Tag Archives: toys

Toyland Tribulations

31 Oct






Like high fashion, the American toy industry is dominated by trends and exclusivity. There’s nothing more satisfying than getting your kid the hot new toy that your neighbor can’t seem to find.

In fact, there was even a rather mediocre Christmas movie — 1996’s “Jingle All the Way,” which implausibly pits Arnold Schwarzenegger against Sinbad in a rather violent pursuit for the year’s most popular action figure.

Over the past 30 years, I personally have traveled far and wide in hot pursuit of Strawberry Shortcake dolls, Gameboys, Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Millennium Falcons and Zhu Zhu Hamsters.

Years ago, I remember submitting an application to Toys R’ Us for the privilege of buying a Cabbage Patch Doll. Like kidnappers, they called me a couple of days later and told me to be at the store at 10 a.m. sharp if I wanted to buy the doll. When I got there, they took a small group of us chosen ones to a darkened back room, where they had a pallet full of new Cabbage Patch dolls completely covered by a black sheet of canvas. When it was my turn, I grabbed a doll and was escorted to a cashier. I didn’t even know how much it was going to cost, but things had progressed way too far to ask questions. I felt like I was buying a couple kilos of heroin.

Trends in toys constantly repeat themselves. With our three boys and now a grandson, it seems like we have gone through at least three generations of Star Wars, as well as several of Transformers, and now Teen Age Mutant Ninja Turtle toys. And just when it seems like it’s over, the Lego version appears and it starts all over again.

We made the mistake of giving away our daughter’s extensive collection of Strawberry Shortcake dolls and paraphernalia to a family that had three girls. How did we know our daughter would end up having three girls of her own and never forgive us? We still have a couple generations of Star War toys stashed in plastic bins in our basement. I’m too lazy to dig through them for the grandkids. Besides, they belong to our sons and are my backup plan in case the government ever privatizes Social Security.

The United States Toy Industry Association reports that Americans purchase more than 3 billion toys annually. With the average cost of about $7 per toy, that quickly adds up to more than $21.2 billion in direct toy sales.

According to CNBC’s Christina Berk, however, there is trouble brewing in Toyland this holiday season. Toy sales have been declining over the past decade and the trend is accelerating, according to a Goldman Sachs report Monday. As a result, Goldman downgraded the toy industry’s rating from “neutral” to “cautious.”

According to financial analyst Michael Kelter, the “amount spent on traditional toys in the U.S. per capita is down 30 percent from $85 per person to $60 per person since 1998.”

Part of the reason may be the tremendous growth in digital games played on tablets and smartphones, which are edging out traditional board games and puzzles. When videogame consoles are included, the market share of digital games has increased from 1 percent to 20 percent in the past decade.

Declines are also expected this year in the sales of Hasbro’s flagship boy toys — Transformers and Nerf weapons. Mattel, which relies heavily on perennial girls’ favorites, such as Barbie, also has been hurt by flat sales in recent years, as well as a huge decline in the preschool toy market.

Perhaps it’s the overall economy that’s to blame, or maybe it is kid’s attraction to online games and activities. Advances in electronics have certainly made toys awfully flashy and sophisticated. Some people may think that modern toys have become too complicated and explicit to encourage creative play and they lean toward classic toys that require more imagination.

As a child, I owned a red plastic console that was advertised to track missiles and satellites in space. It had a tiny opaque screen that only showed vague shadows of small plastic cutouts of spacecraft as you turned a crank. I must have spent hours staring at that opaque screen in anticipation of my current job, at which I still spend hours staring at a screen. I would have given anything if that screen would have shown a little detail, color or miracles of miracles, actually said something.

Perhaps modern toys are not imaginative enough to stimulate much creative play. In this regard, I always think of Patricia Lee Gauch’s classic children’s book, “Christina Katerina and the Box,” in which, to her mother’s horror, a young girl comes up with a number of imaginative uses for a large appliance box on their front lawn. I was thinking about this recently as I watched our grandchildren play with sticks in our backyard, which consists primarily of sticks and tics.

