and toys: it’s not as simple as stopping advertisers/toy companies/toy stores from segregating sections (though this plays it’s part). It’s got a lot more to do with an emerging culture of ‘all the class’ birthday parties where all 30 or so children in a class are expected to attend, and bring a gift, whether they’re the birthday girl’s/boy’s best friend or someone who barely talks to them. With unfamiliarity comes generalisation. If you don’t know a child you have to guess what present they’d like based on the tiny amount of information you have. Sometimes (a lot of the time) that’s just an age and their gender. Of course we’ll see people hurry to buy generalised toys aimed at ‘eight year old girls in general’, they have no other option.
I try to show people alternatives and to be honest most are chomping at the bit to find something different (they don’t want the child getting 30 of exactly the same toy). However, the problem remains that we’re both entirely, unalterably, in the dark about the actual personality of the child they’re buying for. All we have to work with is a vague list of interests (if we’re lucky) combined with their age and gender. I apologise to anyone from Let Toys Be Toys who reads this but so long as people are in the dark about who they’re buying for I’ll go for the numbers and help them pick the toy that the average child of that age and gender would like.
This is the real problem driving companies to appeal to a specific age/gender and possibly the only solution will be to get to know a lot more about the children in your child’s class. The only way we’re going to open up diversity in play is by knowing children as individuals and for a large portion of the toy buying population this currently is often just not an option.
Keep in mind that on average a parent will probably be taking their child to parties for around half of the Saturdays in the year. If they have more children then they’ve got more parties to buy for. It’s a big expense, even though the individual purchases don’t look like much (maybe an average of £7-£10 per gift), consider what that mounts up to throughout the year. When you add in the expense of travel and any other peripherals (costumes etc.) it’s easy to see why parents are trying their hardest to avoid wasting money. No one wants to imagine that the gift they bought has been sent un-played-with to a charity shop, so they play the odds, pick something that’s statistically likely to go down well, and keep their fingers crossed.
So what’s the solution? I have none, I’m sorry but I don’t. We could tone down the number of guests at our children’s parties to include just their friends but when you do that you’re basically asking your child to choose which kids they like and which they don’t/are indifferent to. It’s a difficult thing to do, and a lot of parents would rather avoid the politics and favouritism and just invite the whole class. So Let Toys Be Toys (and the many other groups rightfully campaigning to end the ridiculous segregation of toys by gender) remember: many/most of the people buying toys are just (through no fault of their own) shooting in the dark and despite all the re-named sections and re-packaged toys, these people will still come up to the sales assistant and ask ‘Do you have something that would suit an eight year old girl?’
This is where the next battle will have to be fought and it will be a lot harder going for us all.
Does anyone have any suggestions on what could be done to ease this situation? Do you think I’ve painted too bleak a picture here? As always I welcome any comments/questions/tirades/meanderings, thank you for reading and don’t forget to follow me on twitter to catch up with toy related news/discussions, all the best, Cheers, John
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