Rustic Provincialism—You Know, for Kids!

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As Mattel recalls millions of Chinese-made toys, The New York Times wishes to remind you that childhood is dead

Could it really be that something as abstract and elemental as fun — child's play! — has been so commodified and consumerized that a handful of cutthroat manufacturers in China could cast serious doubt on whether our children will have any?

Parents are in distress, but there may be an answer that is better than despair and less expensive than a wholesale conversion to an American-made inventory. It requires a leap of faith, a basic trust in our children's rubbery and hungry minds. Might it not be possible, for a young child, anyway, to fend off her inevitable molding into a loyal consumerist, and to delay the acquisition of acute brand-recognition skills?

Forgive me (my brain has been irreversibly warped by My Little Ponies and a Cabbage Patch doll my mother had to kill someone for in 1983), but what is the alternative here? If you assume that children are just passive receptacles for Disney to stuff with consumer marching orders, you can surely assume that children are equally passive in the presence of family and peer groups. The alternative to letting children engage with the vocabulary, banalities, and prejudices of a multifaceted, shared consumer culture is… exposing them exclusively to the vocabulary, banalities, and prejudices of their parents. 

If, on the other hand, you believe small humans capable of identity formation and individuation, why not show some modicum of respect for their autonomy? 

Elsewhere in reason: Grant McCracken on multiplying cultural identities and Jim Twitchell on consumerism.

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  1. Kerry seems to be missing the point of the article she linked to: “Maybe she doesn’t need a talking dump trunk or Barbie with the Malibu beach house. Let her flail on a saucepan with a wooden spoon. Give her paper and crayons. Let her play to her own narrative, not Dora the Explorer’s or SpongeBob’s.” It then goes on to point out what any parent ought to know: that kids tend to have more fun with a huge cardboard box than any shiny high-tech toy that came in the box.

    In other words, kids don’t need all this plastic crap from China to have fun. As someone who just donated bag after bag of these toys to Goodwill, toys that my kids rarely played with, I’d say they have a point.

  2. What jh said.

    The “alternative here,” which is pretty clearly outlined in the article, is to give them basic toys like blocks and crayons and let them imagine their own games. Interesting that the blogger seems to assume that the only alternatives are to follow along with Disney’s narrative, or follow along with their parents’.

    It would appear that the NYT columnist gets the “autonomy of children’s imaginations” bit better than the blogger.

  3. why not show some modicum of respect for their autonomy?

    If you deny them autonomy as children, they’re less likely to want autonomy as adults.

  4. In other words, kids don’t need all this plastic crap from China to have fun. As someone who just donated bag after bag of these toys to Goodwill, toys that my kids rarely played with, I’d say they have a point.

    Not necessarily so. You can have my son’s Xbox when you pry it out of his cold, dead hands.

    It really depends on the kid. Magnetix? and Legos? are the big time hits in casa de JW. I have retro Stratego? and Risk? wooden boards games ready to whip out when my son is old enough to put up a decent fight against his old man. Crushing him now only discourages him.

    But yeah, my spawn have had a blast with many a cardboard box. And I make sure that they use only Crayola? brand crayons when drawing and coloring on the sides of the box.

  5. When is a sidewalk fully dressed? When it’s Waring Hudsucker!

  6. I say that we deny toys to kids and keep them all for ourselves! I can hardly believe that I STILL don’t have a Blu-Ray DVD player, not to mention the fact that I’m enduring a life of serious aural deprivation, condemned to listening to a budget five-speaker “surround sound” system, when I clearly need a seven-way, with two self-powered subwoofers.

    Kids today have far too many toys, but so do we adults, and, yes, the New York Times editorial writer is a pathetic weenie who should sit the corner with a lump of clay and his “imagination” for a month or two and see how he likes it.

  7. Jh & Joe:

    It’s been a while since I was a kid, but, I seem to remember that I created my own “narrative” as I played, having my Micronauts battle my Stretch Armstrong doll, only to have them join forces to face the menace of my giant Godzilla action toy (the one with the spring-loaded fist).
    What 5 year, 9 year old, 11 year old follows corporate spawned dogma when creating their “play world”?

  8. Whether it’s called The Flying Donut, Dancing Dingus, Belly-go-round, The Swingerina, Uncle Midriff, The Hipser, Daddy-O, The Shazzammeter, The Wacky Circumference, The Hoopsucker or The Hudswinger. It’s, you know, for kids.

    This little dude was so awesome!

  9. The alternative to letting children engage with the vocabulary, banalities, and prejudices of a multifaceted, shared consumer culture is… exposing them exclusively to the vocabulary, banalities, and prejudices of their parents.

    No way. Peer pressure rules.

    In Jr High, if you didn’t wear Chucks, you weren’t shit. Anything else were known as “maypops.” (I still don’t know what that means.)

    I specifically forbade the missus from buying my son’s new back pack for the upcoming school year. There is nothing worse than for a boy to go to school with a purely Mom-approved garment or accessory. That stuff scars for life.

    I just found the backpack with the most crap attached to and dangling from the outside of it. He was delighted.

