Monday, September 27, 2010

So many toys . . .

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.


  1. So true, Mandy! For the first two years, my sister and her husband bought almost no toys at all for my niece, knowing she'd get plenty for her birthdays and Christmases from other doting family members. It gets a lot harder, though, when they're able to start verbalizing what they want! I get so sick around this time every year when the toy commercials start coming on TV, b/c they are designed to appeal specifically to children and, just as you said, indoctrinate them with consumerism. It takes strong parenting to work against that, making an already tough job even harder.

  2. I can relate to your comment about trying to control the volume but then have all the birthday presents override your good intentions! But here is an idea that works well with kids over age 4 or 5 (depending on how in tune your kids are to poverty). When I was young, I would make a list of things that I wanted. My parents would give me two of the items on the list.....which made me really think about my priorities. We would still have a birthday party but the gifts that were brought to me were actually for the local homeless shelter and the kids there. My friends knew that they were buying for kids in need so they would spend more time considering the purchase.....and it simultaneously made them aware of the issue. After the birthday party, my parents and I would take the presents and another cake to the shelter and have a party there. I now do this with my nieces and nephews and they are beginning to "get it". No raising of taxes and no politics.....just people voluntarily taking care of their village. :-)

    And I understand the dilemma about boycotting the toy purchase. The Chinese need jobs and, until they create unions and ruin their exporting options, I don't really know how to handle it. I try not to buy trendy toys but I also don't want the kids to be outcasts with their peers. I prefer educational stuff anyway and I, too, enjoy video games. So sometimes you just have to have fun at the expense of others.....but it's still not the right way.

  3. What would you recommend to a family who has both sets of parents living nearby who spoil the grandkids rotten with silly bands and junk toys? You as a parent might have convictions, but how do you pass those same convictions on to grandparents? (Not our family, by the way. Just a question someone posed to me yesterday in church.)

  4. The question about not buying Chinese toys is really one of not buying things made anywhere that doesn't have reasonable labor laws. The UN has information on countries that use child or prison labor, so you can avoid those, but beyond that I question whether there is a practical way to shop for consumer goods without supporting unfair labor practice or even human rights violations. China is not particularly bad . . . it takes a lot of work to get even a vague idea of what items are "fair trade" goods. I'm not convinced that consumers can effectively combat any but the worst offenders. I know Wal-Mart does things that I don't agree with, and Target donates campaign money to causes I oppose, but I don't have much information on the goods in, for instance, Home Depot. I think the more effective route is to push government for tighter trade restrictions and more information requirements on human-rights and fair-trade content.

    Buying your kids a lot of consumer-goods junk is not that different from buying it for yourself. The issue of abundance can be a different thing altogether from materialism or greed. My wife and I have talked about this a lot over the years - we're fairly ethical shoppers, but we sometimes tend to buy things that we (or our parents) couldn't have had in the past, sometimes just to have them. I see myself as socially responsible with my time and money, but I have a nice, fast car, I like it, and I'm not going to sell it and buy a VW microbus. Some of that may be because my parents never had a car newer than ten or fifteen years old in their lives, and I generally had a lot less materially than most kids at school. It's an internal thing (if you're not just into status) - it fulfills some deep need to cancel out that feeling that some unfair force in the universe screwed you over that haunts everyone who grows up with significantly less than their peers have. I rationalize it this way - driving a car that will pull 0.9G on a curve makes me a less bitter, more pleasant person. It's like therapy with leather seats. Clearly, I'm doing it for others.