Toys as Psychobaubles
by Kathryn Cannon
Just small somethings for the little ones. Trivial things to be picked up, played with, thrown around and then put away at the end of the day. One more commodity to trip over in the path of modern life. But are toys really just innocuous cultural baubles, or are they, in fact, the very objects that set us on an early course towards alienation and self-absorption in our capitalist society?
Perhaps none of us has ever wanted to give serious attention to the subject of toys. Well, some of us may have, but we probably didn't tell anyone about it. We might have thought it a bit too risky to dignify such a matter as toys with intellectual debate. When there are so many more threatening situations ripe for social criticism - victimization of farm animals, white male revolution, criminal apathy among the citizenry, etc. - why waste time talking toys? While we'd like to believe they are nothing but a captivating source of amusement for the child player, or a charming fetish for the adult collector, they are, in fact, totally integral to our socialization in modern culture. And, rather than continuing to view toys as a harmless component of our leisure time, we must now bravely assert their own nefarious contribution to the dysfunctional collective psyche of the modern Western World.
In the end, we can always blame the damn marketers, but in the beginning, there was only Plato. While we're at it, we might as well be fair to the Greeks who gave us the metaphorical context for a philosophy of life based on toys. Heraclitus said it best: "Lifetime is a child at play, moving pieces on a board." Even before the Greeks, this same thinking was manifested in the sacred realm of play that existed in those tribal cultures which saw themsleves as the powerless objects of fate, mere puppets of the irrational gods. To some extent (and for the sake of stretching the metaphor a little further), children are mere puppets of their irrational parents. Subject to the same kind of powerlessness and dependence, children today create a "sacred realm" in their bedrooms where they become the whimisical saviors and victimizers of their personified toys.
Getting back to Plato, we must thank him and his compadre in the historical origin of rational thinking, Aristotle, for cutting us from the strings of such a cruel metaphor and delivering us to a kinder, gentler metaphysical Universe. With the contributions of these great thinkers, we are no longer bound to the notion of fate in constructing a philo-sophy of toys. Thus freed from the sacrosanct, toys can now legitimately be included in our intellectual debates (as part of the class of knowledge known as objects around which we build our experiences.) Still Plato rated play, and by implication, toys as a lesser form of experience than the knowledge based on logical and scientific thought. This certainly explains how we arrived in the twentieth century with the idea that playing with the Fisher Price play sets is a waste of time, but playing with molecular modeling kits is not.
To be sure, Plato took himself a little too seriously. Rosseau did too, but at least he saw that a little irrationality had its place. Besides, his era encouraged a new mind game, the imagination. This has become a favored toy store post-purchase justification. In one hand, we hold fast to the rather romantic notion that toys stimulate our children's imaginations, while we grudgingly drag out the checkbooks and plastic money with our other hand.
Nonetheless, or all the more, the Protestant Reformation, and later the Industrial Revolution, reminded us that we have a job to do and that play is, at best, needless and, at worst, a sinful distraction. In today's production-oriented society, achievement is marked by the finished product or the completed project. Thus, toys are at once trivialized and idealized objects of play, indulgences of children which serve no particular utilitarian end. Their charm for adults seems to lie in the very fact that they are so antithetical to their workaday lives.
No matter how much we like to put toys down, we do deign to buy a lot of them. Look in any child's overflowing toy chest. What can you find there? If you consider it carefully, you will find a veritable repository of cultural values. When we give toys as gifts (especially, although not exclusively, to children) we are demonstrating our love and generosity. Yeah right, and there's really a Santa Claus, too! Sure, we have created an obligation and a bond to our children through toys, but let's honestly admit that at the same time we have created a bond and an obligation to a booming commercial toy industry. And do we expect nothing of our children in return for our investments in toys? Hardly. Whether or not we say abruptly to a child: "Here. Take this, bug off and stay out of trouble," the fact is that toys are the primary tools of modern disciplinary techniques.
Consider the advantages of the following: 1) Children will temporarily stop whining when you drop the right toy into the store cart. 2) Studies show that when toys are available, young children are less likely to play with people and more likely to focus on the toys. 3) By inference then, when children play by themselves with toys, they are less likely to beat up on each other. 4) This logic works only as long as children have their own toys to play with. Thus, in addition to the tools of behavior management, we find in that same toy chest, the first forms of personal property in our capitalist society. Material goods are for the adult what toys are for the child. Toys as material possessions also deliver the first messages in consumer indoctrination into the propaganda of commodities. We are continuously presenting children with novelties, thereby creating young consumers who are perpetually unsatisfied, restless, anxious and bored. I know, I know - Next I'll be saying "Toys are the opiate of the masses." (I wonder if Marx ever had trouble sharing his toys?) Now we've really thrown open a Pandora's box (or toy chest as it were) of social criticism.
Realistically, we do not buy a lot of toys for children just to control them, nor especially to educate them in distraction for the purpose of suppressing political protest. But we do believe that toys can educate them in imagination, and can even advance the development of some cognitive skills. These are the toys we adults like to buy the most; the ones that we are told will make our children smarter. Whether or not this is the case, they do seem to develop individual concentration by teaching us to play alone. At least in the Western World, where success is largely measured by individual acheivement, the role of toys in child-rearing becomes clear: to stimulate and to isolate. Can you say "alienation," boys and girls?
You probably think I'm just making this all up for the sake of mocking all the great white males (from Plato right on down to Mr. Rogers). But I'd like to refer respectfully now to the individual achievements of an important academic mind dedicated to the study of toys as culture. In his book, aptly titled Toys as Culture, Dr. Brian Sutton-Smith cuts to the point: "We make our children the vehicles of our progress, while at the same time we deny that, in the state of childhood, what they do is really serious. Do we use the term 'play' to disguise from ourselves the extent to which we are in fact driving our children along paths of achievement?"
So you see, it's really not a waste of time to talk about toys. The next time you do feel the urge for a little psychobabble on the subject, try out this definition (quoting again from the work of Dr. Brian Sutton-Smith): "[Toys are] physical devices that do not require the participation of another person." That pretty much sums up both the roles of childhood amusement and of adult fetish (for some). If that's not impresive enough for you to attempt to dignify an intellectual debate on toys, then hold your nose and repeat after me (pausing often and drawling over you "A"s an "O"s): "Paradoxically, toys are a serious business both in the economic motives of a highly profitable commercial industry and in the psychosocial motives of a culture that insists on individual achievement as a measure of success."