Part 1b: Gift GivingTreasury of Celebrations:
Index for this Section
- Choosing and Using Toys (Allenna Leonard)
- Double Your Gift of Love (To Celebrate: Reshaping Holidays & Rites of Passage)
- Enough (Gandhi)
- Gifts in the Consumer Society (To Celebrate: Reshaping Holidays & Rites of Passage)
- Giving and Receiving Gifts (To Celebrate: Reshaping Holidays and Rites of Passage)
- The Hidden Price Tag (Kathy Hoffman)
- On Creative Deprivation Based on the article in (The Alternate Catalogue 2nd Edition)
- Toys ARE Us! A Parent's Perspective (Rachel Graner Gill)
From Alternatives' Treasury of Celebrations, published by Northstone Books. The entire 288 page book is available for $12.
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To Celebrate: Reshaping Holidays and Rites of Passage
The practice of gift-giving is as old as Adam and Eve. It may be the original basis for economics. Some authorities believe that in ancient societies gifts were a precursor to bartering, which in turn gave way to buying and selling. Lands and possessions were passed on to children as gifts, beginning a system of family inheritance which kept strict control on land distribution. Gift-giving to deities through sacrifices was an integral part of ancient religions. The purposes of sacrificial gifts were quite varied: to give tribute to the deity as king; to express gratitude; to gain favor; to establish or reestablish ties; to be purged of sin; or to provide sustenance for the deity's earthly visits.
In many ancient cultures there were special injunctions to make gifts to strangers or sojourners. Some anthropologists suggest that the reason for such behavior was that sojourners, who were thought to have special powers, were mistrusted. The gifts were to ensure the friendship of these transients. In the Hebrew Scriptures, however, injunctions to care for sojourners are not based on fear but on compassion and remembrance: "...you were once sojourners in the land of Egypt" (Leviticus 19:33).
All of the world's major religions have provision for giving gifts, usually as alms to the poor and needy. However, little is said about this in the Hebrew scriptures. While Israel made it a practice to give alms to the poor, concern for the poor was expressed in broader terms, and involved providing for their overall needs and protecting them against injustice. In one of the classic texts, the prophet Isaiah proclaimed that religious fasts were acceptable to the Lord only when they included freeing the oppressed, sharing bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless into one's own house, and clothing the naked (Isaiah 58). In the New Testament, Jesus identifies himself with the poor and makes acting on behalf of the poor the standard by which the nations will be judged: "Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me" (Matthew 25:31-46).
Connections between gift-giving and ritual celebrations also began quite early. It was customary to exchange gifts on New Year's Day long before exchanging gifts at Christmas became tradition. On New Year's Day, Persians exchanged gifts of eggs - symbols of fertility - while Egyptians gave flasks to each other. Romans exchanged objects bearing the imprint of Janus, the god of two faces for whom the month of January is named. The Celtic-Teutonic Druids made gifts of their holy plant, mistletoe. Ancient peoples also celebrated birthdays and weddings with gifts. The Greek poet Aeschylus wrote about the custom of giving presents to children on their birthdays as early as the sixth century BCE.
The practice of gift-giving at Christmas has several origins. The early Roman feast of Saturnalia was already a well-established time for exchanging gifts when the date for celebrating the birth of Christ was set on the same date. But Christians had their own reasons for gift-giving at Christmas. Patterned on the gifts of the Magi - gold, frankincense, and myrrh brought to honor the birth of the Christ Child - gift-giving was a symbolic reminder of the great gift of God's Son.
As Christianity spread into different cultures and through time, various customs and traditions developed around giving gifts at Christmas. In Germany, the Christ Child was said to bring small presents on Christmas Eve. Among the Dutch, it was St. Nicholas who brought gifts to children on December 6, the eve of his feast. The practice of gift-giving at Christmas was firmly established in the 19th century when the traditions of the Christ Child ("Christkindl") and St. Nicholas ("Sinterklass") became anglicized into one - Santa Claus.
