GARY STEEL wonders: Isn’t it time we stopped throwing this highly packaged plastic crap at our kids?
Her indictment of Santa’s gifts cut like a knife.
“I don’t LIKE my presents! THEY’VE got the BEST presents, and MINE are no good!”
She’d been over to see the kids next door and had decided that what Santa brought her just wasn’t good enough. The two girls had each received Hatchimals and several pretty dresses, while the older boy was playing with his new drone.
That night at bedtime, she reiterated her disappointment. “I wanted Santa to bring me an Elsa dress and Elsa rings and Elsa shoes! My presents are dumb!” And tears welled up.
It had all gone spiffingly on Christmas Day. The 4-year-old got the lion’s share of presents, and as usual, the little princess hogged the limelight. By contrast, her new baby brother got a few infant clothes, while Mum and Dad went without. She seemed happy at the time with her unicorn and rainbow-themed presents. After all, that’s what she had asked for.
A few weeks before Christmas she had revealed that she’d asked Santa for a real live unicorn, but I think that even she knew that was beyond the realms of possibility. In the months leading up to Christmas she’d been all about rainbows and unicorns and she seemed happy enough with a miscellany of themed presents on the day, but her joy would be short-lived.
I had misguidedly thought she’d be thrilled with the two special presents we’d arranged over and above the rest: a bargain-price tablet set up with educational apps and a genuine full-sized digital piano that her Mum could teach her to play. [The piano was for Mum, too, but she’s not so good at sharing]. She complained about the piano, too. “I don’t LIKE black pianos! I like PINK pianos!”
As it happened, the issue was quietly resolved when I positioned all her presents in the lounge and got Minay to invite her friends over. They loved playing with her toys. When I later asked her if she liked her toys after all, the answer was a meek: “Yes.”
But why had I felt so hurt at the little monster’s indictment of her presents? Maybe it’s because there’s still residual disappointment at some of the presents I got as a boy. It took me a long time to get over the fact that Mum and Dad were never going to give in and buy me the pedal car I so desperately wanted at the age of two, having played fleetingly with one owned by – yes – the kid next door.
Worse still was the crushing disappointment when I was given my first watch. The kid next door (another kid, another neighbourhood, but you get the theme, right?) had a very handsome, stylish Citizen-branded watch and that’s what I had requested for my 10th birthday. Instead, my parents bought me an Oris watch. It was really ugly, and what kind of torture is that for a kid to have to live with a watch called an ORIS? I still remember the way my heart sank when I opened the package.
But that’s where the parallel experience stops. Although – like now – Christmas in the 1960s suburbia of Hamilton was all about the kids, we didn’t really get much, and what we got certainly wasn’t unrecyclable plastic junk. Maybe some marbles, or a Matchbox toy. And perhaps – just perhaps – it’s the vacuity of receiving a vast array of fleetingly entertaining plastic shit that breaks after a couple of days or weeks and goes straight to landfill that makes it such an ultimately meaningless experience.
When we first talked about having kids we were resolute about the way we wanted to raise them. They weren’t going to have access to mobile phones or computers until they were school age and even then their use of such things would be monitored and drip-fed. We would give them only meaningful presents made of natural materials. They would wear organic clothes. They would eat only healthy foods with a minimum of sugar. (You get the drift).
None of that has happened. The 4-year-old has always been fed with care and for a long time she loved veg and was unusually curious about foods that many toddlers famously reject. Unfortunately, as soon as she was introduced to sugar-overload lollies by well-meaning adults and other kids her taste buds seemed to change and getting her to eat anything other than empty calories (pasta, noodles, bread, hot chips) has become a huge challenge. As low-income parents we’ve never been in a position to buy organic clothing and instead were the grateful recipients of friends’ cast-offs. We’re happy about that though, because it’s the one aspect of all this that makes sense: children only wear their clothes for a short time as they soon grow out of them, and I love the fact that those clothes get passed on to others who need them.
