July 7, 2014

Kids today not excited by games and toys, as helicopter parents forbid play (a field report)

During a day-long excursion with my 6 year-old nephew yesterday, I decided to take him to Toys R Us. I remember getting lost in there for over an hour when I was his age, and it must have been a welcome break for my dad — just turn them loose and gather them back after awhile. I didn't know what to expect in the opposite role, but I knew it would be a good opportunity for observing "kids these days" no matter what.

It didn't sink in until after we'd returned home, as I began replaying the mental videotape. The whole time we were there in that sprawling toy store — around 45 to 60 minutes — there wasn't one moment where he started begging me to buy something that he'd had his mind set on for awhile. Nothing fascinating that he had been waiting for the right big occasion — Christmas, birthday, etc. — to finally get his hands on.

He showed up with an almost blank set of expectations about what would be on offer, and he therefore had no ranking of what mattered more than what else. It was as though he'd never seen a single toy commercial in his whole life.

(Perhaps that's no joke - I thought back on all the hours and hours of kids' TV shows I've seen him watch, and I don't recall seeing commercials for any of the major toy categories. They may have been in there somewhere, but it's not like when I was his age, and our parents saw us watching commercial after commercial for the next big thing that we just had to have, and dreaded the endless begging that followed.)

When we were six years old, we always had a list in the back of our minds of the toys and games that we were dying the most to play with. I'm using "toy" broadly — action figures, play weapons, board games, stuffed animals, pocket-sized vehicles, kid-sized vehicles, and sports-like novelties (the pogo ball, the Koosh ball, Nerf fencing, Skip-It, and so on).

This not only showed how much our parents encouraged the spirit of play in children. It also taught us how to weigh competing alternatives, rank them, and set about trying to reach those goals. And in the case of trying to get our hands on desirable toys, it gave us a vivid and frequent reminder that we don't always get what we want right away, and may have to wait awhile until we do — Christmas, birthday, visit to a spoiling grandmother, or what have you.

Since my nephew had no clear picture of what would be there, and which things he wanted more than which others, he instantly latched onto the first dazzling display upon entering the store — some small wind-up toys that didn't look cool or do anything cool, and that were cheaply built.

I left him unattended for about 10-15 minutes, telling him to look around the store, and I'd check in with him then to see what he really wanted — after inspecting more than just the first thing he saw. When I got back, he was still with those dumb wind-up toys, raised his voice about wanting these and nothing else, and nearly went into a meltdown when I told him he was going to look through some other things before he made a final decision.

Well, whaddaya know? The next place that had toys for a boy his age, he latched onto the first thing that caught his attention — some kind of hot wheel vehicle, only in the form of an elongated reptile. He nearly threw another fit when I told him to keep browsing through the other aisles again.

Amazingly, with every aisle we looked through, it was the same thing — no recognition of something he'd been waiting for and was dying to get. Not only that — no real attachment to anything he was seeing for the first time. Something that he would keep in his mental list for later. After we left, he didn't bug me for any of the things that he was shouting about just a half-hour earlier, and he didn't mention that he couldn't wait until next time when he could get his second or third-choice toys. He'd totally forgotten about all of them.

His mindset was just, latch onto the least boring thing in the array of things that I'm looking at right now, and let's get out of here already. Who knew that children have come to view a visit to the toy store as one of those "just get it over with" kind of activities? There were quite a few other families there, and their experience didn't appear to be any different.

Now, he did recognize the brands of many of the toys (Spiderman, Star Wars, etc.), but he didn't recognize the toys themselves, and wasn't drawn to them as toys — only as a product that came from a familiar brand.

Contrast that to when I was his age, and a good deal of the sought-after toys were from a wholly unfamiliar brand, and as far as we knew, only existed in toy form (although there were often very brief, basically invisible tie-ins like cartoons and comic books). Starriors, Inhumanoids, Battle Beasts, M.U.S.C.L.E., Cabbage Patch Kids, Teddie Ruxpin, just to name a few hit toys, were known to us only from the toy shelves.

