Child's Play

New York Times

August 20, 2007


The great toy crisis of 2007, the national anxiety outbreak caused by lead paint and dangerous magnets from China, toymaker to the world, leaves millions of parents facing a quandary -- What about Christmas? -- and a larger question. 

  Could it really be that something as abstract and elemental as fun -- child's play! -- has been so commodified and consumerized that a handful of cutthroat manufacturers in China could cast serious doubt on whether our children will have any?

  O.K., so the answer's obvious. We all know that Chinese toys ''R'' us. It's an unspoken rule that the average American child goes through at least as many toys -- mass-marketed, corporate-branded, product-tie-in toys -- as diapers, although the toys are not so swiftly discarded. The pile underfoot was always annoying, and now it may be contaminated.

  Do you remember Irwin Mainway, Dan Aykroyd's character from ''Saturday Night Live,'' whose company sold Bag O' Glass and Teddy Chainsaw Bear? How different is the Lead-Paint Tank Engine?

  Parents are in distress, but there may be an answer that is better than despair and less expensive than a wholesale conversion to an American-made inventory. It requires a leap of faith, a basic trust in our children's rubbery and hungry minds. Might it not be possible, for a young child, anyway, to fend off her inevitable molding into a loyal consumerist, and to delay the acquisition of acute brand-recognition skills?

  Maybe she doesn't need a talking dump trunk or Barbie with the Malibu beach house. Let her flail on a saucepan with a wooden spoon. Give her paper and crayons. Let her play to her own narrative, not Dora the Explorer's or SpongeBob's.

  And if kindly grandparents, uncles and aunts insist on bestowing the latest and shiniest processed toy, smile and be grateful -- it's the thought that counts -- and put it out later with the recyclables: the warranty and instruction booklet with the paper, and the doll or car with the plastic. But save the cardboard box.