I have just read this article in the Guardian. Apparently the Toy Retailers Association have come up with a top 13 list of toys. The article implies that it is in fact a list of ‘must have’ toys to buy our children for Christmas this year. Given the timing of the list, this seems quite plausible, and a quick Google search brings up umpteen other articles on the same topic and with the same angle, including one that has appeared on children’s television channel CBBC’s website.
It seems that not only are adults being told what to buy for their children, but children are being told what to want. How many adults will fall for this blatant commercial manipulation? If this article‘s anything to go by, quite a lot. It reports that according to research by the Mothers’ Union, 72% of parents admit to buying gifts they can’t really afford, 46% have got into financial difficulty or debt in order to buy Christmas presents, and 59% admit to buying presents they didn’t consider age-appropriate.
For the last five years now I’ve found myself frequently asked the question, in the run up to Christmas, “What are you buying your child for Christmas?” My answer has always been vague and evasive, because (and here my secret is out) the answer is, very little, if anything. Here’s why:
a) He will gets loads of gifts from grandparents, aunties, and uncles, and he won’t know that none of them are from me, because he thinks they’re all from Santa anyway.
And I don’t feel in the least bit guilty about this. It’s not like I never buy him anything. Why wait until Christmas? I don’t get extra pay at Christmas or anything. And I don’t use Christmas as a bribe or a threat. My child doesn’t have to earn things. The idea that I must buy him heaps of things at Christmas means I must either hold off buying things in order to store things up to add to an already large pile of presents at a particular time of year, or, if as I do, I buy him things as and when he grows out of something or I feel he needs or would benefit from something, I must then buy him other things at Christmas which he doesn’t really need. I don’t get it.
b) He won’t have any of the above ‘top 13’ toys or other demands for particular toys on his list because he never watches TV commercials.
Children only expect what they’re led to expect. I ‘ve often found the smallest and simplest presents have been his favourites.
c) There are very few toys he actually plays with anyway.
Really. It’s taken me a few years to finally grasp this, but he doesn’t. For years he’s had a load of toys in the house he’s hardly touched. I sold some of them at last month’s NCT sale and he still hasn’t noticed they’ve gone.
He just plays with, well, stuff. If he’s playing at cooking he plays with the real crockery and utensils in the kitchen. Forget all that plastic rubbish I bought when trying to create a ‘home corner’. He ‘goes shopping’ with real shopping bags and food from the food cupboard. He makes miniature ‘soups’ with various ingredients donated by his father while he’s cooking. He makes all sorts of imaginary things outside in his messy play area. He invents things out of cardboard packaging. He and his friends make dens with old blankets and cushions. Right now he’s obsessed with football, and will play imaginary matches with commentary. If no balls are immediately available, he uses anything kick-able.
When he was younger he liked taking random things out of drawers and playing with them. (actually he still does) . He had a great time with the tape measure. I once found him playing with a roll of Sellotape. I took it off him, telling him it wasn’t a toy and we needed to save it for when it was needed. Later I thought how ridiculous that was. I’ll buy him toys, but I can’t stretch to an extra roll of Sellotape?!
The thing is, kids have great imaginations, and a great capacity to create play out of raw materials. Plus this makes for a good type of play that’s most beneficial to their development. Many commercial toys do all their thinking for them, and limit them to playing in certain ways. Hi-tech toys do not encourage creativity or leave room for a child’s imagination to get to work. A toy gun can only ever be a gun. A stick could be a gun, then later a fishing rod. Children with large numbers of toys will flit from one to the next, without spending much time on any, making for short attention spans.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t buy any toys, or that my child doesn’t have anything to play with. He has bats and balls, a scooter and bike, lego, drawing materials, a collection of toy cars picked up in charity shops, a dressing up box, a much used sand and water tray, for example. I’m just saying our approach to children’s Christmas gift buying, and toy buying generally, is worth thinking twice about. We often hear the complaint that a small child is more interested in the packaging than the actual toy. This is telling us something. Let’s take note, and send the media and the TRA packing.