Now, adults in toyland

Dan Rodricks

December 09, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

"Not that. You don't want that. That doesn't do anything."

-- Woman speaking to child in toy store

From where I was standing, I couldn't see exactly what "that" was, but I'm sure it wasn't a video game. Or a remote-control race car.

Instead, it was probably a toy that required the boy or girl playing with it to have an active imagination. In other words, it was boring.

In a tone of voice one notch short of incredulous, the woman was chastising her kid for selecting a toy -- it was apparently a Christmas gift for another kid -- that just didn't sizzle.

Sometimes, I think adults assume that kids need sizzle in their toys when, in fact, toys that "don't do anything" might be very appealing to them. We assume they want the video games and other hip and expensive toys when they might actually want some of those wholesome, old-fashioned play things that Baby Boomers once found under the Christmas tree.

I'm talking simple -- a whiffle ball and bat, a water rocket, a chemistry set, Chinese checkers, paint sets and jigsaw puzzles.

"Get real," I've been told.

Like the kid who picked the toy that "didn't do anything," I have been chastised for selecting gifts this holiday season that are boring. Friends says these are toys I should buy for myself, toys I should not inflict upon the children of the modern world. The toys I have in mind are from another time, another world. And I've been told that giving them to nieces and nephews is my way of forcing them to help me relive my youth.

Well, at this point, I get up and go. That's about all the pop psychology I can take.

I know there's a generation gap out there. God knows, I know. I have been aware of it since the day my niece, now 13, asked if Paul McCartney had been in a band before "Wings."

Still, I insist that some Christmas toys are multigenerational. Maybe they can't compete with the video games and all the other sizzle on the kiddie market, but they still have appeal. Adults make a mistake when they surrender to market trends and give kids something they actually might want.

This Christmas, I say, go with your instincts. Give the kids in your family something you think they don't want. Consider it an experiment. I promise wondrous results.

Is Super Mario more interesting than an ant farm?

Of course it is.

Would kids prefer Super Mario over an ant farm?

Of course they would. That's why you should give the ant farm.

Either you had an ant farm when you were a kid, or you always wanted one. Here's your chance to finally get one in the family. An ant farm is great. A kid sets it up, pours in the ants and the ants create their underground village. Best of all, this is one of those toys that socially responsible adults can give to kids without feeling guilty. As we all know, an ant farm isn't just fun. It's educational!

Same is true for a telescope.

Here's another gift you think kids don't want, which is exactly why you should give it. Sure, the world is a lot more polluted than it used to be, making the heavens harder to see. But give a kid a telescope and you'll open young eyes to the wonders of the universe. Best of all, in a few weeks, when the kid is sick of it, you'll finally have the telescope you always wanted. Wally and the Beave got one, but you never did. Here's your chance.

Some other suggestions:

Microscopes. About the same as telescopes, except with an even greater "nerd factor," making today's kids less likely to invite their friends over to play with it. That creates all the more time for you to do what you've waited your whole life to do -- examine slides of ketchup, dog saliva and bologna.

Books. Here's another great opportunity to share with today's kids the wonders of our youth. Purchase hard-cover editions of ++ "Treasure Island," "Moby Dick," "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea," "The Red Pony," "The Old Man And The Sea," "Oliver Twist," "The Red Badge of Courage," Shakespeare's Sonnets and the poems of Emily Dickinson. As you give them out, tell the kids that these were the books you went to bed with every night, the books that motivated and inspired you. Then, while they're watching MTV, you can catch up on all the reading you should have done 25 years ago.

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