The “It” Toy: A Parent’s Perspective

Yesterday, I wrote about the idea of an “it” toy for Christmas, including tips for how to find a hard-to-get toy and how to talk to your child about it if you don’t get them their most desired item. This brought up a bevy of comments criticizing the post. I thought Elizabeth summed it up well:

Hi Trent. I love your blog and respect your opinions but I have to say that the very idea and existance of “it” toys offends me deeply. On principle alone I wouldn’t walk across the street to get an “it” toy for free.

I defend the right of marketers and manufacturer’s to try to build the aura of “it” for their products but I equally defend my right, as a mother, to keep my children from being exposed to the media that encourages “it” toys. And, if exposed, I stand firm on my efforts to help my children see that their lives will not be ruined forever if they never receive an “it” toy.

This is an interesting perspective well worth looking at, mostly because it wasn’t the angle I was even approaching the original article from. From my perspective, unless you homeschool your child in a media-less environment, they are going to be aware of the toys that other children desire and that will be a part of forming their own desires. If you educate your child on consumer issues well (for starters, read Born to Buy), your child should be able to recognize obvious marketing, but that doesn’t mean that any child will disdain an enjoyable toy or will completely ignore the interests of their friends.

Some of the commenters on the original post (like Elizabeth above) seem to actively avoid any heavily marketed toys and would refuse to buy them for their children. On the other hand, parents who expose their children to rampant consumerism and marketing are likely to have children that desire whatever the heavily marketed toys of the year are.

I’ll confess that I don’t like either approach, and here’s why.

I am a strong believer in educating my children about consumer issues when they’re ready. With my two year old, my current approach is to basically eliminate his exposure to persuasive advertising, but to wander with him through the toy aisles at stores and also having a strong idea of what toys he enjoys most at home. His most beloved toy at the moment is his giant bucket of Lego Duplos, so I have no problem with him being very interested in the Legos. He also enjoys small toy cars as well, so we tend to look carefully at the cars. We often put him into simple buying situations, too.

He’s already learning that he enjoys some toys more than others and I make sure to remind him of this when we are looking at toys in the store. “Remember, you play with your cars a lot at home… wouldn’t you rather spend your dollar on a handful of used cars than on that plastic tricycle?” is something I actually asked him at a yard sale not long ago. “You have a tricycle at home to ride!” He chose the cars.

Of course, often he makes choices I view as bad, but I strongly believe in freedom of choice. He might get a toy, play with it once, and forget about it. If that happens, I pull it out a few times again just to reinforce that he doesn’t like it, then put it in storage with the eventual goal of moving it onto Goodwill. Over time, we’re both building a sense of what he really likes and doesn’t like.

What does this have to do with the “it” toy? Let’s say, hypothetically, he comes home one day requesting that “it” toy. Knowing my child, I’ll usually have a fairly good idea of whether he’d like it or not. If I don’t think that he will, I might point out similar toys that he didn’t like or suggest alternative choices that I think better match him.

If he persists, however, I will get him that “it” toy, even if I’m certain he won’t play with it. Why? It becomes another valuable lesson. I can point out to him that that toy wasn’t very fun after all and it becomes a very useful lesson in how marketing works.

As for a wish list, it’s useful for grandparents or other distant relatives who might not know the child as intimately as a parent will, but as a parent, such a list is pretty useless to me. A gift from the heart, a gift that really expresses an understanding of the recipient, is always the best way to go.

So, yes, I’m completely in favor of seeking out the “it” toy provided it’s in the context of some strong consumer education. Where I don’t like it is when a parent buys it blindly for their child without any context or anything else.

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