Toys and Our Media-Driven Culture

Who Is Choosing Your Children's Toys? You Or The Marketers?

by Karen Benz Scarvie.

150,000 toys to choose from! What are the odds of making a good choice? Perhaps not too high, unless we have some guidelines for selecting a toy from the staggering number available today, and unless we have an awareness of marketplace forces and are clear about our own values. If we are thus prepared we will not relinquish this parental responsibility to outside influences.

Aggressive marketing is a reality in the toy industry today. There is licensing and the television cartoon-toy connection with product-driven shows (30 minute commercials). Gone are the days when a child lingered over a few pages of toys in a catalog or peered in the window of a toy store. Today's children are bombarded with toys on TV, in discount stores, in grocery stores, through the mail, on cereal boxes, at fast food outlets, in drugstores and in toy stores. There are more toys than ever before, and they are more accessible. Their number and availability can be overwhelming.

So, what can we do to counteract these outside influences and regain some power over what our children play with? We first need to be able to identify good toys and have a clear understanding of why they are important.

Toys Can Enhance Or Diminish The Quality Of A Child's Life: Toys are for fun and learning. Children don't need a lot of playthings, but they do need many different kinds of play experiences. They need to use their bodies, senses and minds to learn about themselves and their world; and good toys serve as safe "tools," ready to assist them in this process. A few carefully chosen open-ended toys can be used and enjoyed through several different ages and stages of a child's life.

Too often, however, instead of selecting an open-ended toy with multiple uses, we go for multiple purchases of many closed-ended toys. When it comes to toys, the old adage that quality is better than quantity is especially appropriate. The truth is that too many toys, particularly too many of the wrong kinds of toys, can actually diminish, rather than enrich, a child's life. Surrounded by excess, children often jump from toy to toy, never exploring in depth the possibilities of any of them. Distracted by too many toys they fail to develop "staying power" - the qualities of patience, persistence, and long attention spans necessary for creativity and problem solving.

A few good open-ended toys encourage and enhance a child's growth and development. He isn't easily bored by them. They help him become an active participant rather than a passive recipient. They don't "do it all," but involve him and invite him to develop his physical and mental skills and expand his imagination. Playing with good toys helps the child gain a sense of competence, and, most importantly, they help him feel good about himself.

Thus, toys can enhance or diminish the quality of a child's life. They are not neutral. An important role that we play as parents is to make sure that the choices which we make on behalf of our children are positive and life-affirming. If we are going to make thoughtful and informed toy selections we need to have an understanding of how particular toys influence our children's lives, and we also need to be aware of why we buy the toys we do.

Why We Buy Toys For Our Children: Let's examine our role as consumers. The media, powerful marketing strategies, prices and our children's peers certainly influence our buying choices. But there are other factors as well. We may choose toys for our children to make them happy, to reward them, show them our love, keep them quiet and occupied, make them smarter or alleviate our guilt. Sometimes we buy a toy we would like to have had ourselves or because buying it makes us feel successful. If we really want to have some control over which and how many toys our children have it is important to be aware of the factors that influence our buying decisions. With an increased awareness of these influences on our buying decisions, we can immensely improve our ability to make choices which are truly beneficial to our children.

What Can We Do? As parents, we need to identify how we can respond to the forces of the marketplace and how we - and our children - can make good choices.

Clarify Our Own Values: We need to remind ourselves that each time we buy a toy we are communicating values and beliefs to the child who receives it. What kinds of persons do we hope to see our children become? Does the hero, the activity, the goal, the story line, or the theme embodied in the toy we are buying support the values and beliefs we want to instill in our children? Do we buy quality objects, including toys, that will have lasting appeal and durability? Or, do we support the "throw away" mentality of our culture? These are some of the questions we need to discuss and answer.

Communicate Our Values To Our Children: We communicate our values to our children through our actions, behavior and conversation. Are we good role models? Are we impulse buyers seeking instant gratification? Or do we save for - so we can savor - a desired object or activity? Do we surround our children with lots of junk rather than a few quality toys? Do we buy them toys that break and are readily discarded, rather than those that last and can be shared with others or passed down to younger children or even the next generation? The toys we give our children do reflect our values. Our choices are always powerful messages, verbalized or not.

Check Out Toy Sources: There are many ways to become more informed buyers. There are books, articles and catalogs. Schools, libraries and friends are resources. There may be specialty toy stores in your area which have a wealth of knowledge and experience regarding play and toys. Their staff, which may include parents and teachers, are often well-trained and sincerely committed to offering an alternative to the mass market/discount mentality.

Try Out - Examine Toys Before You Purchase: Stores which understand play and toys make time to answer your questions and let you "try-on" their products. They have "hands-on" displays, and you can examine boxes and their contents. Take time with your children to compare and discuss a product seen on TV with the actual product. In this way they can balance their inflated expectations with reality.

Communicate Your Preferences To Other Gift-Givers: Talk to grandparents, relatives and friends about values that are important to your family and how they influence the kinds of toys you want for your children. If it is appropriate, give them suggestions for specific toys that will enhance your child's play experiences.

Set Limits:Decide on the kinds of toys that are acceptable or unacceptable to you and your values. Set limits on quantity; yet, at appropriate ages, give your children the opportunity to choose between several acceptable purchases. Studies show that parents encourage "more" by having their children make lists. And then parents exacerbate the situation by purchasing more than the playthings that are listed. Monitor and set limits on TV viewing. The passivity it fosters and the consumerism it promotes are not healthy. Commercials often make a person feel "incomplete" if he does not buy the advertised product. The cumulative effect of commercials on children is not beneficial. It does not build the confidence and self-esteem we know is so crucial to healthy development. Instead it implies that possessions are more important than people, and that the worth of a person is determined by the number of material things he possesses.

Help your children recognize the hard-sell hype of so many of the commercials they view. Help them observe, analyze and evaluate the latest TV pitch.

Say "No" When Appropriate! It is okay to say "no." Children need direction and limits, and it is our parental responsibility to give guidance. Sometimes we are more concerned with social acceptance than with what is right. Are we strong enough not to succumb to peer pressure? Is the ostracism we fear our children will experience a reality - or just fear? If our children are solid and "whole," not having the latest fad will not make them outcasts. We really need to take a stand and risk being firm. Remember, "no" can be for various reasons. No more toys are needed. The price is too high. The quality is poor. The toy is not compatible with the family's value system.

Get Involved With Your Children: Children love parental involvement in their play. Try things out with them. Help them find new ways to use an old toy or alter the usual play patterns. Children are active and eager learners. We need to encourage and respond to their wonderful curiosity and spend time with them, instead of buying them off with another toy they don't need. We can challenge them to explore and problem solve. With our support, they can pursue and expand on their interests and experience their own creativity.

The influences of the media, power marketing and peer pressure won't disappear, but by taking an active, informed role in the toy selection process parents can diminish such influences. In the process they foster healthy development in their children and strengthen the vital relationship between themselves and their children... Parents need to be able to say with a clear, affirmative voice, "we are choosing our children's toys!" And they are better off for it.

--Karen Benz Scarvie, owner, The Wooden Horse Toy Store, Los Gatos, California