Esther Cepeda is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pity the new expectant mothers and fathers who diligently read parenting books and agree with the idea that making baby’s brain grow requires real human interaction. Their radical fantasies will soon be evaporated in a flurry of mistletoe, wrapping paper and good intentions.
About 13 years ago, I, too, was an idealist and declared my newborn child’s life to be an electronics-free zone. I was very clear and specific about my parenting philosophy: no toys that required batteries of any kind. Silly me.
It wasn’t as if I was alone. At that time, experts were starting to warn about toys that robbed children of creative, interactive, problem-solving play. All-natural and throwback toys — soft, plush pillows with peek-a-boo hatches; beautifully crafted boxes studded with different types of hasps, latches, chain and slide locks; beautifully carved wooden fruits and vegetables; elaborate train sets — were becoming the rage for the infant and toddler set.
Our cone of silence was blown to smithereens at the kid’s first Christmas, and I don’t mind telling you that grandma and grandpa Cepeda — who had grown up poor and still harbor painful memories of having to share their underwhelming Christmas presents with their many siblings — were the main culprits.
There were the “car keys” with a remote that re-created the arming of a vehicle anti-theft system and the siren of a police car that would presumably ride to the rescue in case of a breach. We ended up owning multiple bouncy chairs that squeaked music at the touch of a button; several take-along “learning systems” that sang the A-B-Cs with lispy, high-pitched articulations; and any number of things that flashed colored lights at the slightest provocation.
I was miserable. But for both of my sons, this was toddler heaven.
I’m kind of miserable this year, too, because the boys are soooo past Santa Claus and the days of toys under the Christmas tree are officially dead. All they deeply desire now is cold, hard cash — never mind this gift card business, they want their funds liquid so they can purchase the Xbox games and iPod apps of their choice and bankroll their expensive, behind-mom’s-back Starbucks habits.
Pang of nostalgia
A stab of nostalgia for time spent hauling myself all over the Chicago metropolitan area to find excellent toys for Christmas morning is what led me to scour the toy catalogs that have been showing up with the last few Sunday newspapers.
It’s a brave new world out there: If you want to buy a toy that won’t rot a kid’s brain or body, good luck. More than any year before, finding something that doesn’t have a lowercase “i” in front of it or requires some sort of power source will be a challenge.
I dare you to find any plaything, aside from stuffed animals — though they’re not immune, either — for infants to 3-year-olds that doesn’t light up, sing, speak, or come with a microphone or a screen. And this year even family classics such as Monopoly, Scrabble and Yahtzee come in electronic game piece versions, just in case rolling actual dice is too boring.
A conspiracy-minded cynic might wonder if the major electronics firms are secretly pushing highly functioning replicas of laptops, smartphones, digital cameras and tablet devices onto preschoolers to build a future consumer market.
Families on limited budgets can look to VTech and LeapPad for spiffy tablets that play video and have hundreds of educational and game apps, aimed at ages 4 and up. Families that can afford iPads and other “real” tablets have any number of apps and real joysticks, wands, and extension toys — such as remote-controlled helicopters and cars — to choose from.
It’s not as though there aren’t lots of great non-electronic toys out there that are fun and even educational; you just have to look really hard.
But that’s not much comfort to those few parents out there who dearly hope their children won’t be plied with all sorts of loud, flashing, catatonia-inducing gadgets this holiday season. If they can’t find a way to get loved ones to choose high-quality toys over the avalanche of ones that require little imagination or effort to interact with, I fear their oases of calm are in terrible danger.