If children nowadays don't get excited about games and toys, then what? I do recall seeing commercials on today's kid shows for glowing-screen "content" - other TV shows, movies, video games, "visit the website / download the app," etc.

Why give your kids toys and games for a spirited round of playing around, when you can knock them out with digital Benadryl instead? I also recall seeing ads on kids' shows for food and drink, AKA a steady injection to feed their sugar addiction. That's about the only exciting event in the day that they have to look forward to - their hourly fix as they plod along the carbohydrate treadmill, while vegging out in front of a screen.

Remember: helicopter parents are the ones who lobbied both the government and the private sector to filter out all stimulation from children's products, whether real or virtual. The uber-helicopter parents in Sweden are nazis about "advertising to children," so it wouldn't come as a surprise to find a similar movement going on in America. Ban commercials that offer children a means to use their imagination and get a little rambunctious, and rationalize it as shielding our darlings from the corporate Pied Pipers.

Thus, to soothe their own anxieties about where playing with toys and games might lead their children — drugs, pregnancy, murder — parents have weeded out play, engagement, and using your imagination in favor of vegetation, distraction, and painting-by-numbers.

Declining innovation in toys and games
Familiar mega-franchises supply most toy lines nowadays
Thing-oriented toys most popular with today's not-so-empathetic children
Millennials nostalgic about not having a life as kids


  1. I recall an older post where, when you were turned away from a McDonald's drive-through, you argued that Millenials lack the ability to discriminate. This seems the case here. They can't pick out which they like better.

  2. " It also taught us how to weigh competing alternatives, rank them, and set about trying to reach those goals"

    Right, this is the same ability at play when you discriminate between between a customer who might be dangerous vs. one who isn't.

  3. I think that's something slightly different. You're talking about where the person doesn't know where an appropriate boundary is (between dangerous and safe). They just rule everyone outside of their family as dangerous, which is silly.

    They aren't willing to wander and explore outside of their tiny little comfort zone to see how deep the water is, so to speak, at various distances away from "me." Their assumption is that you can tread water around the family, and then it instantly falls off to a bottomless pit.

    This comes from their helicopter parent upbringing. Have you noticed how they don't allow their kids to roam around and find out where the right boundaries are? Instead of letting them interact with their peers and discover which ones are worthwhile friends and which are not, they close off peer interaction altogether. Instead of showing them which plants are irritant and which are not, when walking through the woods, they just tell them not to touch any plants at all.

    They rationalize these black-and-white / hard-and-fast rules as being more suitable for the immature mind, which cannot grasp subtle distinctions. But like the rest of their rationalizations, it's just a paper-thin strategy for minimizing the parents' own anxieties about letting their kids awkwardly grope around to get a feel for the landscape.

    Groping around requires trial-and-error, risk and reward, hard falls and healing, and all that other awkward real-life stuff. Let's just pretend that they're incapable of that, and pen them in with laughable, absolute rules and regulations.

    Such children grow up more or less blind and numb to the lay of the land they must now go out into, but it's not all a loss -- at least the parents got to feel comfortable in avoiding real-life awkwardness.

  4. Bender: Fry, of all the friends I've had, you're the first.

  5. quoted at CH7/8/14, 5:32 PM

    What a coincidence. Just yesterday I was somewhere (less than 24 hours later I can't remember- welcome to 57), and Mom had a 3 year old who was playing contentedly with a heavy equipment toy, I. e. road grader type thing. Exactly like it was 1962.

  6. funny, there's a new documentary out about the 60s. are we heading for that? I dunno, I think "Face to Face" argued that what we're going to is more simlilar to the 20s, because we have an aging demographic and, according to theory, will soon experience rising equality(falling immigration).

  7. I'd be willing to bet the helicopter parents these days would be afraid to leave their child's side for a minute in a large toy store.


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