To Celebrate: Reshaping Holidays & Rites of Passage
Gift-giving is no less important today than in earlier times. It is still viewed as an acceptable way to express love and to celebrate relationships. But gift-giving has a history of abuse that continues today. We abuse the practice of giving gifts in several ways: we use gifts to bribe or manipulate; we make gifts because of social pressure; we use gifts to alleviate guilt; we give gifts that are inconsistent with our highest values and ideals. While this abuse is not new, the practice of gift-giving has been affected by our consumer society. As even The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette recognizes, "Today, in our materialistic society, the custom [of gift-giving] has grown to exaggerated absurdity..."
Consider how our consumer-oriented values have shaped our gift-giving practices:
- Conformity is prized over individuality. Despite society's rhetoric about individuality, the "if-you-don't-have-one-you-are-inadequate" message of mass culture relentlessly bombards the senses from the air waves and print media. Consumer society's emphasis is to create needs rather than to create products to meet needs we already have. This results in conformity in how needs are perceived and the ways we meet those needs. The more far-reaching result of our conformity, however, may be an absence of dissenting voices in today's mass culture.
- Whatever is bought and sold is better than whatever isn't. A broad assumption in the consumer society is that the only way to be happy is to accumulate things. Friendship, contentment, and security are significant only as they involve consumption. The way to express love and affection for another is by buying some "thing." By implication, gifts that are not "bought things" - including things made with one's own hands - are not worth much. The restrictive nature of this assumption rules out a whole host of wonderful ways to give, including the giving of time and skill. Not only does preoccupation with "buying to give" overlook other ways of giving, it also seems to make gift-giving less personal.
- More and bigger are better. Less and small are chintzy. In a society which produces consumer goods far beyond the needs of its members, consumption without restraint becomes an ideal. This society's extraordinary levels of consumption have resulted in unparalleled amounts of waste, thus earning the title, "the throw-away society." Unrealistic ideas that Earth has unlimited natural resources, cheap energy, and adequate means of waste disposal have undergirded our consumption and waste. Yet all three of these assumptions are known to be false. The issues raised by this knowledge are more than ecological. Recognition of our planet's limited resources forces us to address the question of a just distribution of goods and resources. New consumer values, ideals, and practices are urgently needed so that all people can share in what the world has to offer.
As gift-giving practices have been symbols of the consumer culture's values and ideals, it is time to give voice to new values and ideals:
- Give in ways that enrich human relationships, a process that requires the investment of self. Proper timing and creativity replace quantity and monetary value as the essentials of good gift giving.
- Give in ways that enable physical, mental, and spiritual growth beyond the expectations and restraints of popular culture.
- Give in ways that are life-supporting and conserving. Be aware of how your giving or nongiving affects people and Earth. Consider who profits from your purchase and who suffers. Think about the ecological cost of creation and disposal.
- Give to those who work for those intangibles most needed by our loved ones and future generations: a world at peace, an inclusive society, and a healthy environment. Let celebrations be occasions to reaffirm your relationship to Earth and all humankind.
As you think about ways your gift-giving can give voice to your ideals, consider:
- Time and skill. Gifts of time - especially to younger children or older relatives - are very important and can take many forms. Teach a skill in cooking, writing, carpentry, a foreign language, etc. Gifts of time and skill to justice organizations can be as useful as gifts of money.
- Homemade gifts. This nasty phrase in consumer society's vocabulary can be rehabilitated with personal gifts from the workbench, kitchen, and desk. Planning and creativity, more than skill, are the essential requirements.
- Gifts from self-help craft groups. Your purchase helps keep alive old crafts. A larger percentage of the purchase price goes to the artisan than if you bought the same thing in the mall, and you are helping to provide employment for low-income people. Many of these shops have mail-order services.
- Selective buying. Exercise your right not to buy from organizations that produce objectionable products or that exploit children, women, men, animals, or Earth. This is a vote for justice and a healthy environment in a consumer society.
- Organ donation. Even in death, you can give the gift of sight or life through donating your organs to others. You need to sign a statement indicating your desire, but more importantly, you need to speak to your family now to make sure they understand your wishes. You may also wish to learn exactly what this means by discussing it with your doctor.
