Why it’s a good time to be a kid
It’s a pretty good time to be a kid.
I mean, in some ways it’s pretty terrible. With Brexit, Trump and the persistent threat of global warming, the world that our kids inherit is likely to be in quite a state. But looking beyond the complete and total breakdown of our political system and destruction of our planet, things aren’t looking half bad for kids. For one thing, their toys aren’t terrifying or dangerous. So that’s something.
This occurred to me after visiting the newly refurbished Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh, which showcases historical objects related to childhood life. I realised that up until relatively recently, children’s toys were often either not very fun at all, or the stuff that nightmares are made of.
Old dolls are the worst. Start a Google search with, “why are old dolls”, and Google helpfully suggests “why are old dolls creepy”. Walk into the doll room at the Museum of Childhood and you’re left wondering how you’re going to sleep that night, or indeed ever again.
It’s impossible to imagine children actually playing with these things the way that I played with my dolls – doing their hair, pretending to feed them, dressing them up. You wouldn’t dare. If you believed, like I did and I think many children do, that your toys came alive at night, you wouldn’t risk facing the wrath of these dolls. Brush their hair the wrong way and they might come eat your soul while you were sleeping.
Apparently old dolls are so creepy because of something called the ‘uncanny valley’ – a space occupied by humalike things that makes actual humans uneasy. When something is somewhat lifelike but clearly not alive, our brains go, “Well, that’s not quite right, is it?” The realistic, computer-generated images that we’re so used to now make porcelain dolls with glassy eyes seem that much more…well, off. Without the benefit of CG, Victorian kids might have thought that this looked perfectly normal.
It’s not just the scary dolls that were terrible back in the day, but other toys too. Like this 18th century board game – “The New Game of Human Life – the most Agreeable & Rational Recreation ever invented for Youth of Both Sexes.” Because nothing screams fun like rational recreation.
It was kind of like the modern game of Life, where you move through the board ticking off major life milestones – getting a job, getting married, having children, buying a house – except in The New Game of Human Life, you move through 12 stages of life that include “Sedate Middle Age,” “Decrepitude” and “Dotage”. The rules instruct parents to explain each character that the children encounter in the game, saying that if they “contrast the happiness of a virtuous and well spent life with the fatal consequences arising from vicious and immoral pursuits, this game may be rendered the most useful and amusing of any that has hitherto been offered to the public.”
Hear that, kids? The most useful and amusing game EVER.
The museum also featured your typical turn-of-the-century sexist toys – engineering sets ‘for boys’, knitting samplers for girls, that kind of thing.
Unlike the nightmare dolls and the worst board game ever, these toys felt uncomfortably familiar. Walk into any toy shop today and it’s very clear which toys are aimed at which gender. Boys are encouraged to construct; girls are encouraged to create. Boys are problem-solvers; girls are carers. It’s ridiculous, of course. Building and action toys are good for spatial skills, arts and crafts toys are good for fine motor skills, and role-playing toys are good for social skills – skills that both genders need to develop. That hasn’t stopped many toy retailers from essentially segregating their toys. It’s always easy enough to spot the girls’ section – it’s the one that looks like a unicorn vomited all over it.
We may not be as far from the blatant gender-based marketing that Meccano used as we should be, but we’re getting there, thanks to campaigns like Let Toys Be Toys. Our kids have more choices about what to play with than any other kids in history. And they don’t have to worry that their doll is going to haunt their dreams. So there’s that.