Trouble with toys

Lining up the trouble-makers ...
Lining up the trouble-makers ... 

A reliance on gifts to appease and reward children could be harming their development.

When her two school-age children were younger and much less observant than they are now, Susan* used to give ''up to half'' of the gifts they were given by friends and family away to charity before they had a chance to see them. There just seemed to be so many.

''On some level I just think it's too much,'' she says. ''I mean, how much does one kid need? I've seen young kids at birthday parties get almost feral. They get 20 new toys at once and they rip into one and then another and another. But they don't really appreciate any of them.''

Elizabeth McMullen, who has two sons, aged eight and 13, shakes her head about the number of toys in her Croydon home.

Learning curve: Toys such as Lego encourage creativity and socialisation, but portable games consoles are a different story.
Learning curve: Toys such as Lego encourage creativity and socialisation, but portable games consoles are a different story. Photo: Edwina Pickles

''It's disgraceful, really, how much they have,'' she says. ''Full sets of Thomas the Tank Engine. The plastic dinosaurs; Jurassic, Cretaceous, whatever - every epoch of dinosaur, [my eldest boy] has the toys from it. Whereas when I was a kid, you would have got one dinosaur.''

Child and adolescent psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg says that every Christmas he discusses ''the issue of how many toys are handed out, and there's no question that there is an expectation now that they will get more and that it has reached ludicrous levels''.

He says he recently heard about a birthday party for an eight-year-old where each child went home with a new iPod. ''Children's birthday parties are also completely out of control,'' he says.

Looking around at her sons' toys, McMullen comes out with the word ''spoilt'' but then corrects herself. ''No, spoilt is not the right word. That implies they're horrible about it. But they're not. They are polite and grateful. They really enjoy playing with their things and they are good at sharing. But they do have a lot of stuff and I know there are a lot of children who don't.''

Carr-Gregg defines spoiling a child as tolerating ''excessive, self-centred immature behaviour … so you get recurrent temper tantrums and an inability to handle delayed gratification''.

He believes a lot of time-poor parents use presents to assuage feelings of guilt and as a shortcut to managing behaviour.


''I think [toys] are used almost as a currency of bribery,'' he says. ''I have clients who will unashamedly bribe their children to do things with the promise of toys. It's very sad.''

Praise and gratitude, he believes, should be sufficient reward. '''Thank you for helping mummy.' That should be enough.''

McMullen sees other forces at work.

The early primary school years seem to be the peak time for toy acquisition, she says. ''You invite the whole class to your birthday party and there's 20 presents, boom. Plus [gifts from] family. I didn't have birthday parties when I was a kid. Not like that.''

The influx seems to drop off again at about eight or nine, she says, when friendship groups become more exclusive and more expensive things become desirable.

''That's when they start wanting an iPad or an iPhone or something. [My eldest son] is 13 and most of his friends have them but not my kids … I think that is something you give them when they're 16.''

Australian Childhood Foundation chief executive Joe Tucci says research undertaken by his organisation has shown parents are under a lot of pressure. They feel time poor, marketed to ''relentlessly'' and ''under pressure'' to provide their children with a certain kind of childhood - one in which they have a lot of stuff.

''What we have done is connected childhood with material things like toys,'' Tucci says. ''So if kids don't have something that is being pushed, that is being perceived by them and their peers and others as an important part of childhood, then parents end up feeling like they're not giving their kids the childhood experience they should.''

This anxiety is further concentrated, he says, by the ever-shrinking interval that childhood occupies. Concepts and experiences that used to be reserved only for adults and teenagers are creeping in ever earlier.

''There is an increasing push towards adolescence from about eight now,'' he says. ''And there is a re-emergence of the idea that childhood needs to be protected.

''I think part of what parents are trying to give their kids is more of the childhood they had, which was more free of that adult world. And part of [how they're trying to achieve that] is with toys.''

McMullen says her own concerns are less about toy numbers than the nature of the toys themselves. She is, for example, all for puzzles and Lego - ''we have about eleventy billion pieces of it'' - because they call forth a certain amount of creativity. And she is all for board games ''because they're social''.

But don't get her started on portable game consoles such as the Nintendo DS.

''It's the most antisocial thing I have ever come across,'' she says. She has seen boys at her sons' birthday parties ''who sit on the couch and just play with their DS. You are at a party. And I go out to dinner with other families and all the kids except mine just sit there on their DS. We are at dinner. Can't we talk to each other? Actually, what am I saying, I don't want to talk to the kids, either, but can't they talk to each other?''

Tucci, too, is less concerned with volume than with how toys are used.

''When we've done research with kids, they say it's not having the toys but that the toys enable them to connect with their friends and family,'' he says. ''Things are facilitators for the connections children crave, which is the same thing we craved when we were growing up.''

* Surname withheld

From: The Age