Watching them jogged my memory and I remembered one of my early favorite toys — the stake. Although I had a homemade swingset that my father had constructed from pipes, my favorite outdoor toy was a three-foot long, sharpened, solid-steel stake. I think it may have once been part of a of horseshoe game or perhaps belonged to a surveyor.

While a metal stake may seem like a dangerous and inappropriate plaything, the story gets worse. I remember two games we made up using the stake. The first was “Oilwell.” My friends and I hammered the stake into the ground and then attached a rope to it. We threw the rope over a tree branch and then pulled the stake out of the ground. Then we poured water into the hole left by the stake and lowered the stake again back into the hole drilling for oil until the oil (mud) finally came gushing out of the well. We added a bunch of toy trucks, cars and plastic soldiers to the scene to complete the tableau. So basically we played for hours in a large mud hole with a large sharp metal stake suspended over our heads.
Our second game wasn’t much better. Our house had once been a boarding house, so it was configured rather oddly. For example, we had two front doors. My bedroom had its own door to the outside and it lead to a porch with a railing. The steps had been removed so it was sort of like a little balcony.

I always imagined it was the deck of a ship and our backyard was the ocean. We used the porch as our pirate ship until one day Bobby suggested that we turn it into a whaler. Of course, to do this we needed a serviceable harpoon. We took the metal stake with a rope tied to it and fastened the other end of the rope to a column supporting the porch’s roof. We then took turns hurling the stake into the yard at old basketballs and pieces of newspaper (whales).

How we managed to avoid impaling some small child or skewering one of the neighborhood dogs or cats is still a mystery to me. We did managed to loosen the column supporting the porch roof and a few years later when it finally collapsed, my father removed the porch, filled in my door, and put in a window instead.

I will leave the precise interpretation of our “games” to the Freudians out there, but in retrospect perhaps children are better off with less “creative” toys after all. When I was 11, I misplaced the steel stake and started my career making toy soldiers out of molten lead, but that’s another story. And don’t get me started on my chemistry set, its alcohol lamp  and “The Great Bedroom Fire of 1961.”
Originally published in the Southern Indiana News-Tribune




A Wonder Gift Life: The Best Thing I ever Got

13 Dec

Most of us can easily remember the best Christmas present we ever received, but why does this memory stand out? In his classic work, “The American Christmas: A Study in National Culture,” James Barnett, from the University of Connecticut, said that Christmas gifts symbolize not only seasonal generosity, but also the inner life of the family group.

According to Barnett, an essential feature of the American Christmas is the belief that children have a “natural right” to a happy Christmas. Many parents try to recreate their childhood pleasure, while others are determined to provide the kind of Christmas they were denied.

According to University of California sociologist Allison J. Pugh, parents try to evoke the “magic of childhood” by means of “the wonder gift.” A wonder gift evokes sheer delight mixed with awe. It is not only something children like and want usually; they don’t really expect to get it. Most wonder gifts have some social disapproval that makes them even more desirable. Parents may try to convince children that they would never buy the coveted object. The gift may be thought to be too expensive, dangerous or age-inappropriate. This is a situation where the parent knows better but gets the wonder gift anyway. When she was very little, our daughter, Sally, told us that she knew there had to be a Santa Claus because no parent would ever “buy all that junk.”

Our social group sets the basic standard for gift-giving. Widespread emulation explains toy fads such as Beanie Babies, Cabbage Patch Dolls and Tickle Me Elmos.

The wonder gift, however, demonstrates that the parents can recognize the child’s individuality. There is parental narcissism in not being able to resist being the miracle worker, but knowing exactly what the child wants can be important to their psychological health. Since we define ourselves in relationship to others, when we are given accurate feedback, it validates our sense of self. When someone else “gets you,” it is tangle proof that you are acceptable. Of course, there must be limits on what wishes are fulfilled, but children have a better grasp on this than we might think.

