Just say 'no' to toys

I recently carted eight trash bags of toys out of the house - never to be seen again - and apparently, neither my husband nor my children noticed a thing.

The reason I find this curious is because when we were pregnant with our first daughter, my Jamaican husband informed me that - having been raised in a country and by parents that don't value materialism as much as we do here - he wasn't down with the whole "toy thing."

Excuse me? I grew up in the good old US of A where parents - even poor ones - shower their children with all sorts of useless plastic junk in the name of guilt, love, education and keeping up with the Joneses.

"What did you play with when you were a kid?" I asked my husband incredulously.

"My brother," he replied equally incredulously.

Well, like most things in marriage, we eventually established a harmonious compromise.

And then, like most things in parenting, we (ok, I) started to get carried away. It began with a carefully chosen set of stuffed animals, wooden blocks, puzzles, etc. But even the best and most "educational" toys have these weird natural generation powers, except that future generations are always somehow cheaper, more plasticy and just generally of lesser quality than their "Melissa & Doug" predecessors. So before you knew it, despite our holier-than-thou, pre-parenthood promises, our house started looking a lot like a day care center.

Not ok!

Especially since Mattel - the world's largest toy maker - has just announced its THIRD, yes THIRD, recall of Chinese-made toys that "may" contain excessive amounts of lead paint. This summer alone, more than 10 million popular toys featuring favorites such as Barbie, Big Bird, Elmo, Thomas & Friends and others were recalled because they were known to be poisonous and/or otherwise hazardous to children's health. Hasbro announced its second recall of the year on faulty Chinese-made Easy Bake ovens. The head of a Chinese manufacturer whose lead-tainted Sesame Street toys were the center of a massive U.S. recall hanged himself in his warehouse.

Meanwhile, when Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois learned that a toy he bought his grandson had been recalled. He recoiled in horror and indignation and promised to haul the CEOs of Mattel and Toys-R-Us in front of his Senate Appropriations subcommittee and make them explain their industry's naughty and negligent behavior.

Robert Eckert, chairperson and CEO of California-based Mattel, warned parents to expect more recalls as investigations increase and quality controls are tightened; this from the company that pimps itself as "one of the most trusted names with parents." With more than 9 million recalls to its name this summer alone, I guess that slogan doesn't mean much, does it?

Nonetheless, according to National Public Radio, Sen. Durbin called the two men "great guys" and gave them a big, fat pat on the back, saying he was "heartened and refreshed" by their response to the crisis.

Furthermore, now that Disney, Toys-R-Us and other retailers and manufacturers are stepping up investigations to include more random testing by independent engineers and the like, if you want more safety with your cheaply made yet expensively priced plastic novelties, prepare to pay even more for them this holiday season. It seems that $99.99 before tax isn't enough for Barbie's Three-Story Dream House to be both fun AND safe.

I know one mom who recently paid full price (upwards of $60) for Dora the Explorer's Magical Castle and all her accoutrements, only to find that the lovely gift she presented to her little one in the hopes that it would provide hours of entertainment, and somehow mitigate the fact that her ex-husband is a deadbeat, was one of the toys just recalled by Mattel.

Personally, I prefer to buy my lead-coated trinkets at Goodwill for a fraction of the price, but even that's a waste of money when my toddler would rather put on and take off every pair of shoes in our home; carefully unhook those germy little plastic pieces covering the hinges on the toilet seat (ew!) and proudly show them to everyone; or just remove everything - clean or dirty - from the dishwasher and devise all sorts of creative places to stash them.

Anyway, as if toxic toys aren't enough, China Labor Watch - the U.S.-based workers' rights group - recently discovered "brutal conditions" where "wages are low, benefits are nonexistent, work environments are dangerous and living conditions are humiliating" at eight Chinese factories that make toys for huge multinational companies like Walt Disney, Bandai and Hasbro.

So, while armies of moms (own it, ladies, we do spend more than 2 trillion consumer dollars each year and are almost always the primary purchaser of everything household) feel guilty if they don't procure everything possible to nurture and enrich their children's lives and developing brains, they're out there paying good money - and subjecting themselves to uncivilized places like Toys- and Babies-R-Us - to unwillingly harm their kids with expensive junk made by fellow human beings - and in some cases maybe even other CHILDREN - in subhuman conditions.

But I digress, according to toy industry analysts (can you believe there are grown ups that actually do that for a living?), it's the random searches that are letting all the junk slip through the cracks and into our children's toy boxes in the first place. Are we really willing to play Russian roulette with our kids' health and safety?

Probably not a safe bet, since 80 percent of the toys sold in the U.S. are made in China, and imports from the country have increased by about 300 percent since 1994. In April of this year alone, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 270 products from China were refused and cited as being "filthy" and/or "unsafe."

And this raises another troubling issue. Youngsters far and wide are getting and repeating the message that anything from China is dangerous and could potentially kill you. Great! As if parents everywhere don't have enough vapid and destructive myths to dispel from the imaginative and unfiltered brains of their offspring, now we have to try and convincingly explain why "Made in China" doesn't necessarily mean, "Made to maim."

Since I'm having a hard enough time explaining to my kids why the sky is blue and why it's so important for mommy to be able to pee in private (and I'm a paid communicator), I'm going to try to avoid that conversation altogether by scouring the house for every last piece of brightly colored plastic, boxing it up and sending it down to Mr. Eckert at Mattel, Inc.; 333 Continental Blvd.; El Segundo, CA 90245-5012. Anyone care to join me and split the shipping?

Well, if you find yourself responding with a resounding, "Yeah! What she said!" and actually take my advice to dump the toys, don't be discouraged by any backlash from your little darling when he's in the ugly throes of cold turkey toy withdrawal.

You can do it. I know you can because recently, when I dropped my oldest daughter off at her hard-core Montessori preschool, I witnessed an unbelievable site. Are you ready for this? A small crowd of 3-and 4-year olds, sans any adult nearby and many of them new students not accustomed to the rather quiet and orderly Montessori environment, stood studiously around a small table with a huge dried sunflower and some tweezers watching as two of their little pals patiently picked out dozens of seeds and neatly piled them up nearby.

Susanne Crawford, mom-to-be, consummate professional and lead teacher at said preschool, Magic Lantern Montessori in Hillman City, will tell you that the pincher grip the kids are using with the tweezers helps them develop the muscles necessary to ultimately hold a pencil. She'll also remind you that cheesy plastic toys actually send a very condescending message to children and that a child's true purpose in life is to interact with and understand the world around them.

These otherwise raucous munchkins who, in some other situation (like at home) might be playing swords with these sharp little objects and making a mess of seeds all over the carpet, were totally transfixed by $.99 tweezers and a rotting flower - and for quite some time, I might add.

Meanwhile, Crawford's baby is due in November, she doesn't have a single toy in the nursery and she doesn't feel at all unprepared.

"I have pots, pans, spoons, three dogs, pebbles, plants and the universe!" she exclaimed. "Why do I need a room full of plastic junk?"

Yeah! What she said!

Othello writer Amber Campbell may be reached via editor@sdistrictjournal.com. Have a toy story? Please share.

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