  10. tk,

    I agree with you that kids make up their own narratives most of the time. That’s why it’s unnecessary for toys to come with pre-packaged narratives.

  11. How I would love to one day be able to let my kid run around the neighborhood until I called him in to dinner to find out what adventures he and his friends were up to that day. Alas, letting him out to do that would probably be seen as punishment as none of his future friends would be out there to do the same.

  12. My neighbor made me a wooden top. He took a block of apple wood, put it on the lathe, and I got to watch the top emerge magically amidst flying sawdust. Then he put a nail in it for the point. Simple, but wonderful fun. And great for defense too!

  13. Maybe she doesn’t need a talking dump trunk or Barbie with the Malibu beach house. Let her flail on a saucepan with a wooden spoon. Give her paper and crayons. Let her play to her own narrative, not Dora the Explorer’s or SpongeBob’s.

    My daughter lives for Spongebob and Fairly Odd Parents. Like most kids, she would watch tv for hours if we let her.

    I also can’t keep her out of my printing paper that she always steals for her prodigous art projects and self-made comic books. Scotch tape doesn’t last long in our house with all the signs she makes that she puts up.

    Someone ought to let the Times in on the secret that kids often do both play with brand name toys and, as the experts call it, engage in self-directed play.

    It probably wouldn’t hurt if the Times, you know, actually talked to some kids.

  14. It’s hard to fight trademarked character loyalty. Even controlling what I buy my kid, she still gets tons of Disney Princess crap for birthdays, xmas, xday, what have you.

    On the plus side, she pulled a chess set out of the closet and asked how to play. So I threw a copy of Chessmaster on her computer and let her go at it. By trial and error, she’s figured out how the pieces move.

    Next up for the family: the Nintendo Wii! If I can find one before xmas without paying $400 for it.

  15. A good way to teach kids chess is to start off with just a pawn war, or a pawn war with kings, and then add pieces as they got proficient.

  16. Whether it’s called The Flying Donut, Dancing Dingus, Belly-go-round, The Swingerina, Uncle Midriff, The Hipser, Daddy-O, The Shazzammeter, The Wacky Circumference, The Hoopsucker or The Hudswinger. It’s, you know, for kids.

    Finally there would be a thingamajig that would bring everyone together, even if it kept them apart spatially.

  17. This blog post illustrates nicely how Reason is not really libertarian, they’re pro-corporation. No libertarian should simply shrug off the power that marketers and advertisers have when it comes to turning the individual into a member of the collective.

  18. It probably wouldn’t hurt if the Times, you know, actually talked to some kids.

    You haven’t seen the kids in my neighborhood. Just making casual eye contact can cause a dull ache.

  19. In Jr High, if you didn’t wear Chucks, you weren’t shit. Anything else were known as “maypops.” (I still don’t know what that means.)

    I don’t know what either of those terms means. Did you go to JHS on a different planet?!

    I just found the backpack with the most crap attached to and dangling from the outside of it. He was delighted.

    I guess I was fortunate that my aesthetics as a kid corresponded roughly to that of the adults around me. I like–and still do–plain clothes that won’t look dated in 2 years, solid colors, minimal gee-gaws, and no walking-billboard type labels. My Mom was always buying me dorky stripes and weird patterns 🙂

  20. Being one of those kids who loved big cardboard boxes and sofa cushion forts and paper airplanes, this discussion reminds me of the coolest toy concept I’ve seen in a decade or more.

  21. Wow, that’s impressive. I probably knew that guy’s older brother at some point too (since the term was later applied to Air Jordans too).

  22. Joe,

    The “alternative here,” which is pretty clearly outlined in the article, is to give them basic toys like blocks and crayons and let them imagine their own games.

    I let my daughter build a tree house. It is a ghastly affair and violates all building codes and construction techniques. I’m certain that some kid is going to take a nose dive onto the rock studded hillside. But they all love it.

    BTW, Just to let you know……On Friday, a client gave me……

    THREE BOTTLES OF 2004 COLUMBIA CREST MERLOT

    Still got two left.

  23. I also can’t keep her out of my printing paper that she always steals for her prodigous art projects and self-made comic books. Scotch tape doesn’t last long in our house with all the signs she makes that she puts up.

    Are we sharing kids?

    Mine currently has her own hotel front desk fashioned from a small trunk. It has a guest register, fake potted flowers, and a bell. Rooms are $100.00 a night and the spa is the master bathroom, or so the sign taped to the door says.

  24. ….to fend off her inevitable molding into a loyal consumerist…..

    Sorry, neither Disney nor Ma is in charge of the serious molding, which is taking place in measured paces across the land in every K-12 indoctrination center.

    Ten grand per year per kid. Cheap at half the price.

  25. No libertarian should simply shrug off the power that marketers and advertisers have when it comes to turning the individual into a member of the collective.

    Sorry Dan T… I have worked for several marketers and advertisers before. The dirty secret of the advertising industry is that advertising isn’t all that effective.

    This blog post illustrates nicely how Reason is not really libertarian, they’re pro-corporation.

