I took my life in my hands last week and hit the toy stores in search for candidates for my annual "Worst Taste in Toys Award." The first morning in December would be, I thought, a fairly safe time to go Was I ever wrong! I had to watch out for young couples with babies, and grandmothers with fire in their eyes. Never get in the way of a grandmother shopping in a toy store at Christmas time.
The big item this year is Pokemon. Before I caught up with the phenomenon, I asked my friend the philosopher whether a Pokemon is animal, vegetable or mineral. She answered with the bemusement Baby Boomers have for generational questions, "All of the above." Anyway, Pokemons are all over the place and they are kind of cute little whatevers. Also there are lots and lots of Furbies of various sizes and those wonderful squashed-faced cabbage patch dolls are still in. Electronic games are very big this year, as always. There are rows and rows of new Nintendo games which inspired me to come home and dig out my Game Boy, put in new batteries, and watch Mario, the little plumber. Mario does not carry a gun, has never killed an enemy, and runs and jumps over furry things as enthusiastically as ever.
I may have to skip the "Awful Taste in Toys" award this year. I couldn't find anything that was quite in the same class as the "Jesus Doll" from 1992, or the "Mommy's Having a Baby," in 1993 . I will confess that "Dotty Potty - Better Hurry" comes close.
I was disappointed this year. I think we will never find as thorough a segregation of the sexes anywhere as exists in modern toy stores.
The "boy" aisles are full of guns and weapons and ferocious warriors. The "girl" aisles are full of Barbies -- white Barbies with huge hair, huge breasts, and even in the sports models, no muscles. The only color in those aisles is pink.
Poor kids. Their toys are threatening not only their tolerance, but their imagination, their need to build and create their own stuff - any kind of stuff.
I started looking for toys that encourage ingenuity, creativity and imagination in kids. I was thinking of something where you build or do something new, but most of what I found were kits where you assemble what somebody else has designed. They are underestimating kids, who are remarkably ingenious little creatures.
When my son Dave was a little boy he built a tree house to end all tree houses. His big brother John started the project, but Dave took it over and by the time he finally headed off to college, the apple tree was pretty well worn out, but the tree house was four stories high and had wall to wall carpeting. Depending on his mood of the day it was a Viking ship, a castle surrounded by a moat and fierce creatures, or maybe a fort. But whatever it was, his hands and his imagination created it and invested it with magical qualities. Dave and I were discussing the tree house by e-mail this week and he wrote, "When, as an adult, I got to see the world and some real forts and castles, it was interesting to see that they were almost as nifty as the tree house."
He went on to say that his favorite toy was a short-handled army shovel he found somewhere, whose blade folded back. "That combined with the hills out back were the best toys ever. We dug foxholes, built forts and carved out roads for the toy trucks."
Of course, my kids pre-dated television and computer games and had to fend for themselves a good deal., but I wonder whether kids are really all that different now. I believe that children's toys should be for children, and should be simple enough to encourage their imagination, their thoughts.
But in spite of all the Barbies and monster guns, the annual toy search with all the parents and grandparents wandering around with their arms laden with boxes of toys and love did reassure me that Santa is on his way.