Remember in 2007 when millions of toys were recalled because they had elevated levels of lead in their paint? I do, probably because my daughter was one-year-old at the time and putting everything in her mouth. It was at this point that I began to think more critically about the toys that I bought, however, that mindset did not last long. Kids want toys, and when you are a sleep-deprived mom, you will do just about anything to keep your children happy so they will give you a few minutes of peace. Hence, my son, obsessed with Star Wars since he was two years old (“Boba Fett” and “Pit of Carkoon” were among his first words), has over a hundred Star Wars action figures. Yes, some of these belonged to my husband before Den was born, but most were purchased specifically for him. Now that he has learned to read and moved into the age of Pokemon and video games, the Star Wars figures have been relegated to their drawer and rarely see the light of day. My daughter’s room is likewise filled with pink plastic playthings like Polly Pockets and My Little Ponies. She does still play with these things, but there is so much!
I stopped buying Annika toys. For her birthday two weeks ago, we bought her one My Little Pony. The rest of her presents were useful things like clothing. However, we did throw her a birthday party at the gym where she takes gymnastics and 17 children attended—all bringing presents. Add the presents of her aunts and uncles and grandparents and our house looked like Christmas morning (the Christmas mornings I grew up with, anyway). It was quite ridiculous, but I have to admit, she was very happy.
I, on the other hand, felt incredibly guilty. I have a major issue with abundance. I feel uncomfortable when I have too much. Be it because I grew up in a house where we did not have as much as those around us or be it because I am a socialist at heart—I don’t know. I stood in my living room looking at all those toys and I wanted to cry because there are so many children who go to sleep hungry. It makes me feel sick.
Where do these toys come from? They do not cost much in Target, but what is the human cost of production? Using only the internet to search for the answer to this question, I discovered that 80% of the United States’ toys come from China (surprised?). Most of these from the Guangdong province in the south. The Chinese system of production is all-inclusive and the labor is cheap so they are able to produce these things at a fraction of the cost of other countries. For example, to produce a toy in Europe that would cost $30 an hour, the same toy could be made in China for $1.50 an hour. For a capitalist, the choice of production location is simple. The factory workers, though, work long hours, are punished for the slightest offenses by having their wages withheld, and experience a very poor standard of living with the money they earn and what is available in their area.
A few companies have decided to continue producing toys in their home countries: Lego and Playmobil, to name two. Their decision to maintain their European factories hinge mainly on their desire to oversee quality—something it is very difficult to do in a Chinese factory. Knowing that the toys are being made under close watch and that workers are being paid fairly makes me feel a whole lot better about paying $100 for that Lego Millenium Falcon that Den has been asking for. I feel like I can justify the high price now.
I am still wondering, though, what does it mean to not buy Chinese toys? Am I standing up for the Chinese workers by saying, “I will not support your exploitation!” Or am I harming them by reducing their employers demand and thus contributing to someone losing his or her job? Regardless, my kids don’t need any more toys. I am trying to convince other parents of this, too. I am so tired of receiving throwaway trinkets in goody bags from parties and the school “Treasure Box.” By rewarding our children with material items constantly, we are indoctrinating them with consumerism. I think it is this that makes me feel ill. I, for one, have started rewarding my son with more video game time and candy—two of my favorite things. I guess now I just need to be wary of childhood obesity.