    Corporations could care less if imported toys from China are banned… so long as the ban is universal. Parents are going to spend a certain amount of their disposable income on toys… if they buy a bunch of plastic crap from china, or wooden and metal crap in the U.S. and Europe, the corporations are going to get the same amount of money.

    The battle is for marketshare, because parents aren’t going to start spending more money for toys. So long as every corporation is equally prohibited from importing cheap toys from china, the dynamics of the market haven’t changed.

    In fact, it may be in the interest of the big toy companies like Hasbro or Fisher Price, or whatever, to get cheap toys from China banned. I assume a good chunk of their competition comes from generic and knock off toys, who compete only on price.

  26. Being one of those kids who loved big cardboard boxes and sofa cushion forts and paper airplanes, this discussion reminds me of the coolest toy concept I’ve seen in a decade or more.

    Those box rivets are pretty cool. But I always thought they should market cardboard boxes with a white writing surface like paper, to make it easier to decorate with magic markers.

  27. joe | August 20, 2007, 1:53pm | #

    What jh said.

    * Head assplodes, realizing that joe and I agree on something. *

  28. THE URKOBOLD AGREES WITH JH AND JOE. LET THE CHILDREN’S IMAGINATION RUN FREE. THAT IS WHY THE URKOBOLD GIVES HIS SPAWN TABS OF LSD.

  29. My Stretch Armstrong lost his valiant battle with that most dastardly of foes, Baron Von Scissors.

    The horrific fluid that flowed out of his severed arm taught be a valuable lesson about horrible fluids.

  30. “taught me” not be.

    Sorry, my fingers have a head cold.

  31. Interesting point, Rex.

  32. a real super troll would just have it in a bucket.

    “what’s the problem timmy?”

    “awww mister urkobold, i’m all confused about life…”

    “just dunk your head in the bucket, timmy. then we’ll talk.”

  33. DHEX,

    AND PERHAPS THE URKOBOLD WOULD TAKE YOUR ADVICE IF HE WERE SO FOOLISH AS TO HAVE SCIONS NAMED “TIMMY.”

    NO, THE TABS WORK BETTER–BROWN IF THEY’RE BAD, GREEN IF THEY’RE GOOD.

  34. One tab makes you larger, and one tab makes you small.

  35. But the ones that mother gives you don’t do anything at all 🙁

  36. Wasn’t there an article some time back looking at the horrible things girls did with their Barbies?

    Using the heads to replay cannibalistic feasts was one activity mentioned…

  37. GO ASK ALICE. THE URKOBOLD THINKS SHE KNOWS.

  38. Joe, I can’t believe I didn’t get a rise out of you on the Columbia Crest Merlot. You ruint my day, man. 🙂

  39. … exposing them exclusively to the vocabulary, banalities, and prejudices of their parents.

    You say that like it’s a bad thing, Miss Howley.

  40. Chucks = Chuck Taylors

    Ah – hipster shoes. Wayyyy after my time.

  41. The NYT can kiss my Mego-playin’, trading-card-collectin’, Star-Wars-branded arse.

  42. Ah – hipster shoes. Wayyyy after my time.

    Yeah, now they’re hipster shoes. Way back when, we’re talking mid 70’s Welcome Back Kotter time period, they were hi-tech stuff.

    You learned very quickly where to buy them, unless you liked the wedgy.

  43. Way back when, we’re talking mid 70’s Welcome Back Kotter time period

    Ah… way before my time, then. Y’know, I just don’t recall any of that sort of thing in my HS anyway. It was the 80’s – people got away wearing just about anything.

  44. This blog post illustrates nicely how Reason is not really libertarian, they’re pro-corporation. No libertarian should simply shrug off the power that marketers and advertisers have when it comes to turning the individual into a member of the collective.

    Huh?

    I really don’t see that at all. I sense that that the posters here at “The Venerable Hit & Run” website are discussing the joys of childhood play, and thier amazing ability to be sometimes influenced by advertising and trends, sometimes not. I don’t think an intelligent person would assert that advertising has an effect on children’s toy desires. I also think that claiming markerters have an influence on children that is anywhere near that of a loving family is simplistic at best and approaches paranoia.

    Children do learn from advertising and it is not always what Madison Avenue desires. e.g. “That looked so cool and fun on TV, but it’s really a piece of doo doo.” It helps to prepare them for the real world. e.g. “Collectivism will eliminate poverty because the altruistic government knows what’s best.” A thinking adult calls that doo doo also.

  45. Neat toys must have a certain element of danger in order to be cool. Kids today are being deprived of great fun.

    Cool stuff could include, but is not limited to:

    Super Balls

    Lawn Darts

    Large ball bearings

    Beakers of mercury

    Broken glass

    Knives, pocket and other

    Guns, including pellet rifles or bb guns

    Anything that creates a big bang or explosion

    Estes model rockets

    Radio Shack 100 in 1 electronics sets

    Real chemistry sets with dangerous chemicals

    Home made go karts or scooters

    Magnifying glasses

    Feel free to add your own fun childhood toys to the list.

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