Like Always, the Answer is 80's Toy Commercials
Two weeks after Christmas, the verdict is in. We failed. Once again, for the seventh year in a row, my wife and I did not succeed in giving our children any gifts that held their attention longer than two weeks. All the wrapped boxes earned plenty of excitement Christmas morning, and eve, and the weekend after Christmas when we attended our extended family parties. But in perhaps the greatest example of the first-world-problem cliche I can muster, we couldn't find the right overpriced construction of plastic and electronics to entertain my kids, and it's stressing me out.
But this is not one of those nausea-inducing entitlement stories where awful, whiny children complain of their boredom while surrounded by all the trinkets they begged for and threw tantrums over only a few weeks prior. They actually didn't ask for anything for Christmas. We spent hours around the kitchen table, flipping through catalogs and brainstorming the items their friends used to entertain themselves.
"Do you want a remote controlled car?" I asked.
"No," said my son.
"How about an Xbox?"
"I guess I could use more Legos," he replied. His list eventually filled with duplicates of items he already had, like a fancier set of walkie-talkies, and things he saw his parents and grandparents ask for, like a digital weather station.
Finally, I figured it out.
My kids' lives feature very little advertising. Most of their television viewing occurs through Netflix, with no commercials. They spend a fair amount of time on their Kindles, but the ads they see on Youtube usually don't apply to them. My son likes shark videos, but the spots in front of those are for cleaning products and cell phones. It's not that my kids don't like toys. It's that they don't know what toys are. They don't know how much blissful, wild fun can be delivered by a plastic action figure, because they've never witnessed child actors illustrating that particular joy.
My kids are fine. They switch between half-heartedly regulated screen time and their imaginations, between time with friends and time crafting and creating and time outside. They participate in a relatively healthy mix of distractions. Just not toys.
So... I have seen the problem. And he is me.
This all means 80's commercials were incredibly effective, way beyond what I've ever given them credit for. Look at those TV kids. They were so happy. And they all lived in the foothills of the Rocky mountains, where boulders abounded and paths on which they could drive their Cobra vehicles snaked through their childhoods. And when the toy required a more abandoned, industrial setting, they had those too. Everyone back then lived just around the corner from an old warehouse, where underground laser tag and crossfire tournaments regularly attracted throngs of fist-pumping fans.
Those kids were never alone. Playing always meant excited friends, none of whom would rather have played Nintendo or baseball after the group started playing Ninja Turtles. They never fought over who shot who first, they never claimed they "dodged," which was always ridiculous, because one can't simply dodge a bullet or a laser blast or a well-thrown nunchakus.
The evil wizards in the marketing departments at Hasbro and Kenner wielded a power that I don't think they understood. They worked me into a toy frenzy all those years ago, when Christmas morning meant joy and satisfaction beyond much that I can recreate as an adult. Possessing that new MASK vehicle, acquiring all the pieces necessary to construct a complete Voltron, those were profound and cherished memories. But their dark magic has earned them sales thirty years later, as I stand in the toy aisles weeks before every Christmas and try to put together a selection of toys that will give my kids that same dopamine wash, that same plastic-induced rapture.
This past Christmas, Santa got my son a remote-controlled Millennium Falcon, a toy far cooler than I anything I had as a kid. He still plays with it, every once in awhile, so it wasn't a waste. But when he's not around, I hold the thing, scrutinize it, look at all its parts, and how they fit together. Owning such a cool thing just makes me happy.
My son owning such a cool thing makes me almost as happy, too.