Keeping her away from smartphones and tablets, however, has proved impossible. If we lived in a bubble or a hippy commune perhaps she’d be hanging out with friends whose parents had the same intentions, but living in the real world we’re finding that sticking to our guns on these issues is not just a challenge, but impossible. She loves the kids next door and they’re always hanging out, but those kids (from 3 to 7-years-old) have constant access to smartphones, tablets and an X-box, and their parents have a very different idea of child rearing. Where we’ve found it useful to stick to set routines, in their house lunch can easily be at 3 in the afternoon, and they’re often let stay up to all hours watching TV, while we try to get her into the bath by 7.30 and in bed as quickly as possible afterwards – which admittedly is a process that she will extend as long and possible. We’re also vegetarian, but a 4-year-old doesn’t really get the difference between a Linda McCartney ‘sausage’ roll and one with animal guts in it, and she loves the meaty bits she inevitably gets to consume next door.
My wife slaves over artfully constructed, aesthetically pleasing, Japanese-style lunchboxes for the 4-year-old at kindergarten, while many of the parents provide their kids disgraceful lunches. Still, she often turns up her nose at her lovely lunch because she wants to have what all the other kids have, which is mostly bags of chippies and sausage rolls and various other packaged products.
Which brings me back to her disappointment at Christmas. It’s not that she didn’t like her Christmas presents. On the day she was thrilled with them, but when she saw what the neighbours had, she wanted the same things. It’s an early form of peer pressure, the desire to fit in, and I wish I could explain to her that it’s all bullshit and that she shouldn’t care what others have and go her own way and do what she wants to do, but that’s not something you can tell a 4-year-old. And what she wants right now is to do and eat and play with what the other kids do.
And more to the point, I wish we hadn’t gone down this slippery path of buying her cheap plastic unrecyclable plastic shit in the first place, but what’s the alternative? Expensive handmade wooden toys that have none of the spectacular colours or electronics of the plastic counterparts? Block sets? We’d be popular parents if we did that.
But really, with the current emphasis on ‘one use’ plastic bags being the prevalent evil and supermarkets making a big deal about trying to cut down on the use of plastic packaging, isn’t it about time that pressure was put on the makers of all that plastic shit – the toy industry – to do something about their toxic waste?
If I’d kept careful records of our child’s toys over the years I’m sure it would make for depressing data. Those cheap Chinese shops are the worst, with their non-branded (or fake) toys that literally fall apart in minutes, and often with packaging that’s more ornate and resilient than the toys themselves. But the branded toys in shops like The Warehouse, while the quality is usually better, are equally environmentally at odds with prevailing trends. The packaging of these toys is so over the top and wasteful that the producers must be climate change deniers. And the big craze in the past five or six years seems to have been around layered packaging that reveals more and more, like the very popular LOL dolly range.
The 4-year-old is preternaturally drawn to the most popular video clips on YouTube Kids, most of which are thinly veiled sponsored ads for toys where parents excitedly unveil the latest toys, and where the tease seems to be more important than the reality of the toy within a labyrinth of packaging.
I wonder if any of these toys – especially the ones in those ‘$2 & Up’ shops – are tested for toxicity and carcinogenic properties, given the propensity for toddlers to put the damn things in their mouths and take them into the bath, where they tend to grow black mould in the darndest places.
Back in 1966, Frank Zappa wrote ‘Uncle Bernie’s Farm’, which explicitly connected the industrial manufacture of children’s toys to the horrors of government indoctrination, but also raised concerns around the materialism of it all on lyrics like: “There’s a book with smiling children/Nearly dead with Christmas joys/And smiling in his office/Is the creep who makes the toys.” It seems, however, that the toy industry is being let off scot free because it’s somehow okay to pollute the world if, in the process, we’re giving children transitory thrills.
It’s the only reason I can think of for the lack of action on this front, which is surely just as polluting as ‘single use’ plastic bags, and not nearly as useful.
Meanwhile, I’m all ears if parents have any great advice on how to avoid the parent trap of buying plastic shit for kids at Christmas (and birthdays, and any other time).