Updated on 09.19.14

The “It” Toy: A Parent’s Perspective

Trent Hamm

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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  1. Amanda B. says:

    I think you should judge a toy more by its merit, not its hype. However, that means that you shouldn’t avoid an “it” toy on principle if it is worth the hype. For example, the Wii. It is a really hot game system. That is not why I got one. It is more interactive than other systems and it helps (albeit in a small way) counteract the sedentary nature of video games. If I shunned it because of the media frenzy attached to it, I would probably be home watching reruns instead of laughing with my husband about how stupid we look “running” track with Sonic and Mario. By the way, the Olympics game really burns some calories.

  2. Mrs. Micah says:

    I like the idea of teaching them about hype by buying the toy and seeing whether they grow tired of it. I know I was sometimes sad that my parents didn’t buy the “it” toy for me. Perhaps I would have learned faster if they had. Perhaps.

    Amanda makes a good point about the Wii. There’s something that lives up to the hype–my goodness! The hype there is based more on quality.

  3. LC says:

    I agree. I did get a cabbage patch doll for christmas when I was young, and I still remember how excited I was and how often I played with it. I didn’t even realize at the time that it was an “It” toy or that they may have been hard to get. I think that is the only instance of ever getting an “It” toy because it is the only one I asked for because I wasn’t really interested in any of the other things that people said I had to have. Goes to show that my parents didn’t buy things just because they thought they had to but because they knew I would like it.

  4. Samantha says:

    (@AmandaB.: There is a Wii Workout Group on Traineo (a fitness site)! LOL!)

    I’m the mom of 2, a pre-teen girl and a teen boy. There have been lots of “it” toys since I became a parent. And some years where there hasn’t really been an “it” toy, if you can believe that. There have been years were we couldn’t afford the “it” toy, years where the “it” toy was too young or too old for our kids and years where the kids just weren’t interested(!).

    Based on my experience, I will say that no matter what you do your children will learn to filter out the hype at some point. The absolute best thing you can do to encourage this in your child is to be an example. Let your child see you get excited about something you see hyped up in the media and what you do about it. For example, a new movie is being heavily hyped on TV and it sounds really good! So you go online and read the reviews and and viewer comments. The next time the ad comes on, you make a comment along the lines of, “That movie looks so good in those commercials! But I read that people didn’t enjoy it very much, so rather than spend a lot of money at the theater, I’m going to rent it when it comes out on video.” Whenever you buy or don’t buy something, say how you came to that decision. Believe me, it feels good when your words come back to you from your kids!

  5. Emily says:

    I’ve noticed that the ‘it’ toy is always something I can’t imagine being fun for more than a few weeks. Growing up, few of my toys took batteries, most didn’t move or talk or anything. But in my imagination, they were totally real. So many of these new toys seem to take imagination away from kids and force them to play in some prescribed way.

  6. jtimberman says:

    For what its worth Trent, I wasn’t criticizing your post in my comment, I was criticizing the overcommercialization of Christmas in this country.

  7. thordora says:

    This is almost exactly the approach we’re taking with our daughters, and so far so good. I’m continually having to explain to my 4 year old what advertising is, and what it’s meant to make her want. She gets it. Sometimes we buy the “cool” toy, sometimes we don’t. This year, I’m fighting with myself over some test tube alien thing that looks like a waste of money and time, but that she really wants. She’ll likely get it as an illustration of why somethings aren’t as fun as the commercial makes it seem.

    My parents never got me the things I really wanted, the “it” toys, so I had to wait until I was a bit older to fully grasp the concept that just because it LOOKS cool doesn’t make it so. I too want to raise a more savvy consumer than this.

  8. jason says:

    I’ve enjoyed watching my eight-year-old educate himself about the difference between *getting* and *having* “It.” More than once, after saving up birthday money, chore allowances, etc, he has declined to buy some shiny It, usually in favor of something interactive, like a football, or a new card game. When asked why, he has said that the thing he came in for didn’t just look as fun.

    One tactic worth considering is borrowing It, for a week, from a friend or family member. A week’s dry run will often prove whether It is worth it.

  9. AnneTanne says:

    Over the past years, for my son there have been several ‘it’ toys, but it never was an heavily marketed thing.
    We do have television, but no cable, only a small digital antenna, that only captures a few TV stations, none of them a commercial one. And I think that the fact that our son rarely sees a TV commercial, prevents him from being ‘infected’ by this marketing.
    (On the other hand, it often makes it more difficult to find his ‘it’ toy, because it can be something that was only fabricated two or three years ago, and you don’t find it in any shop anymore ;-)… But I don’t mind that.

