We parents obsess about our childrenís futures. What will they become? Will they be in jail? Will they move out before theyíre 31?
Well, forget guidance counselors. It turns out that the best way to answer these questions may be to peek inside our childrenís toy boxes. What children play with and how they play is as good a predictor as anything about what they may do when they grow up.
Donít believe me? Think back to what you liked to play with when you were a child. I loved reading. Even my toys that had nothing to do with reading quickly acquired that hobby. I owned about one hundred smurfs, which didnít do anything except sit there and look blue. So I made a lending library for them. I cut out tiny little paper books, stapled them together, and then kept track of who took out what. And in the years since my life has continued to revolve around books.
So what about you? Did you take things apart? Did you continuously reorganize your Barbieís wardrobes? Did you love to brush hairóany hairótrying to put your cat into pigtails or braid the hair over your dogsí ears? Or did you spend your life in the Emergency Department with yet another broken leg? Maybe that proved you were a risk-taker, and today youíre an entrepreneur. Our childhoods really can provide windows into our adult lives.
I thought of this recently when visiting the zoo, and not because my children remind me of animals. Itís because the animals remind me of children. Baby animals, and especially baby primates, play. Itís how they learn about the world. The baby orangutan goes over to the burlap thatís lying on the ground and starts trying to wear it until the mother gets sick of this distraction and swats him. Itís like having a window onto many of our homes.
So if play is how we prepare kids for life, and if kids discover what they love through their play, then we need to make sure our kids are playing with the right stuff. Kids are all born with certain predilections, but we can still steer our children in the right direction. After all, a child who likes taking things apart can grow up to build machines or to crack safes. A child who likes drawing can grow into a graphic designer or someone who makes questionable movies. Much depends on what we encourage. And thatís why Iím a little disturbed when I read what ranks as the most popular toys.
Technology tops the list. Kids of all ages want iPods and digital cameras, and even camcorders. Now I like cameras. My girls have had hours of fun filming the plays they put on with their friends, and then editing them on the computer. Itís creative.
But many electronic gadgets arenít that helpful. iPods, for instance, throw kids into their own private worlds with often questionable music lyrics. Video games often have violent or sexual themes. We have to be really careful we donít let our kids become recluses in their own media world.
The problems with technology, though, go further than just media. Theyíve changed the whole nature of toys. My friend Wanda bought her five-year-old a doll for Christmas that eats, pees and poops. At the last minute she balked at bestowing said gift, worrying about the increase in laundry said toy would require. When we were children, our dolls didnít do anything. We had to imagine it. Today kids donít have to use their imaginations much at all. Dolls pee, stuffed animals sing, even play phones light up. Instead of playing, then, kids are being entertained. And these are not the same things. One is active, but one is just passive.