Modern parents' toy story


'Turtle Power', by Chris JohnstonLast night, our six-year-old son had a nightmare. Despite reassurance and a cuddle in mum and dad's bed, his eyes were open and his brain was switched on. He had decided he wasn't going back to sleep. So, at five in the morning, we found ourselves in the peacefulness of the pre-dawn, drinking hot chocolates and musing on the important topics of our world.

Like most parents, we're concerned about what it means to be raising children in this modern world. So concerned that we've turned to researching and writing to help ourselves and others make sense of the cavalcade of images and ideas our children are exposed to. Media violence, advertising and commercialisation are topics discussed regularly at our dinner table. We try to break the issues down into concepts and words our children understand.

But over that hot chocolate conversation we got a glimpse of what it is we're trying to achieve. In between sips, our son told us he was going to save up his money to buy a Ninja Turtle: one of those small, green karate machines which, along with Pokemon, Bratz and Shrek, represent all that we tried to flee by tree-changing to a more self-sufficient lifestyle in rural Victoria.

And while we've managed to keep most of that stuff out of our household up to now, when our six-year-old told us he wanted to buy one, we just smiled.

We smiled because our son has been indoctrinated. Long before he could speak, he has heard us rant about advertising and commercialisation. He can't watch commercial TV or enter a retail zone without us deconstructing the ads — or deconstructing them himself. He talks about how he feels when other kids engage in violent play, and we have long had a 'no gunplay' rule in our house.

Despite all this, his statement that he'd like a Ninja Turtle demonstrates two things.

The first is that our children are not our children. They, like all of us, live in a world saturated in brands, commercialism and all manner of hyped-up toys. Completely denying that means living some sort of reclusive lifestyle that can cut people off from more than just popular culture: believe us — we know.

The second is that in expressing his wish, we've experienced a greater parenting triumph than if he never asked at all. It shows that he feels enough security and autonomy to tell us he'd like to buy a Ninja Turtle, even if it's something he knows we might not like.

How he will interact with his heart's desire will depend on how well he's been supported to be a good player. Is fighting all Ninja Turtles do? Hell no! Depending on the day, they may be park rangers, restaurateurs, funky dancers or loving daddies.

They may earn different names, or be dressed in original garments he cuts out from fabric scraps. Our kids are not limited by the imaginations of middle-aged, money-hungry toy creators — but, of course, it helps that they have never seen the show.

Parenting is a dynamic process. We constantly reconsider and re-assess what's most important to us, and our children. In asking those questions, we find better ways to support our children to grow into the most contented, well-adjusted humans they can be. It's easy to get hung up on the details of a toy here or a slight difference in value there. It's harder to look beyond the hype and see the opportunities in childhood experiences.

We all realise that good food, water, shelter, safety, warmth and a basic education are critically important. But beyond that, children need other things to feed their minds and spirits. Put simply, these things are belonging (strong relationships rooted in family and community), meaning (purpose and reasons for doing what they do and being who they are) and independence (a strong sense of self and an ability to make their own choices).

If we make these our parenting focus, we might find that our children have the capacity to look beyond the trappings of commercialism. They may dive into it from time to time, but they will recognise the superficial nature of bargain-basement belonging, meaning and independence built solely around the spending of money on shiny, new toys.

Children who derive enough belonging, independence and meaning from family, friends and a strong community will not place nearly as much emphasis on consumer goods, or try to fill a hole with the empty promises of advertisers. No plastic reptile will ever provide the joy of a visit to his Grandma — and our son knows it.

So, we're not too concerned that he wants a Ninja Turtle. Sure, it presents us with a new range of challenges, but we know that the core values we've been teaching him will hold. He knows that we will always enjoy animated conversations about the dilemmas of living in the modern world. He expresses concern that our values may not concur, and learns that people can hold different beliefs, yet still honour one another deeply.

He demonstrates respect towards his mum's dislike of violence. And yet, he feels safe enough to challenge what his parents say, and has the autonomy to make independent decisions about what he likes and wants to play with. He hears that we trust his ability to think for himself.

And he does this all at our kitchen table, before sunrise, where we couldn't feel more at home.

Daniel DonahooTania AndrusiakDaniel Donahoo and Tania Andrusiak write about children, families and more. Daniel's 2007 UNSW Press book Idolising Children is still widely available.

Topic tags: Daniel Donahoo, Tania Andrusiak, raising and nurturing children, ninja turtles, pokemon



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Existing comments

Our son, now 28, would chomp his toast into a gun in his high chair and shoot things. As non-gun people we had no idea where the impetus came from.

At ten he marched around hitting people after the Turtle Ninja show once too often. I chopped the plug off the TV set.

These days I'm a gaol chaplain. Suddenly it all makes sense. Not.

Kim Miller | 08 September 2008  

Barbie dolls were to my mind the most ghastly toy imaginable until I heard my granddaughters on the bedroom floor using the most wonderful oral language, solving problems and articulating their points of view clearly using the barbies in their play. Like the author of this piece it reminded me that children who have had creative interesting contexts in which to operate will use even the Barbie doll for great enjoyment.

Judy | 12 September 2008  

In defence of superheroes:

I'm not a parent, and would support the writers in wanting to protect their children from commercialism and the constant bombardment of images making them want more.

However, as someone who grew up watching cartoons and playing superheroes, I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss a child's desire for a toy superhero as giving in.

Superheroes inhabit that part of imagination where we are sorting out right and wrong in the world. They teach us what it means to be given a gift (a superhero power, or simply the gift of strength and life), and the process of learning how to use that gift. Rather than use their powers for selfish or evil ends, superheroes have a moral code that they abide by. In playing superheroes, or even playing soldiers, children are learning about power and how power should be exercised.

Let the child have their Ninja Turtle, but also help them understand what a Ninja Turtle is. It's not a thing of random violence, of selfishness, or greed. A Ninja Turtle is a moral being, given a gift that makes them special. Despite being made to feel different, Ninja Turtles stand up and help those in need. Those are qualities that we should want our children to have.

Joseph Vine | 12 September 2008  

Read Saki (H H Munro)'s short story circa 1914, 'The Toys of Peace'. He ends, 'We have begun too late'. Munro was killed at Beaumont Hamel in 1916. It is rumoured that his last words were 'put out that damned light'.

Moira Rayner | 12 September 2008  

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