To Celebrate: Reshaping Holidays & Rites of Passage
Retail store advertisers make a great effort to resolve all Christmas (Valentine's Day, birthday, Mother's Day, Father's Day, etc.) shopping problems. To make sure they don't lose the confused, uninspired shopper they go to great lengths to create gifts for the "man or woman who has everything."
You may not know anyone who has everything, but there may be friends or family members on your gift list who are not in need. Do something different for them. Make a gift to a church, synagogue, temple, or charitable group in lieu of an unnecessary gift. We call this a double gift certificate, a gift to the charity and a gift to your friend or family member, a gift that complements a shared concern for a better world.
Send a card announcing your gift with your message of love for the card's recipient and your concern for peace and justice in the world. Better still, make your own card to send.
We make a grave error when we think that the only cost of our celebrations is the price tag on the gift. The actual cost includes the effect on the environment and our natural resources, taxes, and the human and social cost. How many manufacturers and merchants think about the actual cost when they unleash their massive advertising campaigns for Christmas, Mother's Day, Father's Day, weddings, and other celebrations which are ripe for sales? How many celebrators have considered these costs to society when they perpetuate consumption-oriented celebrations?
"Celebration" is big business! More than 50 percent of the annual millions of dollars in sales each November and December comes from department and variety store sales.
The effect the millions of dollars in holiday sales have on our Earth's resources and the lives of people is devastating. Irreplaceable resources are exhausted. Think of all the coal and oil tied up in the production and operation of the thousands of nonsensical electric gadgets we buy as "gifts," or the mass-produced plastic and metal decorations your local Chamber of Commerce erects shortly after Thanksgiving; or the miles of Christmas lights we trail over our buildings and trees. Consider the ravaging effect on land and communities of strip-mining for these energy resources.
The gift items and paraphernalia we purchase also embody work hours of productive effort along with hours of creative energy spent on trying to convince us that we must buy these things. Our labor resources could be better used in more life-supporting and enriching pursuits such as housing, health, safety, and the eradication of poverty.
Our grandchildren may never see living jaguars, leopards, or crocodiles if we support the market for these skins. If we can't mend the hole in the ozone, they may never enjoy the sunshine without worrying about skin cancer. Drinking from a stream in the countryside is a thing of the past. They may never engage in ocean and fresh water fishing. The Christmas trees we use for a few weeks and then throw away represent lost wood and timberland. The packaging, wrapping, trim, and cards that accompany our gifts also use up wood pulp and energy. Most of the millions of tons of household garbage we throw away annually comes from virgin resources; almost half of municipal waste is paper. (Industrial waste outweighs by millions of tons the waste produced in mining and agriculture.)
What price tag can justify the value of the human lives that are lost or destroyed due to the increase in accidents, suicides, psychic strains, and highway holiday carnage that surround our "celebrations"? How do you say "Happy Fourth or First of July" to a boy who's blown off his hand with a firecracker? Our insurance rates reflect this holiday carnage even if tragedy doesn't strike us personally.
In addition to the cost of wasted resources, we burden ourselves with increased social costs and taxes. The number of broken homes and troubled children could be reduced if more love were expressed in the home. Family love and closeness can't blossom fully when plastic toys and money gifts are all that are exchanged between family members.
The unique pleasures of creating, sharing, and self-involvement are lost when a gift is chosen from a store shelf that contains 100 items just like it. The people we love are special to us, yet so often we express this special love by sharing gifts that are mass-produced rather than unique. We pay for our consumer orientation (in contrast to people orientation) in the form of the increased social costs of supporting juvenile courts and homes. We also pay for the waste generated by our consumption through increased taxes. The rate of our consumption of material goods is increasing faster than the rate of population growth, so that there is an increasing rate of garbage being generated per person. If taxes aren't raised to meet the increased costs of collecting and disposing of our ever-growing pile of trash, then the costs of removing that trash will have to be at the expense of other municipal services such as schools and parks.
In our celebrations, we exploit not only ourselves, but the resources and quality of life of the rest of the world. Limited land and mineral resources are devoted to export by developing countries while their people struggle at, or below, subsistence levels to feed our insatiable consumption. African resources provide our gifts of diamonds. The rain forests are sacrificed for exotic lumber. South American minerals are formed into cars built with planned obsolescence in mind. These same cars and electrical gadgets then demand the importation of energy resources to keep them operating.
