Tuesday, January 06, 2015

The attraction distraction

If you have ever been to a Toys “R” Us store you are aware that it is a large, warehouse-sized superstore, packed wall-to-wall with toys for all ages of childhood.

The stores are neatly arranged and very attractive. The colors of the toys on display are bright, just right to catch a child’s attention. Or possibly cause nerve damage to aging eyeballs like mine.

We went with our son and his two daughters, ages 10 and 8 1/2, to a Toys “R” Us in Western Pennsylvania. It was our older girl’s 10th birthday just that day, as a matter of fact, and she was being allowed to pick out something she would like as a birthday present. As another matter of fact, when you have two children so close in age there is no exclusivity in gift-giving. Both must get gifts on each other’s birthday, lest one feel left out. I don’t know if that is true in your family, but it is in ours. So the younger girl also got to choose a toy.

 As you can see from this photo, our girls have a dollhouse which needs to be continually replenished with new doll tenants.

The younger one is much quicker to decide, the older...well, not so quick. In discussing it with her dad we wonder if her problems with making a choice is that she is a perfectionist, and she does not want to get it wrong. But it was not just her who had a hard time deciding on this day. Just about every child who was in the store with a parent or grandparent (and there were at least a couple of dozen) were having the same problem.

What I heard were a lot of adults telling a lot of children words to the effect of, “Come on, we don’t have all day. Make up your mind.” Or, “You said you wanted a Barbie. Here are the Barbie dolls. So why are you looking at the Monster High School dolls?”

Or like one exasperated older man, “Now look, dammit, I’ve got a lot better things to do today that watch you look at every toy in this goddam store. MAKE UP YOUR MIND AND LET’S GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!” Oh, wait, that was me who said that. Except I didn’t really say it. I thought it very strongly, though, hoping my ESP might plant the idea in my granddaughter’s mind.

Finally the choices were made and we headed out the door. Across the parking lot was a Barnes & Noble store. Knowing how much the older girl likes to read I found myself talking before I had thought it out: “Why don’t we go to the bookstore and let Grandpa buy you both a book?” And the same thing happened as in Toys “R” Us, but this time it was my doing. Eventually, though, even choices were finally made, except they both got more than one book. I like to encourage reading but I think some of it had to do with them not being able to make a final decision on just one book. And the experience of waiting in a bookstore is a lot different than waiting for a child to make up her mind in a toy store. In the bookstore I looked at art books, graphic novels, and even a couple of magazines while the children went about making their choices.

Children are not naturally able to make choices in such situations. They have not yet developed critical thinking abilities, which can weigh the relative benefits of one purchase to another. But adults who design and build toys trade on that childish immaturity. Every product for children is designed in such a way that it is all enticing, all exciting, all promising a level of happiness and a near-nirvana state if the child chooses it.

Children grow up. We eventually learn to be consumers and make wiser choices. Or do we? Products for adults are sold the way toys are sold, and often we pick them out the same way kids do. You will be happy, deliriously happy if you pick this car/detergent/smart phone/pair of shoes...etc., etc. We all know it isn’t possible to be totally satisfied because in this world of consumer products there is always something that is sold as better, more hip, more cool to own. Apple has been selling that throughout their history.

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