From Pepper to Paw Patrol, Turtles to Thomas, there are huge corporations just waiting to rip money from your wallet in exchange for a fleeting glance of your kid’s delight.
Of all the useless crap I wish I could delete from my brain’s hard drive, right at the top of the list would be the Thomas the Tank Engine theme song.
That, and the ability to name every one of the 8000-plus smugly-smiling members of his “really useful crew”.
I tell you what would actually be really useful: a small portion of the money I spent on Thomas toys when my son was younger and had a one-railway-track mind.
Frankly, my entire family seemed to be in a similar trance as we all became obsessed with buying him every damn train he wanted, and the clever folks at the evil Thomas Corporation seemed to be able to churn them out faster than he could collect them.
Brace for the ‘pleaaaaaase, dad’
It is very hard to say no to your child when they want things – because the happiness it gives them to play with new toys gives you, the parent, the kind of high you haven’t experienced since your own childhood.
Plus, you really shouldn’t give in to this foolish retail therapy, because it turns out that children are even more fickle than cats. They will, without doubt, one day turn around and tell you that they’re now obsessed with Ben 10, and that Thomas is for little kids.
Plus, all that money you spent is now worth half of diddlysquat.
I’d like to say I’d learned this lesson by the time our daughter was born, and that it didn’t irk me at all when she had no interest in playing with her brother’s Thomas trains, but I’ve just been in her bedroom and counted no less than 218 Beanie Boos.
I blame the grandparents.
From a more scientific point of view, though, is it a bad idea to buy your children too many toys? And if you do buy them, should they only be the educational, nerdy ones that will expand their minds? And what are the right kind of toys for toddlers?
A few ground rules before you hit the shops
So, what should you actually buy? The no-brain-power-required answer to that one is just about anything that’s safe (just read the warning labels and make sure there’s nothing they can chew off a soft toy). If you’re on a budget, the good news is they’ll even enjoy things like wooden spoons, old tennis balls, and banging pots and pans for a while before you need to go shopping.
There are people who believe that buying kids any toys is a bad idea, because it leads them into being addicted to ‘stuff’. But where would our capitalistic society be without that addiction?
In all seriousness, though, a bunch of German scientists conducted a study some 20 years ago where they took all the toys away from a kindergarten for three months; partly because they were German, and partly because they were studying how we develop addictions.
Unsurprisingly, the first day was a nightmare and the children were upset and bored, but from the second day on they began to exercise their imaginations instead.
Turns out kids might not even need toys
Parenting expert Maggie Dent finds the experiment fascinating and reports that the children began to fold rugs over chairs, turning the furniture into play equipment.
Obviously children don’t need toys, as such, and Ms Dent says a common complaint she hears from parents is that their kids have piles of stuff they never play with. She told the ABC recently that she advises taking away two thirds of all the toys you’ve bought, and regularly rotating what’s left in the pile.
Getting your children to choose some of their toys to go to charity, for kids who don’t have so much, also teaches them a valuable lesson.
“Stick the rest in the garage, give it a three-month rotation; you won’t need to buy anymore because they will have forgotten they had them and they will feel all new again,” Ms Dent says.
Some parents report an unhappy response from friends, and grandparents in particular, when they try to limit the number of toys coming into their households, but Ms Dent says it’s about quality over quantity.
“Next time you buy something, have a conversation, does this allow children to be creative and be a bit more interesting?”
This is all fine and very well, but from experience I can tell you that most kids don’t end up falling in love with a Rubik’s Cube, or taking a chemistry set to bed with them every night.
The bonds they form, whether it’s with a favourite and infuriating talking Thomas toy, or a battered old toy dog, owe nothing to logic, or educational value. A toy’s main role, surely, should be to provide joy.
What we all should be thinking about as parents is how many toys is too many.
It’s a balancing act between creative kid and spoilt brat
Having a room full of toys almost gives a child too many options and, as the cruel Germans showed, reduces their need to use their imagination and be creative.
Too many toys can also reduce their attention span, and in our modern, screen-obsessed world, they really don’t need any help with that.
Having so many toys means they never focus on one for long.
Then there’s the argument that spending too much time playing with things – and things with screens in particular – reduces the amount of time kids are spending developing social skills, and learning to play with each other.
One phrase you’ll find yourself using a lot as a parent is that you just wish your kids would take better care of things (and good luck with that), but giving them fewer toys can help, because if they break something there isn’t another option always within easy reach.
Something else to consider is the larger argument that by giving your children everything they want, you’re creating spoilt little brats who have no appreciation for the value of money.
Take it from a dad who’s bought all the toys
Basically, try not to give them everything they want, and not too much of anything. It’s hard to say exactly how many is too many, but when you can’t see the floor, you’ve gone too far.
It’s equally important to avoid getting frustrated if your child doesn’t like to play with the kind of things you did, back in ancient times. Yes, Lego is loved by most kids, but not all.
Really, though, you shouldn’t be too strict about what sort of toys you buy your kids. Gender matters not (although there are some fascinating studies where chimpanzees were given human toys and the male ones all went for cars and the females for dolls), nor does educational value, when it comes to how much joy the toy will provide.
A good mix of the pointed and the pointless will no doubt serve them best, and once they’re old enough to discover the joy of toy shops, they’ll certainly let you know what they want (everything, generally).
As far as Thomas toys go though, I can recommend them. While our son won’t play with them any more, deep down he doesn’t want to let them go. I reckon they’ll outlive us all.
And if you want to buy any second hand…