Richard Easterlin, professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania, surveyed the relationship between happiness and income and came to a paradoxical conclusion. In the U.S., the average happiness level had not risen in 30 years, even though the purchasing power of the average income had risen by 60 percent.
Satisfaction doesn't come from the number of goods we can buy, but from how this number compares to what we think we need. What we think we need depends on our social and cultural impressions and experiences.
Our materialistic orientation has us running on a treadmill, seeking new pleasures and goods to maintain old levels of subjective pleasure. Happiness and human fulfillment are not conceived on Madison Avenue, produced in Detroit, and delivered at your local store.
Although we can't buy happiness, we can give gifts that support life, conserve the Earth, and enhance the human spirit. For example, educational toys give pleasure to a child and also enable the child to learn and develop new skills. Giving to nonprofit and social service groups helps not only their functions, but may also allow them to increase their staff, training, and out-reach programs so that jobs, skills, and new opportunities are opened up for more people.
Our usual response to a child's "Trick or Treat" is a sugary treat full of empty calories. Wouldn't it be better if Halloween resulted in UNICEF feeding the hungry rather than in your dentist drilling out cavities? One child's coins diverted from a candy bar to UNICEF has a tiny but positive impact on the world. Imagine the possibilities that our billions of dollars worth of holiday retail sales could have if we spent them in life-supporting celebrations.
Why don't we do it? We've been indoctrinated with the virtues of growth as measured by increased consumption and have been led to believe that unemployment results when we don't buy what our labor churns out. Greater demand for people-orientated goods and services would just involve a shift in work power resources. Social service groups need people, but usually don't have the funds to pay their wages. Diverting our dollars to these groups helps them hire permanent staff, as opposed to the temporary holiday help retail stores hire. Also, the "products" of social service and self-help groups improve the quality of life much more than "plastic" gifts off an assembly line.
It's possible to shed the burdens, stresses, and costs we tolerate and impose upon our world by our traditional celebrations. We can affirm life and our love and care for each other and the world with alternative celebrations. We have nothing to lose and a whole world to reclaim. Let us celebrate life!
Based on the article in The Alternate Catalogue 2nd Edition
Several years ago, Colman McCarthy's article about "Creative Deprivation" appeared in The Washington Post. McCarthy's belief that "children have little need for marketplace temptings" still holds true today. The only difference is that the marketplace gurus work harder at convincing our children that they "need" that toy, that article of clothing, that new computer program. These marketers are skilled, pervasive, and in the long run, destructive to family harmony. There seems little recourse (other than heading for the hills) than to meet them with equally pervasive tactics.
By definition, to creatively deprive children means to keep their senses and minds free of material goods that overwhelm them, the kind soon to be washing in from the immense commercial ocean of Christmas. How can children not be emotionally drowned when wave after wave of toys rolls over them?
How can a child have a sense of value for any one toy when so many are given at once? How can the potential of one gift be explored when the attraction of so many others is pulling? The whisper of newness becomes a deafening roar. It is hard to imagine how this surfeit of Christmas toys can lead to new levels of playfulness.
It may sometimes feel as if you are standing alone holding your finger in the dike. But there are two factors that can help you. One is a supportive community of like-minded people. The other is to become more involved in offering alternatives.
While a computer game, for example, may stimulate a child for a time, eventually, it can be mind-numbing. On the other hand, a walk in the park with corn kernels in your pocket and your child in tow, can be a rewarding and wondrous event for both of you. (Not to mention that it allows you to get some air and exercise.) Before bedtime, reading about whatever creatures you happened to meet there prolongs and enriches the experience. Drawing or writing about the walk can put the proverbial icing on the cake.
Einstein once said that imagination is of more value than knowledge. It is good to remember these words when raising children. They are born with imagination in abundance. Some commercial gadgets and toys can stimulate, of course, but so can a walk in the park, helping to build and maintain a bird feeder, and so on. A well stocked dress-up box can be the greatest gift to the imagination. (Adults like them, too!)