  10. Craig says:

    I limited my now 11-year-old daughter’s exposure to TV when she was young (we substituted DVDs) and her desires for toys were based on trips to the toy store and sometimes from friends. As soon as she started watching televisio, however, you could see the effect of advertising as she “had to have” the toys that were advertised. That started an ongoing discussion about what advertising is and how it affects the viewer and today she’s is able to watch commercials with at least some objectivity. Hopefully that will continue to grow with time, especially if I’m doing my job as a parent.

  11. When children ask for certain toys, it presents a wonderful opportunity to discuss the value of money. If the toy is a “large” expense, then parents can discuss a “plan” to earn and save for the toy. Perhaps the parent could offer to “match” the child’s savings dollor for dollar. It may take months to save for the item but the child will learn the value of money…

    Regarding commercialism, it is not difficult to minimize. Personally, I do not have cable and the primary source of television is public broadcasting, which is largely free of advertising. Also, my wife and I set our kids’ expectations: They know they will not receive anything they ask for…

    As for entertainment, my children enjoy video games that are free on the internet.

    For my six-year old, my wife and I have found that “plug and play” games are fun and inexpensive. A Wii system, plus games, will cost hundreds of dollars. A “plug and play” (found at Wal-Mart and Target) costs $20 or less…

  12. Mike says:

    Great post and really insightful comments. This site consistently provides useful information and discussions. Thanks.

  13. Gena says:

    The thing that spoke to me in this post was the idea that kids be educated about marketing. My boys are 8 and 10, old enough to understand that the commercial’s job is to get them to buy the toy, and they’re starting to take a more critical eye after being let down by a couple of hyped cool toys. However, friends and pressure to fit in play are already beginning to play a role in their play choices. Witness the Pokemon phenomenon. Both of my kids are starting to realize that the cards don’t really make them happy, but in wanting to fit in with other kids, they buy into the cards as a means of having common interests/dialog. The desire to fit in with peers, even at this age, is intense.

  14. Dana says:

    I think the best thing about your blog is that you accept criticism, even rambling incoherent criticism, gracefully.

  15. vh says:

    Great discussion!

    “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. ”

    Really? Do marketers and manufacturers REALLY have a right to target and manipulate small children? Do the REALLY have a right to play on parents’ feelings for their children (one of which, let’s admit it, everyone, is guilt!) to make avid little consumers out of the kiddies? Do they REALLY have a right to come into your home (your car, your shopping places, your schools, your…you name it, you can’t get away from aggressive advertising) to inject themselves into your family dynamics so that they can make money on you and your kids?

    I don’t think so. There’s something about “It” marketing frenzies that moves past crassness and reaches immorality.

    If you think you can educate your children to resist marketing forces, maybe you should think again. All the time my son was growing up, I tried to discourage him from smoking, and every time we saw an ad I pointed out what was wrong with it, so that yup, he could see through hype. I told him the tobacco peddlers murdered my mother and my father, and that the reason he never met his grandmother is that she died of cancer nine months before he was born. When he was old enough to understand and not be unduly frightened, I explained to him that I still grieved for my mother because of the truly hideous way she died, twenty or thirty years before her time.

    He started smoking at 19. He’s now 30. He still smokes. He has tried several times to kick the addiction, but he has failed each time. Because he works for an insurance company and understands the financial implications of divulging the existence of this habit, he refuses to go to doctors, because he is afraid to have any hint that he smokes appear in records available to health insurors.

    He certainly recognized hype. It didn’t do him a bit of good.

    In retrospect, we merrily bought him every gotta-have-it toy that came out. Maybe if we had taught him that he did not have to possess and do everything the rest of the kids wanted, he would have been better prepared to resist the quite deliberate commercial manipulation of peer pressure when his friends offered him that first cigarette.

  16. Kay says:

    Carrying on Gena’s theme of educating children about marketing, at the risk of going out on a tangent: I was so proud yesterday when my teenager lunged for the TiVo pause button so that he could try to read the fine print at the end of a home equity loan commercial. Toy ads don’t impress him anymore and the “Xtreme!” marketing targeted at his demo brings nothing but a derisive smirk, so we’ve started discussing car financing, loan, and credit card commercials as they appear. We watched one and I asked him if he thought it sounded like a good deal (“sure”) and then we looked at the fine print, which clearly indicated the interest charge of over 1200%. No typo. We did the math and now he gets a kick out of finding other advertisers that take advantage of desperate, gullible people.

    Bottom line: Your child will be the target of marketing for his entire life. You won’t always be able to shield him from it, but you can give him the skills to evaluate hype vs value. Our boy will find an MP3 player under the tree this year, as he requested, and I’m glad that we can be sure he won’t start whining because it isn’t an iPod… and he’ll enjoy a 6 month music subscription we bought with the savings off the trendy product, too.

  17. Thanks for clarifying your views Trent. As a soon-to-be-father I’m going to be taking a lot more interest in consumerism as it relates to children. Thanks for the “Born to Buy” suggestion too … I’ve just requested it from the local library.


