Lizard MSTs Gary Cross

It's been far too long since I did a good we go. Original Article is here.

THE chief executive of Mattel, Robert Eckert, has just apologized to America’s parents for allowing hundreds of thousands of Chinese-made toys decorated with leaded paint or containing powerful magnets into the country, exposing children to danger.


What's the deal? Why are magnets dangerous to kids? I used to play with magnets all the time, being a scientifically-minded child.

This is admirable, as is the recall of these toys and the toy industry’s request that Congress impose mandatory toy safety testing standards. But what Mr. Eckert and other major toy makers should also apologize for is the toys themselves and the way they are promoted.

Ah, here comes the boilerplate "Back in my day, we played with a pointy stick, and we LIKED it!" rant.

When I looked at Mattel’s list of recently recalled toys, it became obvious that something more than our dependence on foreign goods or even the physical safety of children is at stake here. The problem is that the toys and the business model that creates them has so little to do with the needs of children and their parents.

Children need things to distract them. Parents need distracted children. What else?

On the list were 56 Polly Pocket sets (including a Lip Gloss Studio Playset), 11 Doggie Daycare toys, 4 Batman figures, 43 Sesame Street toys (not just Elmo Stacking Rings but Giggle Grabber Soccer Elmo and Grow Me Elmo Sprinkler), 10 Dora the Explorers and more than a score of assorted figures and cars. These are designed mostly for preschoolers; none encourage violence and many feature the cute and caring. But, a parent might ask, why 56 Polly Pocket sets? Wouldn’t a half-dozen meet the needs of any child?

Ah, but not every child's needs are met by the SAME half dozen. (To the extent one 'needs' a Polly Pocket, that is) Variety, spice of life, etc.

I can't count how many LEGO sets I aquired in my wayward youth. For that matter, why are there 1120 programming languages (at least) extant, when the vast majority of the code the world needs can be written in a half-dozen or so? (

Yet most of us are not shocked by this list. Indeed, a business model that sells endless additions to basic toys even when they have nothing to do with any recognized child-rearing ideal or even imaginative play seems natural.

How about "Getting toys is fun"? Does anyone remember THAT part of childhood?

This wasn’t always the case. In the early 1970s, child advocates like Action for Children’s Television recognized that television ads for toys had a magical power over children. They tried to ban these commercials to give parents, not toy companies, control over the desires of their offspring. In 1978, Michael Pertschuk, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, argued that ads appealing to young children were inherently “unfair.”

This was the dread and dire error that gave us the "Sunshine Family" dolls. Not to mention some of the most horridly dull and banal cartoons in the history of mankind.

The toy and candy industries, which advertised directly to children, mobilized and accused the commission and child advocates of trying to restrict commercial-free speech and of wanting a nanny state.

Gee, they claimed laws regulating the content of speech violated the First Amendment! What sort of sick unAmerican logic is that? Oh wait -- it's perfectly sane, very American, logic. Sorry.

In 1980, Congress complied by prohibiting the commission from regulating ads aimed at children.

And cartoons -- and toys -- got a whole lot better. Notice how many adults still cling to nostalgic love for 80s toys and cartoon shows? Notice how FEW feel the same about the 1970s? Why is that, do you think?

About the same time, toy makers noticed that their earnings from selling “Star Wars” characters were more profitable than the movies themselves and fully embraced character licensing. Aided by the early ’80s deregulation of ads, Mattel, Hasbro and others created cartoons that were essentially program-length commercials.

And so much cooler than "Wheelie And The Chopper Bunch" or "Captain Caveman".

This was a superb model for business success, but it hasn’t been such a good way to raise children.

Yeah, this was shown when the children of the 80s grew up in the 90s and led America into a hideous, crime-filled depression. Oh wait -- the 90s were a period of unprecedented economic growth and incredible drops in the rate of violent crime. The 70s, OTOH, the product of the hippie values of the 60s, were a time of economic and social nightmare when THAT generation came 'of age' and promptly demonstrated that only could they not change the world, they couldn't even run it properly.

Since 1973, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has set standards and recalled hazardous toys, protecting the physical safety of children. But government does nothing to protect children’s psychological needs.

Because we really, really, WANT the government deciding what kind of play children should be allowed to engage in? "No more badplay for you, Pre-Citizen Unit Billy18564! Report to re-education camp 7 for goodplay++!"

Sure, youngsters want this stuff (after all, they see it on television every day) and they find ways of playing with these toys, sometimes imaginatively abandoning the commercial back story of the characters.

But, dammit, I hate it when they do that! They ruin my theory! Damn those kids!

But the problem is that the fun built into the toy is mostly in receiving the latest Polly Pocket and adding it to a collection, rather than playing with it. Additive — if not addictive — desire is created and satisfied by these toy lines. They serve little positive purpose other than to teach children to be good consumers and want all the Dora the Explorer toys.

Still not seeing the problem, says the man who, as a kid, gained tremendous pleasure from organizing his comic books, Star Wars cards, and so on, and gained a lot of fun from perusing catalogs and imagining how he would spend his (very meagre) allowance on the items within. Aquisition is a form of pleasure in itself, for children and adults. (

Many people might associate this selling tactic with violent action figures or Barbie and Bratz dolls, but PBS Kids’ cartoon characters and Children’s Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop) puppets have been licensed to the toy companies since 1971. How many toddlers do you know who are obsessed with anything having to do with Elmo and Thomas the Tank Engine toys?

None, but I only know two.

Perhaps it’s time to rethink the decision to allow the unrestricted advertising and cartoon promotion of toy lines that has produced year-round marketing and piles of plastic toys, bought and soon discarded. After all, we ought to be just as concerned about the impact of character licensing and toy advertising on our children’s psyche as we are on protecting them from ingesting leaded paint and magnets.

Seems to me that there is already a law in place to prevent children from getting inappropriate toys. It's called "I'm the (Mommy/Daddy) and I said NO!"

Gary Cross, a professor of history at Pennsylvania State University, is the author of “Kids’ Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood.”

Stop writing about 'em, Gary, and start playing with 'em. You've forgotten what it means to be a kid.


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