Creative deprivation also teaches children that there are limits - to resources, to what they can ask for, and to what you can and will give. Certainly, debt-ridden and anxious parents are not the gifts that children want. They want and need your attention and love. They want you.
Even when the toy maker and the toy buyer work together to assure children of toys that are well made and appropriately chosen for their ages and skills, buying a toy is not always easy. When the interests of the toy industry and the toy buyer are at odds, the problems multiply.
Huge conglomerates and retail chains now dominate the industry, and the mom-and-pop stores, which once placed restraints on what was sold, have been killed off like the buffalo. The hard evidence is that the industry's "best toy" is the one that sells best and makes the most profit rather than the one that brings hours of safe, creative enjoyment to a child. As a result, parents must face unsafe toys, misleading toy ads, toys which grate against the values many of us hold - realities few of us are equipped to deal with when we go into a toy department.
The toy buyer should also know that no matter what the problems, appropriate toys can be found, and the toy industry's practices can be improved by consumers who will accept no substitutes for what they need.
The most serious problem facing the toy buyer is that of safety. The toy market is still far from hazard-free, though the establishment of a Consumer Product Safety Commission and the issuance of some standards for quality have improved the situation in recent years.
The buyer should be able to expect that any toy marketed is safe. But the reality is that toys are safe enough if used only as directed, or if they don't break or operate defectively. The toy with glass parts (yes, they still can be found) won't cut unless the glass is broken. The projectile toy with the rubber tip injures no one if the rubber tip remains in place and the projectiles aren't fired at living beings. The electrical toy - essentially a small appliance not designed for constant use, and consequently cheaply made - may develop a short and shock a child, or worse. Small toy parts present no hazard to a school-aged child, but a younger sibling may swallow them or get them stuck in the ears or nose. Painted toys can be a problem for children at the age when they put everything into their mouths.
Even when toys are reasonably safe, parents and guardians must exercise responsibility in choosing them and in guiding play.
Because some children are well-coordinated and have good balance while others do not, buyers should be careful to choose movement toys appropriate to the child in question. Roller skates that are fun for one child may be dangerous or frustrating for another. The heavily marketed and glamorous skateboard fad has led to many injuries for both children and adults. If skateboard play is approved, helmets and pads should be mandatory and extreme care should be taken to find a safe skateboarding place free of traffic, rough surfaces, and pedestrians. Other movement toys such as bicycles and tricycles should be carefully investigated for balance, braking, and reflective material, if the child is old enough to use the bicycle after dark.
Parents also need to be aware constantly that injury is most likely to occur when directions for using toys aren't followed properly. The quiet play offered by a craft or science kit can be dangerous if the child is not mature enough to use it.
Because of their immaturity, children cannot be counted on always to use toys in the proper way, so adults must be on their guard when there is a potential problem.
Another hazard buyers should beware of is the emotional ploys advertisers use to sell their products. Advertising research has plumbed our deepest yearnings to find out what triggers the urge to buy. It has used sophisticated psycho-physiological testing equipment to measure such subliminal body reactions as eye movements and sweating palms to see what makes us tick. (Some questions might be raised about the ethics of using methods of psychological investigation in the interests of a commercial third party. A certain amount of probing is appropriate in the hands of trained personnel if the object is to give an individual insights that could lead to better self-knowledge and adjustment, but the same techniques become insidious when they are used to influence an individual for another's gain.)
The toy industry pours millions of dollars into advertising to get parents and children to choose a certain toy out of a possible 150,000 on the market. Hundreds of thousands of dollars may be spent in planning the promotion of a single toy even before air time is purchased! And the adult who makes toy-buying decisions on the basis of emotion rather than reason may be easy prey.
In December, especially, it is difficult not to give in to the nostalgia for a childhood when the pace was slower, extended families lived near each other, and family rituals and familiar things gave a sense of comfort and well-being. We wish to create a similar atmosphere for our own children and are led to believe that "things" will do it - calico decorations, old-style puzzles and games, or new ones which "give a sense of unity to the family that plays them together." We must understand that our yearnings are not for things but for human relationships - the sharing in wreath-, cookie- or gift-making rather than the objects themselves.
