Stupefying toys: it’s not the lead you need to worry about

Lead is really bad for you if you inhale or eat it, especially if you’re a kid wiring up neurons into the best possible brain, so toys that put it into kids are deplorable. But I think we’re missing something much more alarming about toys. Plato’s Socrates warned his students that they should be even more careful about what they put in their minds than into their stomachs, and Socrates would be picketing the toys we afflict our kids with today. Parents are creeping down the aisles of toy stores afraid of the wrong thing: what’s really wrong with these toys is that they’re controlling and directive rather than empowering and illuminating, almost instantly boring, actively misleading and deceptive, and superlatively, astoundingly ugly.

Let’s start with Legos. This used to be a construction toy comprising a big pile of interlocking bricks (the interlocking feature was a good toy substitute for the way real bricks stay in place, and made them endlessly reusable) and a few specialized parts (roofs, windows, chimneys, etc.) from which one could make houses and buildings…lots of different houses and buildings, and with a bigger pile of bricks, a village or a hamlet or a skyscraper. A little more specialized than kids’ blocks, in the same family as Lincoln Logs. It made sense and it provided an environment in which a kid’s imagination could take off. Similar construction toys of a bygone era include the Erector Set (for machines) and Tinkertoys (almost anything, but at a very high level of abstraction: you had to be a kid to see the windmill or house you had made with them).

Legos are now sold in large, complex kits each of which makes one predetermined thing, like this and this . The problem here is that neither spaceships nor things like the Eiffel Tower are made of anything like bricks; the essence of these ‘toys’ is to misrepresent the reality of their subjects and to do a parlor trick in which something is made to assume the outward shape of something it’s completely unsuited for. It may be briefly amusing for grownups to make an Empire State Building out of nothing but tennis balls, but it has nothing to do with the way kids need to engage with the world. Where an Erector set really taught something about how bridges and machinery go together and works, and a traditional Lego taught something about compression unit building materials (brick and stone), these new Lego kits are just wrong, actively deceptive; an industrial designer’s practical joke on young people trying to learn. They also pall as soon as the result is achieved; the construction goes on a shelf because it can’t be played with as a kid wants to play with a toy spaceship (it falls apart). I suppose one could push toy cars under the tower.

Of course, using up toys leads to more toys bought: kids posting on the Toys’r’Us page say they got maybe twelve hours out of the spaceship. At that rate, it would cost $12,000 per year to occupy a child for a year of afternoons. I understand better, having looked around toy stores, why my students have so much trouble getting off the dime without specific instructions from me, or surprising me with something I wouldn’t know to assign them to do.

For girls, (why should construction toys be just for boys, come to think of it?) we have stuff like this . A stuffed animal can be a rewarding substrate for imaginative play and make-believe, but this one shortcircuits all that by having switches in the head and paws that trigger “realistic dog sounds”; if you imagine something different, says this toy, you’re wrong. With this overdirective, controlling, and deeply stupid robot comes another typical feature: kitschy, cheap graphics , coarse colors, spineless design and, of course, pointless sexist symbolism (does your woman vet have all pink equipment?). The only response a sentient being can have to this thing is to yell “Ugly!” A dab of lead paint on the otoscope is the least of the damage this kind of crap can do to your child.

Surely art supplies hang in there; stage makeup, paints, modeling clay? Well, you can still buy those things, but stroll around and about your local Michael’s and you’ll mostly see (for grownups too) kits whose users’ hands are guided to fill in or copy designs made by someone in a faraway factory. Surely the plate you paint by filling in a cartoon made by a professional, using the ‘right’ colors, is better than a picture you make up out of your own head, right? Just like listening to the music DVD of a paid professional band is better than trying to pick out chords on your own guitar? After all, you will make mistakes, and they don’t.

No, they’re not. But the mentality of these mind-numbing toys that exist only to cycle through your attention cycle as fast as possible (and scream for attention in the store) is getting more and more common. I think they have something to do with the willingness of grownups to have experts and professionals (typically advertising and marketing experts) do their thinking for them, and I say the hell with it. Your kids would have to sprinkle lead on their cereal every morning to suffer the brain damage this epidemic of cynical and manipulative toys is already doing.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.