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POV: Educational Toys

Point Of View With Barbara Sumner Burstyn

Educational Toys

It seems a quaint notion now, but parenting used to be a fairly organic experience with the relationship between parent and child evolving in a natural way. But observing new parents you could be forgiven for thinking that today parenting is a whole different ball game than even a decade ago. High on this list of changes would be the anxiety that seems to infuse so many parents; from cleanliness obsessions to emotional and physical over-protecting, it's easy to see a culture of paranoia creeping in. But perhaps the most chilling change is the increasing demand to ensure your child is intellectually superior.

To chart the changes there's no better place to look than in the toy box. Gone are the wooden train sets and the teddies (those are now for Plushophile adults - see Plushie Love and even simple building blocks and that perennial favorite the pot and wooden spoon are no longer good enough. In fact any toy that's not been labeled 'educational' has been relegated to the back of the shelves.

In their place is Baby Mozart, the must have child development tape that promises to infuse your child with a love of music from the get-go. Now babies get foldout roll mats complete with suspended brightly colored objects to ensure no moment is left un-stimulated. There's sleep tapes to infuse your infants sleep with new information. And play mats that give your toddler a head start on everything from alphabets to golf swing. In the drive for better math skills you can assist your five year old with a kiddy sized electronic cash register. To complete the early childhood toy box there's even a play-at-home version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (recommended for eight year olds) And just in case your youngster hasn't quite got into the swing of things you can now buy a mini Filofax play date dairy to help instill the art of scheduling. In fact the very word toy is now a misnomer, frequently replaced in play literature with the words 'development tool'.

Not to be outdone the unborn are also getting in on the act with the recent establishment in California of the Prenatal University. It's no longer good enough to just lay around in amniotic bliss, the University offers a systematized programme of prenatal stimulation with manuals and cassette tapes suggesting techniques for interaction with your foetus.

On the surface the promises of all these products and the university are laudable - enhanced physical and mental development for your child. But collectively they form the backbone of the growing fear that now surrounds parenting. Not only 'what if I get it wrong' but also 'what if my child is left behind?' But more insidiously the trend to shorten a child's learning curve is also narrowing the range of acceptable parenting styles. Back in the pre-cappuccino days when I was new parent an aging nurse reliably informed me that, while there were a few obviously wrong ways to parent there were many right ways. That attitude has stuck with me as I've observed a huge variety of parenting styles and techniques over the years. But not any more.

Now with the aid of goal based, success oriented toys and the societal shift to honor only the bright and over achieving amongst us parenting is no longer about shepherding children to be the most each can be. Instead it has become a race. A desperate struggle to reach the top of the pre-school heap, a race that mirrors the corporate model, a race that now begins before your child is even born. And there's only one way to win this race. Maximizing the pre-determined learning situations of every waking and sleeping moment of your child's life.

And how does all this affect the mothers? Quite simply it makes then neurotic (as if ordinary old garden variety parenting weren't enough to make you crazy.) Becoming known as the 'good mommy syndrome' or 'hot-house parenting syndrome' family therapists are saying the demand to create exceptional children has replaced the gym or dieting in the inventory of obsessive behavior.

But more importantly how does all this pressure affect kids, those creatures whose earliest moments have become structured opportunities for learning and development?

Ironically all the educational toys and classes and instruction manuals that learning experts and the likes of the Prenatal University are touting as being child centred and child supportive are the very opposite; they're robbing children of their most precious possession; the carefree moments of childhood, perhaps fermenting internalized frustration and ultimately even leading to the increasing numbers of children showing up in both petty and serious crime statistics.

But it's when you extrapolate this to its most extreme conclusion that it gets really scary. You begin to see that educational toys are more than just opportunities for learning; they are the very tools of conformity. Because educational toys all have one thing in common; a goal. A predetermined set of achievements with success as their only objective. Gone are imaginative pursuits; gone are the times a child is left of his or her own devices. Gone is contemplation, wonder and growing awareness of the world that marks the early journey of a child. Gone is solitude and the opportunity for inner reflection. And gone are the poets, the free thinkers, the artists and the inventors.

So perhaps it's time to forget our fear of genetic manipulation and cloning. We don't need scientists to do it to us, just look in the bedrooms and playrooms of kids today to see how their structured, pre-determined, systemized, goal based educational tools that pass for toys are creating the building blocks of conformity; the perfectly functioning, nuance-free high-achieving adult clones of our future.


© Barbara Sumner Burstyn, June 2002

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