Another advertising problem is the difference between what a toy appears to be and what it is. Although the code of the National Association of Broadcasters on children's advertising has eliminated most of the obviously deceptive practices in the preparation of advertising copy, it does not cover whether or not the toy will perform as well as it appears to on television. A study by the engineering department at the University of Georgia showed that only two of the ten toys most widely advertised on television performed as described in the ad, and one of these was a doll. Close-ups, camera angles, and other techniques may enhance the toy's performance. For instance, cars go much faster when viewed from the bottom of an inclined plane. Or, though the toy is shown in one scene with the child to establish its actual size, other shots may counteract that impression. Also, children do not usually comprehend the statement "assembly required" though they know very well what "you have to put it together" means.
Toys based on television and movie characters may be the biggest cheat in town. Several product lines have been designed based on the attraction of a show's popularity rather than on the toy's playability. Often they amount to nothing more than character dolls one is encouraged to put through the motions of the same story plots again and again. They are generally far more expensive than the products merit - after all, the makers had to pay for the rights to use the television characters as well as the cost of heavy promotion for the toys.
One advertising practice that adults need to watch carefully is the beaming of the products and the product type directly to children. Even at its best - and it has some way to go - advertising toys to children on television creates a value system in which certain needs can be satisfied only by the purchase of things. The ads sell an idea that money can buy happiness, that owning rather than doing is the way to feel good about yourself, and that we are somehow not complete without this or that. And if that weren't enough, the commercials show a heaven on earth where no one gets angry or hurt, where parents are always loving and responsive, and where the lifestyle of plenty has erased every care. A child's own family cannot compare to this and may even seem different and shameful. If a child is part of a poor family, these messages can increase the sense of inadequacy and isolation to the point of hopelessness. Low-income families can feel forced to purchase expensive items to prove that they are as good as anyone else.
These messages presumably are more influential than many others because most of the consumers in the two- to eleven-year-old market have a limited understanding of what advertising is and how it fits into their lives. Much still needs to be learned about how children process the information in advertisements. Adults who are concerned about this advertising practice can choose not to buy any product that is advertised to children rather than to adults. They can also let the manufacturers know why they made their decisions in the hope of influencing future advertising practices.
Advertising directed to adults can also be misleading. For instance, many adults are conditioned to think well of a toy labeled "educational." We all want to see our children learn new things and develop skills they can use later in school or in life. But the toy labeled "educational" and put in a fancy package may be similar, except in practice, to any other construction set, puzzle, or game. Celebrity endorsements and the use of characters from educational television shows may add nothing at all to the play experience of the item. Adults should remember that child development experts still say a set of plain wooden blocks is one of the best toy investments that can be made.
Another problem parents face when buying toys is that many of those which are most widely sold grate against their values. Parents can and should hold out for toys which support their values.
If we want our children to grow up peace-loving and cooperative, we do not need to give in and allow submachine guns, tanks, pistols, or any of the other toys that encourage children to think that disputes and differences are best settled by force, or that the world is divided up into good guys and bad guys: us and them. Gun play and war play can trivialize a child's understanding of the value of life. Does a 13- or 14-year-old who pulls a trigger and shoots someone have any idea of the gravity of the act, or is it just an extension of play?
Children do need to learn how to deal with aggression, but there are more constructive ways to do this than through war toys. Practice in solving problems through talking things out or negotiating compromises is one way to develop skills in coping with aggression. Sports and games also provide ample opportunity for the expression of aggression within set boundaries. If one kicks the ball and runs as fast as one can, this is aggressive and competitive play. But it is conducted against opponents rather than enemies, has standards and rules, and develops physical skill. Playing cowboys and Indians with toy guns does none of these things; moreover, it is deeply offensive to native peoples.
Toys that support stereotypical views of sex, race, ethnic heritage, or age tend to restrict, rather than open, a child's play opportunities and personal growth. Therefore, care should be taken in examining toys for evidence of these stereotypes.
