I know the Internet is designed to inspire fury. That hasn’t been the majority of my experience with it, but lately, it seems determined to correct my underestimation of its rage-inducing qualities.
So before I proceed with this post, please go read this article about why Mattel thinks moms don’t “get” toy cars. Go ahead–I’ll wait for you.
Thanks for taking the time to do that. You may or may not be seething with anger right now. If you’re not, that’s okay, but I’m going to explain why I (and several other mothers I know) are. Let me put on my sherpa hat.
PROBLEM #1: THERE’S A VP AT MATTEL FOR “BOYS’ TOYS AND GAMES.” I’m the mother of two boys, and I’ll be the first to say that they play with different toys, in different ways, than many girls would. Griffin was about nine months old when he distinctly said “Vroom” to a squishy car toy which none of us had yet bothered to introduce to him by name or sound.
But I’ve been told I “play wrong” for a girl since I was two years old. Imagine that: TWO YEARS OLD. That’s the year I saw Star Wars on a drive-in movie screen and was hooked for life. All my friends in preschool were boys, because they would play what I wanted to. In sixth grade, my teacher introduced me to games of war and strategy, and I was hooked once again. I went on to be the only girl among 23 boys in the Strategy and Tactics Club in high school, and I was very happy there. I never felt left out or isolated because I was doing what came naturally to me.
Even as an adult, I’ve mainly played games with men, but the many women gamers I’ve played with over the years were as viciously cutthroat as they needed to be to succeed. If anything, we were more terrifying because we collaborated to do awful things, and we needed to set down our needlework or knitting to wipe out whole parties of monsters or even the roof of a building once. “Knit one, purl one…natural 20…I kill it. A lot.”
There’s no such thing as “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys.” There are just boys and girls who play with toys. Whichever ones they pick, they’re doing it right. It’s okay to appeal to some of the differences between the genders, but the pink-and-blue-washing needs to stop NOW. If you want to see how a company can tailor toys for greater appeal and accessibility to one gender or another, consider the upcoming “girls’ line” of Nerf toys, which feature ergonomic adjustments to make them easier to use, as well as styles that correspond to popular culture models like Katniss and Merida. Disney should follow their advice with the Marvel line–I know a whole lot of girls and women who will happily fork over for some good Marvel toys, games, and apparel.
PROBLEM #2: HE FELT THE NEED TO EXPLAIN TO A ROOM FULL OF MOTHERS WHY THEY WERE DOING THEIR JOB WRONG. There are many ways mothers do do their jobs wrong, and society isn’t shy about telling us so. We know we’re not perfect, but unless you’re the sort of mom who’s likely to end up in court, you’re trying very hard to do your best. The days of the pretty moms who won’t lie down on the floor in their crinolines and frilly aprons to play with kids of both genders are past. I play with my boys, and I play hard. I certainly don’t need a toy executive to tell me how to make my kids happy or have a good time.
Moms are bad enough on themselves and each other. Tiger Moms, Princess Moms, Geek Moms, Stay-At-Home Moms, Working Moms…we’re all being told we’re doing it wrong, that our kids will end up in therapy for sure if we don’t buy them the right things and hover over them like paranoid black helicopters every second of the day. Petersen’s voice shouldn’t be in this discussion at all, let alone lecturing a room full of “mommy bloggers,” whatever the hell that sexist, reductive label means.
PROBLEM #3: HE THINKS THERE’S ONLY ONE WAY TO PLAY WITH TOY CARS. This one particularly burns my ass, because I know from experience that he’s wrong. When I was a kid, I played with toy cars by lining them up in perfectly symmetrical, parallel rows, sorted by shape, size, and color. Then my sister would walk through the lines like Godzilla, kicking them to kingdom come. And then I would line them up again in different patterns. I picked my favorites by the way they felt in my palm, my closed fist.
I realize that much of this comes from my autism. But I know I’m not the only one who didn’t play smash ‘n crash all the time. In fact, most of the boys I knew didn’t play with their favorite cars at all–they set them on a high shelf where they’d be safe and beautiful. Petersen’s model of play is a marketer’s one, not a player’s one. If you smash your cars all the time, your parents have to buy you new ones all the time. Planned obsolescence is not a game.
PROBLEM #4: HE DOESN’T UNDERSTAND WHY KIDS WOULD RATHER PLAY WITH OTHER TOYS. Finally, Petersen doesn’t understand why toy cars are less relevant today. The problem lies in a few areas. If a kid wants to pretend with cars these days, why would you want to drive a four-inch replica across the berber carpet when you can boot up the XBox or Playstation or 3DS and actually feel like you’re driving a real car? Why play with a pre-made car when you can build your own models?
Cars have the same problem I see occasionally with “action playsets”: they’re single-use toys. There are only so many ways you can play with a toy car, or with the Spiderman 3 Sandstorm Action Playset. You basically get to recreate one storyline, and then you’re done. The reason action figures and dolls are more popular is because you can tell infinite stories with them. An imaginative kid (i.e., all of them) doesn’t even need every action figure, because one character can be many characters. LEGO offers another solution to this problem by offering single-use builds with infinite rebuilding potential. Who wouldn’t rather play any story you can think of, rather than “They drive somewhere. Along the way, they crash into something”? According to child development expert Penny Holland, single-purpose toys are far more damaging to our kids’ minds than toy guns. Think about that for a second.
The graph in the Bloomberg article suggests an even more interesting quandary to consider: There’s a gender gap in board games too. According to their statistics, 46 percent of girls between ages 6 and 12 list board games as their favorite toy, as opposed to only 33 percent of boys. I’d be interested to know which games girls are playing, because we’re past the days of the Barbie Dreamdate Board Game (which I played, I’ll have you know, and ended up marrying Poindexter in real life).
Board games aren’t even strongly marketed, as far as I can tell, for one gender or another. RPGs (tabletop, video, and online) are, though, and I’d be interested to see a more nuanced breakdown of a wider variety of games. I’d also like to know whether the gender gap among young girls and boys who play board games correlates to the education gap–there may be room for board games to help boys catch up on certain academic and social skills that they aren’t getting enough support for in schools that have to teach to the test.
All this fury has direction. We don’t have to settle for executives trying to sell our kids crappy toys. We know what our kids like, and we should put our money where their preferences are. Play has the capacity to teach and to heal, as well as to entertain. As parents, we shouldn’t settle for anything less.