Once when my father was drinking, he bought me a very expensive go-cart at Sears. I must have been around 9 years old at the time, but even at that age, I knew that the gift was inappropriate. We certainly couldn’t afford it and there wasn’t even a place where I could legally drive it. When my mother stopped the delivery, I was more relieved than disappointed. Although, I wonder if this experience had anything to do with the expensive go-cart I bought for our children 20 years later.

For children, Christmas often takes on a special vibrancy that is lost in adulthood. This is probably related to the magical character of children’s thinking in the pre-operational stage of cognitive development, which is from ages 2 to 7 years. Children gradually sacrifice this wellspring of imagination for the sake of logical thought. But even in later childhood, they still can recall the magic — until maturity and hormones wash it away and Christmas no longer seems like Christmas. The wonder gift is a way to try to recapture those feelings.

In Jean Shepherd’s “The Christmas Story,” little Ralphie’s consuming passion is a Red Ryder air rifle — a perfect wonder gift. Although I grew up 25 years later, I completely identify with this obsession. In my case, as Freud wrote, the “exciting cause” of my illness was the Mattel snub nose .38 “Shootin Shell” revolver, complete with Greenie Stickum caps and shoulder holster. Possession of this holy grail of boyhood was my one chance to hold my own with my perennial rivals.

Deep down, I knew I could never truly compete with all my friends who had innumerable uncles who perpetually scoured the planet to find the most amazing and attractive toys to bring before them . But the possession of a snub nose .38 revolver was a redemption of sorts. Like Ralphie’s air rifle, I believed this sacred object would grant me all the things children feel deficient in — power, confidence and status.

Also like Shepard’s protagonist, I was not very subtle in dropping hints. With Saturday morning television commercials whipping me in to a frenzy, I made a Christmas list with only one item on it. I knew I would get other things, but I didn’t want to leave any doubt what the priority was.

On Christmas morning, the whole Jean Shepherd story played itself out. Just like Ralphie, I ripped open every package, but no snub nosed .38 materialized. I received some very nice stuff, but I was in a daze of disappointment. All I can remember is sitting under our Christmas tree in a pile of wrapping paper, staring at yellow bubble lights and feeling devastated. I was on the verge of tears, when with a flourish, my father produced one last present like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. The old man sure did know how to build the suspense. As I opened it, I could hardly believe my eyes and my good fortune.

Jane Austin has one of her characters say that he disliked surprises because they only increase the inconvenience considerably and do nothing to enhance the pleasure.

I may agree, but that Christmas all I could I feel was the wonder and the ecstasy. I strapped on the hard black plastic shoulder holster and insisted on wearing my Sunday suit that had an Eliot Ness-style vest — to capture the complete G-Man motif. My visiting relatives even complimented me on how nice I looked that Christmas Day. Little did they know I was packing deadly heat just beneath that Robert Hall jacket.

Guys and Dolls: Chicago Style

4 Dec

 Doing our duty as over-indulgent grandparents, my wife Diane and I   took our grandchildren to the American Girl Doll Place Cafe in downtown Chicago this summer.  This Mecca for girls  is more like a Vegas casino than a toy store.  The lights are bright and there are no windows or clocks on the walls. They want to encourage you to lose track of time. All that were missing were the free cocktails.

With three sisters, our  four year-old grandson, readily  accepts that nearly everything in his environment is pink.  However, we weren’t too sure how he would like spending so much time in a doll store. He’s a pretty tough little guy who spends much of his time playing aggressively with Spiderman and  Batman toys  or fist fighting with his older sister. To secure his interest before the trip, we offered to get him one of the boy American Girl dolls. This boy doll is part of a  set of  twins. He looked at one on-line and said he wanted it and that it looked just like him, which it sort of does. When the dolls arrived in the mail, he had no interest in the female  twin, which went to one of his sisters, but he readily claimed the boy doll,  naming  him Mack (a nice macho name that please his father).

 When we were seated at the American Girl Café there were fuchsia-colored  bows used as napkin rings. The girls wore them on their wrists or made ponytails, while Oliver ended up wearing his as a bowtie. I donated   mine to one of the girl’s dolls.   The waitress also seated the kid’s dolls alongside them in special little seats that attached to the table.    Then she  set a tiny red plate and white mug in front of each doll. The doll seats, plates, and mugs were all conveniently on sale as you departed the store. We had a consultation at the doll hospital on the way out, but avoided the expensive doll hair salon.