Research has shown that sex stereotyping is detrimental to both boys and girls because it robs both sexes of full development. Masculine and feminine elements both are included in a well-developed personality - strength and vulnerability go side-by-side; nurture and discipline overlap in the parental role; boys and girls, men and women are much more alike than they are different. Yet, when asked why a certain line of transportation toys included play scenes from one of the few all-male fourth grades in the country, the manufacturer's reply was, "We wouldn't sell as many toys if we used a group of girls." And women in toys and games continue to be depicted in relation to dating, baby care, and a few traditional women's jobs rather than in the whole range of life activities which they share with men.
Racial and ethnic stereotyping are a disservice to both minority and nonminority children. Yet native American character dolls continue to be clothed in beads and feathers, the Spanish-speaking ones in sombreros, and the Chinese in coolie hats. It is important for minority children to feel that they are fairly represented in all aspects of our society. It is also important for nonminority children to see other racial and ethnic groups included to reinforce the concept of a diverse population and to lay the groundwork for feeling comfortable in multi-racial communities.
Age stereotyping is also a problem in toy design and packaging. Grandma and Grandpa dolls were a welcome first step on the doll shelf. It is desirable to show the world as it really is, with people of all ages. Why shouldn't grandparent characters be shown as they are, ranging from people in their early 40s on up? Grandma may not have her hair in a bun and wear long dresses; she may go to work in a business suit. And Grandpa may not hobble around with a cane; he may be on the golf course, or volunteering with Greenpeace. Grandparents may not be white either. They come in the same variety children do. Why don't we see it?
Another point to remember in choosing toys is that the best ones usually foster open-ended play and have multiple uses. The complicated toy with a single use will not retain a child's interest very long and may leave both the adult and the child feeling bad about the choice. Toys that do it all for the child contribute little to growth. The sad joke about the parent who buys a large, expensive toy for a child and finds out that the child would rather play with the box is too often true. Sometimes an adult and a child have very different ideas about which toys are fun. It's a good idea to ask ourselves whether we think a toy would be fun for the child for whom it is intended, or fun for the child in us. If the second instance is more to the point, maybe two toys are in order. Adults can play, too.
Age appropriateness is another important consideration. If a toy is too far behind or ahead of a child's stage of development, it will not be a good choice. Many toy companies are including some mention of age range on the packages, but they do not do it often enough or consistently enough. Even when the age range is given, it may not be appropriate for a particular child. Children develop large and small muscle control, a sense of color and shape, and skill in manipulating objects and concepts at varying rates. Therefore, the buyer needs some sense of the individual child and a knowledge of the general range of toys for that age in order to make wise choices. Local early childhood educators may help make appropriate decisions if the task seems difficult.
Here is one thing we toy buyers should keep foremost in our minds; as consumers, we are in charge. Whatever toys are offered us, it is our responsibility to decide which are appropriate and to refuse to buy those which aren't. Children need toys that foster growth, add to a sense of skill and mastery, expand creativity, develop positive self-images, and encourage interaction between adults and children or among children. Children need a mix of active toys and quiet toys, toys which encourage both nurturing and challenge, that stimulate both muscles and minds. These are the toys we should insist upon; we cannot settle for any substitute for what our children need; and we can find the toys they need if we refuse to take anything else.
Our toy selections, whether they are given as holiday or birthday presents, have a substantial impact on the values we communicate to the children who receive them.
Rachel Graner Gill
The door before me opened soundlessly. But as I walked down the entrance hall, colors on the wall - geometrical patterns in vivid, angry colors - screamed at my senses. I rounded the corner to the display area and was completely overwhelmed by floor-to-ceiling shelves spilling over with merchandise for children. This was Toyland!
My initial shock at the raucous enormity of the place was soon accompanied by nostalgia as I walked those aisles, remembering with pleasure and pain, times when decisions about toys were an important part of my life, when the pull between our children's programmed wants and our value-oriented perspective on their needs were often in conflict.
Certainly, my husband and I were not always successful in providing creative substitutes when we, with studied deliberation, questioned our children's wants. Specific toys were important cultural symbols in their world, and it was difficult to explain why we rejected those symbols. My brief visit to a modern toy store convinced me that today's parents of young children face an even more difficult task. Giant shelves stocked with violent dolls and grotesque monsters - along with perfect imitations of military and police weapons - included every imaginable accessory for creative destruction.
