Don’t Buy It: That Toy Your Kid Asked For

15 05 2009

I got a request for a blog post about how you “don’t buy it” when you have a child who suddenly realizes that colorful plastic things on the store shelves can theoretically come home with you, if you’re just persuasive enough in your entreaties.

At first I thought I would just point to CNAD’s helpful resources on parenting in a commercial culture, but…. when I got home tonight I wanted a Coke.

Coke is a guilty pleasure for me. Coke has got to be the prototypical marketing-invented need. It has no nutritional value; it’s full of chemically refined, cheap, crappy ingredients; it’s expensive; it probably tastes so terrible that the only reason we drink it is because it’s been relentlessly branded and marketed and sold at us for so many decades now we just think it is wonderful. And yet, for about two years now, I’ve had a mad jones for it. Buying it has become a semi-regular thing in our family. And tonight, when I got home from my 12-hour day in the metaphorical salt mines where I toil, we were out. No Coke for me.

I made an unhappy face and went to take my bath, which is my other restorative evening action. A few minutes later my husband appeared with a glass full of layers of red, orange, and fizziness, a swizzle stick with fireworky foily things on top, a lime wedge, and two maraschino cherries. So, who wanted a Coke?

It reminded me of a weekend visit by a friend of mine and his three year old son, several years ago. We were enjoying waffles for breakfast, with chocolate milk. Until, that is, my son requested, and was served, the last glass of chocolate milk. “I want more chocolate milk, too,” said my friend’s son, in exactly the tone of voice the parents among you are already envisioning.

A look of panic started to spread over my friend’s face.

But genius took hold of me and saved us all. “Zane,” I said, “would you like a glass of pink milk instead?”

Pink milk? Yes!”

And I stirred a tablespoon of grenadine into a glass of plain white milk. Which, it turns out, is both an attractive shade of pink, and delicious. Situation averted.

Necessity is the mother of invention. I know this, and yet in a wealthy, consumer culture I’m struck by how often we dull our inventiveness and our creativity by answering our needs and wants with money. The inventiveness is so satisfying — four years later, I still remember that moment with Zane fondly. And the work that generates the money is often so soul-numbingly dull.

It’s the same with kids. They don’t want toys, they want amusement, attention, opportunity. Every parent has had the experience of being begged for some shiny thing, giving in, and having the joy in it (and often, the thing itself) broken before the trip home is even finished.  I know that when my son asks for a toy on shelf, what he really wants is for something exciting and fun to happen to him. And yet I’m often so accustomed to dulling my inventiveness with a purchase that I don’t even stop to imagine …. what else could I offer? What could I say yes to that would be even better than this thing?

We recently took a vacation home to visit my parents. My son missed a week of school, so I told him we’d have to have “homeschool” for that week. Three hours a day, just like real kindergarten. Reading, writing, math, and something else. I didn’t have it all planned out, except that he would have to complete the journal his school sent home with him. I thought it would perhaps be a bit of a chore that we could enliven with field trips. When I got to my parents, I looked around and found my old Childcraft books, including one called Mathemagic! and another called Science Everywhere. I found some picture books my son could read to me, and a chapter book I could read to him. I found a math textbook my aunt wrote 30 years ago. This would be our curriculum. (God, doesn’t this sound boring?)

But it wasn’t boring. We made a field kit (go on, click the links for super cool science craft goodness) and went exploring in the woods I’d never been brave enough to visit as a child. We did puzzles with toothpicks and playing cards and secret math codes. We made glue. We did experiments with concoctions and paper clips and goo. We learned about the scientific method and Stephen Hawking and Jane Goodall and Marie Curie. We made an abacus. He read his uncle’s favorite book to me, all by himself. For both of us, it was the most fun — the most quality time — we’d spent in maybe a year. And all we bought — all week — was a box of colored pencils, a new notebook, a cheap plastic bug net, and a can of orange juice for our experiments.

I agree with Dickon’s mom that “th’ two worst things as can happen to a child is never to have his own way–or always to have it.” Sometimes a child really needs a boughten treat. But when children, or adults, long for things, sometimes what they really want is something good to happen. Something inventive, and exciting, and much newer and shinier than any plastic toy.




5 responses

19 05 2009
Don’t Buy It: Frivolous Bedroom Accessories « Don’t Buy It

[…] 19 05 2009 Sometimes in this space I take on the big issues. Racism, global warming, parenting. Not […]

24 06 2009

Wow! LOVE this post on toys vs. “happenings”. Thanks for the insight!

12 07 2009

Wow, this is an inspiring post. I know I want to be a mom like this when I am. Thanks for such inspiration. 🙂

12 07 2009
Don’t Buy It « All That Mom Taught Me

[…] the time that the great recession hit the world over. One of the posts was really very inspiring. ( It’s about how not to buy every toy that the child desires. That reminded of how my mom used […]

14 11 2009
Counting to Ten: Where It Led « Don't-Buy-It Family Learning Experiments

[…] to Ten: Where It Led 14 11 2009 This summer we had so much fun doing vacation “homeschooling” using old Childcraft books that we’ve started back up again with evening occasional […]

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