My dad tells this lovely story of his little brother’s favorite toy.They spent childhood days playing in the yard, improvising games with the local kids. For his birthday one year, my uncle begged and pleaded for just one, awesome toy: a curtain rod. No one can explain his obsession with this plain decorative object, but he was desperate for it nevertheless. My grandmother, surely pleased with this easy request, obliged, and he got to playing something fierce. It was a sword. It was the load-bearing center of a fort. It was a sturdy fishing pole, and the center of the universe. It was everything.
I was a lot like my uncle as a child. I climbed trees. I rode my hand-me-down, purple bike through neighboring fields until I met the banks of the Harpeth River and my special place, Fern Gully. I vividly remember choreographing dance routines with pennies, weaving the coins in elaborate formations to match the music on the radio (well, that just sounds über crazy when I type it out loud). The point is, I remember being entertained the old-fashioned way, in dirt and games and the occasional whirl around the block in my neighbor pal’s golf cart.
The trouble with old-fashioned is that by definition it leaves room for the new-fashioned, and my experience with all things cutting edge and fresh is proving to be the hardest stretch of my parenting journey thus far.
All in all, being a mom is fun. My new job allows me to stay in my pajamas, opt out of showering and styling my hair, and my main responsibility is to crawl around on the floor and make silly noises. All the worry and preparation I put in throughout my pregnant months seemed a little pointless. The books, the classes, the lectures from every single woman on the planet who has ever birthed a child built up a sense of dread in me, a thought that being a mom was a bit more challenging and tiresome than I had maybe assumed. Well, it’s all been a piece of cake (minus a few bouts of sobbing in the bathtub and falling asleep while jogging on the treadmill). It’s all fairly simple… until you get to all the monstrosity that is The Modern Toy.
Baby started with a modest collection of knickknacks to keep him busy. A small stack of story books, a few bouncy balls, and stuffed animals seemed to suit him fine. The bottom shelf of our living room bookcase became the play zone, unless he wandered into the kitchen for a quick game of Tupperware Thumping. As his first birthday approached a couple of months ago, I found myself in the toy aisle of Target.
And it was insane. Marketed for infants were a mess of flashing educational toys, battery-operated plastic that sang and danced and gave me a general feeling of nausea. I mark this shopping voyage as the first “really bad trip, bro” in my personal history. With head spinning and blood pressure thoroughly spiked, I eyed the shelves. Each toy performed multiple functions and held the ability to teach your baby-child how to read, write, play piano and solve algebraic equations. This Toy Land was a hallucination wrapped in a panic attack wrapped in a sugar rush, and I needed to leave. I quickly selected a plastic set of play instruments (no batteries or assembly required) and a book of colors to present to him, and made a b-line for the exit. I could not bring myself to hand my simple kid a slew of complicated gifts. So how, you ask, did I end up with a house overrun with motorized snippets of confusion?
Even grown folks get drawn to “the light”, the Blinking-While-Spanish-Speaking-With-Moving-Parts Light.
Our lone bottom shelf stacked neatly with books and balls exploded into a primary-colored disaster zone after Baby’s birthday party. Friends and family made sure he was equipped with the latest and greatest gadgets Fisher Price had to offer. Their flashing bulbs and catchy sing-along songs left me mesmerized for a moment. I fell into that trap of thinking these high-tech toys were altogether drool-worth. I learned the spanish language and even had a few hours of fun staring at the spastic Ball Popper my sister fondly refers to as “Baby Crack”. It wasn’t until I made a mental inventory of what these toys were teaching my baby that the ridiculousness of Modern Play Time truly presented itself to me.
While Baby napped one afternoon I took to tidying up the now 89% of my living room consumed by play things. Within two minutes, I came up with a lengthy list of what my barely-1-year-old absorbs in a single day:
1. How to play basketball and golf
2. How to speak Spanish.
3. Colors, Numbers, Shapes, and Body Parts
4. How to operate a Farm Tractor, Race Car, Recycling Truck, Dump Truck, Cement Mixing Truck, Tow Truck, and Tug Boat.
5. The various components of a carpenter’s work bench
6. How to catch flying balls
7. How to play piano, drums and tambourine
8. How to manuever buttons, velcro latches, and zippers.
9. How to open a handless-entry sedan.
10. How to use a computer, as well as a Dial Phone, Flip Phone and Smart Phone.
Does your head hurt yet? Are you feeling an epileptic seizure coming on? The thought of my child (just a mere 13 months out of the womb) being fed this much information all day, everyday before he can even wipe his bum or speak a sentence seems absurd.
When Baby awoke from his nap, I cuddled with him as he rubbed his eyes fresh from sleep. Still a little drowsy, his body jerked to attention when his Laugh & Learn Puppy tumbled from the shelf. She let out a “Hug meee. I loveeee youuu!,” as she ricocheted off the electronic Activity Table, setting in motion a chain reaction of noise and flashing colors. He wriggled free from my lap, eager to get to those most fascinating kid tools. My son, the proud new owner of the ability to walk, circled the room in a tizzy, tapping one or more buttons on every last toy he passed. Two minutes later he was out of breath, collapsed in the center of the room, surrounded by The Spectacle of Light. His face very clearly read “Holy Ba-Jesus! I’m wiggin’ out, man!”. What had excited and entertained him 120 seconds prior, now left him overwhelmed with severe sensory overload.
A brief recap:
Toys are FUN & THRILLING!
Toys won’t stop singing.
I learn Spanish. I learn Numbers. I learn Read. I learn Belly Button. I learn The Math.
This strobe light hurts my brain.
I CAN’T HANDLE LIFEEEEE!
So at least Baby and I are on the same page about one thing. These high-tech toys for the modern infant genius just aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Daily, I resist the urge to hold a backyard barbecue featuring roasted Toy Phones or chargrilled Learning Puppy. I almost always want to throw some Double A’s into the fire pit and get that party started.
Instead, I aggressively shared with friends and potential gift-givers that for Christmas Baby might like a hairbrush or a sippy cup. I am toning the pile down, hiding all musical and otherwise sensory-stimulating toys so that Baby can play with them one at a time rather than starting a TransToy Orchestra, and donating a few to GoodWill. I am trying to encourage him to see the value in a book, some wooded alphabet blocks, a stack of pennies, anything but the circus that currently resides on the fourth shelf down.
I was refreshed to notice that he is fascinated with a basic fork and spoon, barely giving the neon glow of the toy heap a second glance. I know too soon he will go to school with children chatting on cell phones and toting personal iPads. They will play video games and probably forget to go outdoors. They will insist on Laser Tag when plain, old Tag is perfectly fun.
I suppose all I can hope for is a kid who can find the magic in a curtain rod.