Those symbols of violence - even scaled-down versions - gave off an oppressive, almost hallucinatory atmosphere. Children became "hyper" as soon as they entered the so-called "super action heroes" section. Their shrill screams of excitement could be heard throughout the store. Adults were affected, too. One mother walked up and down the aisles in a distraught state, lamenting loudly to anyone who would listen, "There's not a single puppet in the store! Can you believe it? Not a single puppet in the entire store!" That woman's anguished cry was real. And as I looked around me, her distress became mine. I realized that the absence of simple, creative playthings in that great toy depository is not accidental. It is a fact that speaks with authority about today's world.
It is a lamentable truth that we feel surrounded by violence; we live in an atmosphere that not only tolerates but encourages violence. In television programming, movies, and the print media - as well as current interpretations of America's role in the world - adults are surrounded by unspoken macho ideals such as "might makes right" and "survival of the fittest," supported with military might. We are encouraged in insidious ways to deal with weakness in other people and with other countries from a position of strength and always with "our best interest" in mind.
It is alarming, but not surprising, how these ideas of power and domination have penetrated our children's world. As participants in those values, toy industries believe that self-interest dictates both their role to provide and their right to sell violent toys. And their profit indicators support their good business decisions. Since 1982, the sale of war toys has risen more than 500 percent! Adults must face the fact that it is not children who supply the toy industry with their profit margins, it is adults who buy for children.
Also, adults may be contributing to the violence factor for today's children by providing another disturbing wrinkle to this complicated mixture of children, toys, and war games. It is possible that children who play violent war games are not simply victims of television advertising and an unscrupulous toy market. They also may be imitating adults with whom they live. This new phenomenon, The National Survival Game, is a complicated adult version of a child's game often referred to as Capture the Flag. Wearing camouflage trousers, jackets, gloves, heavy boots, and often using face-masks, these weekend war-game players carry pistols whose pellets sting and raise welts, making it necessary to wear goggles. Players confess to getting hooked on the "adrenaline high" and "instinct toning" of a three-hour game, and many of them claim they have never felt so alive.
What does this mean? An admittedly simplistic analysis of these activities suggests that our society encourages adults to play like children and children to play like adults, with both groups using war games as a means for having fun. And on another level, national and international leaders also play at war with deadly games of "I dare you," in which nuclear holocaust - rather than the enemy's flag - is the prize of battle.
It may be a drastic leap in logic from the danger of war toys for our children and the specter of a nuclear holocaust. Unfortunately, the connection between the two may be more real than we want to believe. Today's adults and children are caught up in games that are far more frightening than those provided by the contents of shelves in a toy store. We have bought into our world leaders' obsessions with military solutions to people's problems. And if we believe, with most child psychologists, that play is a child's work, we make our legacy to future generations when we decide to provide our children with up-to-date symbols of war. The values of our truculent, embattled society will become the norm for our children.
What can we do? To use words that come directly from war terminology, we can protect our children by providing them with a buffer zone - a "game against war" to which every thoughtful adult should be committed. But this means taking risks. We will certainly encounter the displeasure of our children if we interrupt their involvement with the symbols of their world. Even more than adults, children have difficulty trying to distance themselves from their culture. They are highly impressionable and easily conditioned to want what their friends have or what they see on television. Children who are allowed unrestricted exposure to mass-media hard sell - calculatingly and carefully designed by well-planned market research - are unlikely to want anything other than what they are told to want. Adults must assume some responsibility in determining when children's wants conflict with their needs.
Jesus once asked a question that may shed some light on this current dilemma with children. "Which one of you, if your child asks for bread, would give a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, would give him a scorpion?" We know the answer: no loving adult would feed a hungry child on a diet of stones and scorpions. But what is a parent to do if a child asks for a Voltron, a Gobot, or a Rambo doll? We believe that responsible, loving parents will refuse to feed a child's hunger for play on a diet of violence and savagery.
Each Christmas we are faced with questions about gift-giving. What do we give our children? What is appropriate for celebrating the birthday of the Prince of Peace? With that as a point of reference, some disciplined thinking about creative substitutes for violent toys is certainly in order.
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Page updated 22 Feb. 2014
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