  18. Monica says:

    Here in Quebec there is no TV advertising directed at children, which I am sure I would be really happy about if I were a parent.

    I was young at the time of the Cabbage Patch craze and I neither asked for nor received one. That Christmas my parents gave me a quality German-made doll. I think it was a far better present.

  19. Samantha says:

    (@Kay: LOL at the derisive smirk from son!

    @vh: yes, manufacturers do have that right to make their product seem cool and neat. So long as they don’t say it flies and walks the dog when it doesn’t. Those hyped commercials are a good opportunity for a parent to interject their comments on them to their children. Sometimes your voice as a parent is small, but repetition works! And even if it doesn’t, the children will learn by their own experience (my parents sure didn’t sit me down to explain consumerism or interject their comments during my “kiddie” shows as a child) but the more hyped something is, the more likely I am to ignore it until it’s old.

    @Monica: No TV ads directed at Children? Do they have “it” toys in Quebec? Are the ads for them directed at their parents? (*finds this fascinating*)

    Speaking of what to say to children, I remember my son wanting an “it” toy when he was about 6 or 7. I asked him if he was SURE that the toy was as great as the commercial said it was and he said, “I guess so.. that’s what they said on TV.” Hahahah! I took the opportunity to tell him that commercials are made by the people who want to sell the toy and take your money. Sometimes they make it sound more fun than it is to “trick” you into buying it so they get your money. Later, he and his sister, 3 years younger, were watching TV and a toy commercial came on… Sister said, “I want that!” Brother said, “It’s not really that fun. They’re trying to trick you!!”

  20. PiFreak says:

    Hah! Pokemon!
    I remember that phase well.
    I never really got the point of it. There was, however, one card that I wanted. It was a firey unicorn, and almost everyone had one, so it wasn’t even a rare card. I waited until someone was selling all their cards (100 or so) for about 20 bucks. I offered him a quarter for the card, and was totally thrilled for about four months… then the school year ended and the fad ended. All in all, the “It” card was worth it. I ended up selling it the next year for a dime, so for 4 months of being really happy, I spent 15 cents…. definately a good investment.
    That whole rant was basically agreeing with the whole “find out the reasons” thing.

  21. Hanna says:

    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.

    I had to chuckle a bit at this. You are a new parent so that is something you can say. But, as a parent with three kids (4 – 11), I can tell you that this lesson is lost on them.

    They got the toy. They got the momentary joy of having the “in” thing, which will hook them better than any drug. It is no different than an adult who buys the newest “in” tech toy. They can tell themselves that it was bad financial decision but does feel so good for a little while to know that you were the envy of your peers.

    Have you read the recent study on how we humans get a more of a thrill if we know we are better off than our peers?

    If our child insists that want an “in” toy, we offer to split the cost (whether through allowance or extra chores). It is amazing how quickly children suddenly are not subject to marketing when they have to pay for it. Even as young as 3.

    And if they do agree, and the toy turns out to be a dud… well, then there is a lesson in the waste of it. Or if the toy is well used, I learn a lesson that maybe the “it” toy was something they really wanted.

    The reason I feel the need to chuckle at your comment is because I have been there… a young parent who is sure that their child will understand the waste without paying for it. If you think this, you have been pulled into yet another marketing ploy.

    The problem is that without paying fr it, children can see no negative in the waste. If the toy is not interesting after they get it… ah, well, that is ok. They will get another “it” gift at the next gift giving holiday…

    Combating marketing is a proactive thing, not a reactive thing. If you are reactive, the marketing industry has won and they got your dollar (or 10… or 20… or 30…)

  22. !wanda says:

    There’s logic I’m missing here. If gifts are supposed to come from Santa, why should kids care if they cost money or are difficult to get? My mom made it very clear that things cost money, that it was good to save money, and that Santa was fictional, so I didn’t like getting random fun things for Christmas because it meant my parents weren’t saving money. But if Santa can magically give other children Wiis, why can’t he give your child a Wii?

  23. tightwadfan says:

    I still hate the “it” toy phenomenon. I hate seeing people act like crazed animals, pushing and shoving in a frenzy to get this year’s toy, while the news crews film them, and the marketers laugh all the way to the bank. I will never join that mob.

    I never wanted any of the it toys growing up so I never saw my parents lose their dignity like that, but I would have lost so much respect for them if I had seen them acting like the people on the news. Even paying an inflated price on eBay is going too far.

    Each time parents fall for the “it” toy scam, they are just giving positive reinforcement to the marketers that manufacture the hype.