  Gender differences in toys have long been observed.  A study  by Purdue University  psychologists  Judith Blakemore  and Renee Centers  in 2005  had college students rate contemporary toys  as masculine or feminine. Wrestling figures , GI Joes,   and Spiderman action figures were all rated among the  strongly masculine toys;  while Barbie’s, Bratz, and American Girl dolls were categorized as  strongly feminine. As you might expect girl’s toys were associated with physical attractiveness, nurturance, and domestic skills, while  boy’s toys elicited  violence, competition, excitement, and danger. It seems like it is these associations that really  distinguish between a “doll” and an “action figure”.

Such gender differences are not limited to humans.  A 2010 study found that young chimpanzees in the wild play in gender-specific ways, much like  humans. Although both male and female chimps play with sticks, girl chimps carry sticks around   like dolls, imitating their mothers caring for infants, according to Richard Wrangham of Harvard University. Male chimps  do less stick carrying and are more likely to use their sticks as probes or weapons. 

            In 1967  Hasbro introduced the 21-inch  “That Kid!”  doll for boys, promoting it as  “your own kid brother”.   He was described as a  “freckle faced rascal!” . Complete with a sling shot, That Kid said smart-alecky  things when you moved him.  The “My Buddy” doll,  made by Hasbro in 1985   had the stated  intention of making a doll that could teach little boys about caring.   It’s not clear whether either of these dolls ever caught on, despite the heavy television advertising.  Ironically both of them are thought by some to be the  inspiration for  “Chucky”, the creepy evil doll from the movie  Child’s Play.    

               Our daughter and son-in-law  didn’t have a  problem  with us buying an American Girl boy  doll for  their son, but some parents and experts are  strongly  opposed to such things. Back in the 1980’s   Mattell  introduce, She-Ra: Princess of Power, as the long lost twin sister of  the popular  He-Man  character. Our kids had all of these action figures, but the story   circulated throughout the kindergarten  that one father took all of his son’s She-ra figures and destroyed them, because he was worried that they were too feminine.

               I don’t  remember ever having a doll when I was a child, but Diane said that her brother Gary had one–  a boy doll that he carried around and called little Gary.

            On his website advice section, television  psychologist  Dr. Phil McGraw  told a mother of a five-year-old boy that she should not let her son  play with “girls’ toys”. The mother had asked for advice about her son, who liked  Barbie dolls and dressing up in  girls’ clothes.  McGraw told her that it was not uncommon  for little boys to be interested in girls’ toys and clothes and  that such play  was “not a precursor”  to being gay.  But he did advise her to direct him in an unconfusing way. McGraw said  “Don’t buy him Barbie dolls or girls’ clothes. You don’t want to … support the confusion… Take the girl things away, and buy him boy toys.”

McGraw’s advice opened  up a can of worms. Some parents and experts weighed in  arguing that allowing cross gender play could only encourage gender confusion. The other side, however,   saw such play  as an opportunity to teach boys fathering  skills that’s perhaps becoming important, as more  men take an active role in caring for  children.

Of course, there’s also the question as whether to prohibit  girls from  playing  with  tools or cars, because it   might   confuse their budding gender identity.  Some experts suggest that  allowing freedom in play, allows children to learn  about  both male and females roles and that this can help  them  have insight in  relationships with the opposite sex.

Most authorities, however, do agree that play or specific  toys do  not determine future   sexual preference, which seems to be outside the realm of the parental influence in any case.

Purdue  psychologists Blakemore and Centers  conclude that strongly gender-typed toys were less supportive of optimal physical, social, and mental development than neutral or moderately gender-typed toys.

As for Mack, I think his days  are probably numbered. Our grandson doesn’t seem all that attached to him and is quite willing to sling him at any sister who crosses him.

Based on a column appearing in the Southern Indiana News Tribune