“Tell your family and friends not to gift us dolls,” the Husband said, soon after La Niña was born. “No child of mine will play with dolls.”
I was quick to take offence at this unjust slight against my maayeka (Indian term for a married woman’s maiden home). But the aggression was short-lived. I knew him enough to know that it wasn’t the garden-variety of dolls that he was so vehemently opposed to as that paragon of impossible perfections, Barbie. Since I hated Barbie too, the argument ended before it even began.
As a child growing up in a Single Income Multiple Kids family, my brothers and I never asked for toys, knowing that the moolah was in short supply. Nor were there any malls or big brands to tempt us. Besides back then, children had healthy outdoor playing habits. Few people really had toys. We had cricket bats, rubber balls, sock balls too, carrom boards, playing cards etc, but we never thought of them as toys, more like props for our games. And yet what fun we used to have.
I wanted that for my children. I wanted them to have fun, without having to rely on toys. I didn’t want them to feel bored if the batteries of some expensive remote-controlled racer car ran out. I wanted them to be able to rely on their own imaginations to rustle up a fun time. I didn’t want them to bawl when their toys broke.
In fact for much of my childhood, a little plastic doll, about a foot-tall, was my pride. She was nothing like the plastic dolls of today, with separate body parts and clothing and accessories. This one was fashioned out of a single sheet of plastic that was then moulded into the shape of a doll and painted over. Its inside was completely hollow. How I loved that doll! My love did not falter even when my older brother painted a moustache over her lip. Once someone stepped on her and her stomach was completely flattened. I still remember how Dad did some repair work and got her up and about again. She retained the dent, of course, but I loved my ‘dented and painted lady’ all the same.
Nor did the Husband have any toys of his own as a child. In fact, he told me (and I’ve noticed my younger brother do this too, so I know it is a boy habit), he used to pretend his pencil box, eraser, even books, were cars and drive them around, making appropriate engine sounds with his mouth.
The fact that we had fun with almost no toys had convinced us that the world is a playground and that fewer toys are actually better for kids in the long run. There’s no question of siblings fighting over toys. In the absence of toys, children learn to be creative with the other objects around them. La Niña and El Niño have enjoyed themselves enormously playing with odds and ends such as a discarded talcum powder container, cassette covers, steel and plastic spoons, pencil box, comb, a large brinjal (which was soon confiscated), an old broken telephone, a desk calendar etc. The plethora of objects around the house encouraged their creativity and imagination.
The kids learned to play together and often involved any parent/grandparent who looked suitably idle in their playtime sessions. They also learned to look after their toys. After playtime was over, they put their toys away. Sometimes.
When the toys ceased to entertain them, and Mamma was home, there was always time for a cuddle and a book reading. Or a drawing and colouring session on some used paper.
Another advantage was that our home décor wasn’t overtaken by building blocks, stuffed bears, steel kitchenware, rubber and plastic balls and bats and plastic toys. And oh, the greatest joy, to be able to go to a mall without fearing a long list of demands or tantrums.
Both of us agreed that we didn’t want our children to measure the worth of their childhood by the wealth of their toys. That sequence in the Arnold Schwarzenegger film, Jingle all the Way, where all the parents are at the toy store, ready to bite each other’s heads off and get killed in stampedes in an attempt to get that all-coveted Turbo-Man action figure was a nightmare we didn’t want to play a stellar role in.
Once children get bitten by the lust for new toys, a hunger that toy companies and big brands riding on the back of cartoon TV channels judiciously nurture, toys cease to be childish playthings. They become status symbols, much as gadgets become for adults. Cost no barrier. I am, therefore, I want.
On the few occasions when we set out to buy gifts, things didn’t really go well for us. We were once walking through the children’s section of a mall. The Husband insisted, “We must buy educational toys for our children,” all the while eyeing this huge remote-controlled child-scale model of a car, large enough for a toddler to sit in and pretend it was the real deal. I realised that if I wasn’t careful, we’d end up buying toys that my children’s Dadda never had when he was growing up.
Incidentally, both the Husband and I are against Chinese toys. The few times we have looked for toys either for our own kids or for other children, we painstakingly look for the Made in India tag. Naturally, there are not too many toys like that. So we buy books instead.
Even though we steered clear of toy purchases, our home got inundated by toys after the first birthday parties of La Niña and El Niño. We put the toys out of the kids’ reach, having decided that we would bring down a toy or two on infrequent occasions as a special treat, or when the kids weren’t well and needed special comfort. The advantage of this method of offering toys selectively ensured that, aside from a few well-worn toys, they always had something new to look forward to, which would promptly be put away after playtime. This made the few toys appear endlessly new in their eyes.
Above all, both of us consciously admitted that we had to be our kids’ first toys. When I sing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star or try to reproduce animal noises, the effort is likely to go further than a Chinese-made piano belting out nursery rhymes and Beethoven’s Fur Elise with equal felicity. When the Husband goes down on his fours to be a donkey for the kids to ride on or when he playfully wrestles with them, he achieves far more than toys that promise to stimulate the synapses in their brain and enhance their cognitive abilities.
After all, the big toy corporation has always been stressing, Toys R Us. This is our way of showing we believe them.
Cynthia Rodrigues Manchekar loves being mamma to 4-year-old La Niña and 18-month-old El Niño. A working mother, she enjoys writing short stories and poems and looks forward to being published someday. She blogs at http://cynthology.blogspot.in and tweets @Cynth_Rodrigues.