  24. M3isMe says:

    Homeschooling doesn’t keep your kids from knowing what other kids have…trust me on this!! As for the “it” toy, my 8-year old, my 11-year old and my 16-year old have all been raised to think through advertising (what are they saying, “If you drink this beer, you will get a gorgeous blonde girlfriend with big boobs?”), to understand the purpose of advertising (to get you to buy the product), and to read the fine print on ads like another poster mentioned (we love reading the diet ads “results not typical” as a quick example of misleading advertising). They also are in charge of their own birthday money, etc. This has made for some educated buyers. The 16-year old eschews “it” clothes in favor of clothes that look nice for a lot less money, but loves his Nintendo DS Lite; the 11-year old has buyers-remorse for a Lego purchase he made because, after spending $40 of lawn-mowing money on the kit, he realized he got a few hours of enjoyment out of putting the thing together (“Mom, I wish I had just bought Legos from eBay…who cares about the kit.); and the 8-year old truly, truly loves her American Girl doll (vs. a Target knock-off), but is thrilled with Target clothes for her. We do lead by example…our cars are for us, our house is for us, and our clothes are for us. We discuss purchases ahead of time in front of the kids (from how much we spend on groceries to what we might do to the house). My point: You don’t have to respond to advertising…overt or subliminal. We’re all aware it is there…it is our choice to buy into it or not.

  25. Monica says:

    Samanatha, That’s right, all advertising directed at children under 13 is completely prohibited under the Quebec Consumer Protection Act. Apparently if the treatment is not designed to appeal to children’s tastes, there can be advertising of children’s products directed to adults as long as it’s not during children’s programs. I haven’t ever actually seen an ad for a toy on Quebec TV though, so I don’t know whether they actually exist.

    I don’t know anyone with young children, so I’m not sure to what extent this helps with lessening the hype for “it” toys. Certainly all the same toys are available here as elsewhere. It probably has a greater effect on French-speaking children, since anglo children will also be watching TV broadcasts that originate from outside Quebec.

  26. turbogeek says:

    VH: “Really? Do marketers and manufacturers REALLY have a right to target and manipulate small children? Do the REALLY have a right to play on parents’ feelings for their children (one of which, let’s admit it, everyone, is guilt!) to make avid little consumers out of the kiddies?” … “In retrospect, we merrily bought him every gotta-have-it toy that came out. Maybe if we had taught him that he did not have to possess and do everything the rest of the kids wanted, he would have been better prepared to resist the quite deliberate commercial manipulation of peer pressure when his friends offered him that first cigarette.”

    I am so sorry your child is in the trap of tobacco. I was as well for 19 years. It’s tough, but he can quit. You can help. Every tim he smokes, and you know about it, and say nothing, you are repeating the reinforcement that it is okay.

    Yes, the marketers have the right to target kids. Also, YES, I have the right to turn the TV off in my home, take my kids home, and tell my kids “NO”. It’s my house. I’m the Dad. Kids will only learn to be as strong as their parents. Be strong for your child. Tell them ‘NO’.

  27. suz says:

    An excellent post (agreed 100%) and so many great comments, I just hope I can guide my child with this much wisdom and patience.

  28. Sarah says:

    Great post! I totally agree with your point of view. I follow the old saying, ‘all things in moderation.’ There is nothing wrong with ‘it’ toys, in moderation.

    I was raised in a household where we didn’t buy ‘it’ toys. It did nothing to help teach me about value or frugality. I will not buy my children every popular item they ask for, but I will use their birthdays and Christmas as times to show them generosity by giving them what they want, (well, some of the things they want).

    To teach generosity you have to first show it. As children get older they also begin to understand hard work, saving, investing, etc, if they are given the proper example. I think if we reserve items like ‘it’ toys for special occasions, and ONLY purchase them when we can afford to we are teaching our children a valuable lesson.

    Of course kids are going to want things of little value, so do I sometimes. I want to teach my children that it’s alright to splurge every now and then, even if the item only brings momentary pleasure, (as long as it isn’t inherently dangerous). One of the rewards of working hard and living frugally is the freedom to occasionally blow money on items with no long term return.

    All things in moderation.

  29. Schwamie says:

    While my daughter has not been restricted from watching television, she has been taught from a very early age the value of a dollar. She has always received an allowance and was able to spend it on what she saw fit ($2 a week). The challenge for her was to either save up enough for the toy herself (with the holiday and birthday time being the exception if it fell into a price range below $20). She was told that she would only receive one “special” gift during the two times mentioned previously. She quickly learned that if she didn’t have the money then she couldn’t get the toy. She has also been introduced to lay-away. We have found a few shops that are willing to do this. She would find an item that she wanted and would make payments towards it and when she paid it off, she would then get the toy. She quickly learned that even if she wanted to “change her mind”, she was stuck in an agreement to buy the toy on lay-away. Now she is 10 and only buys toys that she knows she will play with, especially when she is having to spend her money on them.

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