Commentary: Real toys give way to high-tech Christmas

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 21, 2006

By Ruth Marcus

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — My kids aren’t getting any toys for the holidays.

Don’t feel bad for the little darlings. They’ve been hauling in plenty of Hanukkah loot — digital cameras, Ugg boots, gift cards galore. But at 9 and 11, my daughters seem, much to my dismay, to have aged out of toys.

I tested this theory while I was driving them to school a few weeks ago.

Me: “You guys aren’t getting any toys for Hanukkah.”

Julia, 9, sputtering with indignation: “We’re not? What do you mean, we’re not getting any toys?”

Me: “Well, can you think of any toys you want?”

Julia, after a long pause: “Not really.”

This no-toy story isn’t for lack of trying. I have a closetful of unplayed board games and unmade crafts. Macrame bracelet, anyone? And I’d chalk it up to bad parenting skills — what ever happened to that plan for family game night? — except that it seems to be a broader societal phenomenon.

Broad enough, in fact, to have spawned its own acronym: KGOY — Kids Getting Older Younger. Toy sales have been down three years in a row, and 2006, no matter how many Elmos are tickled, may not be much better. The biggest culprit is the defection of the tweens, the ever-expanding — downward — category of wannabe teenagers.

“Eight is the new 13,” Bill Goodwin, a marketing consultant who specializes in children, wrote in the latest issue of Marketing Times.

In my unscientific survey of my children’s friends, the gift they most often said they wanted was a cellphone. A friend reports that her 9-year-old daughter refuses to use her Firefly cellphone — this is the kind that comes programmed with buttons for Mom and Dad — because it’s too humiliatingly babyish.

There are as many reasons for this premature aging as there are headless Barbies crammed in the back of our playroom closet. The technology explosion: If toddlers are playing computer games, how can 10-year-olds be expected to content themselves building with Legos or playing jacks? The ubiquity of cable television and the Internet, and with them the constant exposure to commercialism and branding and ever-more-sophisticated things to crave.

And a major reason for this toy ennui is, I suspect, a surfeit of toys: Many kids these days simply have so much to play with that none of it feels especially enticing. How indulged are they? On Toy Wishes magazine’s list of this year’s dozen hottest toys, three cost more than $200, including a $300, three-foot-tall animatronic plush pony that is galloping off the shelves.

I’ve been reading “Jane Eyre” to Julia recently, and I was struck by this passage in which Jane, looking back on her 10-year-old self, describes her intense attachment to a battered doll. “Human beings must love something, and, in the dearth of worthier objects of affection, I contrived to find a pleasure in loving and cherishing a faded graven image, shabby as a miniature scarecrow. It puzzles me now to remember with what absurd sincerity I doted on this wooden toy, half fancying it alive and capable of sensation.”

Jane got more pleasure from this doll than Julia did from the must-have gift of a few years back, her $87 American Girl doll. (Julia chose Kit, a child of the Depression, during which, as my father, another child of the Depression, pointed out, no one could have imagined forking over that kind of money for a doll.) And yet, as much as kids today may feel peer pressure to put away childish things, they really do, at heart, love toys. Children of all ages want to play.

We were all at my parents’ house for Hanukkah the other night, with an assortment of cousins and friends ranging in age from 6 to 11. In the flurry of trendy, branded presents (an iPod Nano for one, an Abercrombie sweater for another) the hit of the evening was a ghastly oversized Barbie head — the Barbie Primp and Polish Styling Head with Hands for Manicure, to be exact — for my 6-year-old niece.

As the adults were having dessert, I crept back downstairs. The five tween-aged girls had elbowed the 6-year-old aside and were clustered around Brobdingnagian Barbie, curling her hair and applying her makeup. A creepy, sexualized toy, perhaps — but a toy, nonetheless.

“I want this for my birthday,” said the oldest. She has since asked for anonymity so she can continue to attend middle school. She wasn’t entirely joking about wanting it, though. Jane Eyre, I think, would have understood perfectly.

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Ruth Marcus is a member of The Washington Post’s editorial page staff.