The Toys You Won’t Buy
I don’t have a lot of “rules” at home for the baby. I put Zelda to bed consistently, I’m strict about her eating, and I keep her away from iPhones. Other than that, it is mostly a free-for-all around here. Still, even before I had a baby, I had THOUGHTS on the insane baby toys which are really popular these days: you know, the ones that fit the whole baby inside of them, with crazy lights and sounds and glitter? “They’re huge, they’re loud, they’re ugly. They probably overstimulate the baby’s senses and make it crazy!” I told myself. That philosophy crumbled relatively quickly in the face of gift-laden visitors and a need to search out everything I could imagine that my baby would want or need. And so, while your baby will happily play with a cardboard box for hours at a time, you (like me) will probably spend a lot of time (and money) shopping for toys — to entertain, to distract, to “stimulate,” and to educate your new roommate.
The absolute worst toys for babies and children are the ones that “talk.” The musical toys — the wind-ups, the crankables, the white noisemakers — can get annoying at times. You pass through the several, predictable phases of the lifetime of a musical toy: Phase one: “Huh, it’s only got three songs and they’re each only ten seconds long? Weird!” Phase Two: “Please let the batteries die.” Phase Three is when you realize you’ve written lyrics for the instrumentals, and that you’re singing the songs in your kitchen to yourself three hours after the baby has gone to bed. “It’s got a pretty sophisticated melody, really” you tell your spouse. Phase Four completes the cycle: the toy simply disappears one day. No one will take responsibility for its passing. It has simply ceased to be. I sometimes still regret leaving my daughter’s Fisher Price “My Little Snuggabunny” bouncer on the curb one day, free for the taking. Not because my daughter ever really liked it — she didn’t, and wouldn’t sit in it for more than four minutes at a time — but because I sometimes want to hear its shitty rendition of “Frère Jacques.” I’m not sure I’ll ever get rid of the Fisher Price “Go Wild” Jumperoo, a real shitworld product that failed to ever consistently entertain my daughter for long enough to allow me to pee but it does play some actual jams that are good songs, empirically. I even recorded one of them and sent it to my musician brother-in-law, noting that I thought it sounded like a cross between his band and Vampire Weekend. Who wrote these songs? A person? A bot? If they’re good songs — which is incredibly rare — does that make it better, or worse?
But nothing is so terrifically bad as toys which aren’t so much about sheer noise as they are a message. As babies age beyond six months, suddenly, everything talks. The first thing we acquired that “talked” was given to us by a lovely member of our family who will remain anonymous. We took it with us on a car trip when we realized our daughter was drawn to its bright red, blobby shape. She figured out instantly how to make it talk — by poking its belly. Here is its most famous, imploring bit of dialogue, delivered in the most maniacal voice you can imagine: “HELLO, tiny baby, please play with me / we’ll sing and learn and laugh, tee hee!” She pushed on the toy’s belly, over and over, and it kept delivering the goods. It has the most compressed audio I’ve ever heard in my life. The quality of the recording is so bad. Zelda loved this thing for months and then suddenly, one day, she started gasping at it in horror when I picked it up to show to her, scrunching up her little nose in her “mad face.” The day after that, she picked it up, put it in the hallway outside her bedroom, and slammed the door on it. It’s lived in exile on the top shelf of her closet ever since.
A lot of talking baby toys are similarly demanding: “Hello, tiny baby, please play with me” is at least polite. Many others I’ve encountered are not so well-mannered. The VTech Move and Crawl Ball demands, over and over, “Push me!” and the Fisher Price Laugh & Learn to Play Puppy cries, “Hug me!” randomly in the dark, Chuckie-esque and with a pedophile’s voice, completely unprompted. My friend Lisa — whose daughter Mae was also gifted this terrifying cur — said, “He’s going to go up the river one of these days.” There’s the talking chair whose words are so stupid I feel only sympathy for it: “Froggy goes splish, froggy goes splash! Splish, splash! Splish, splash!” Does a froggy even go splish? What are you talking about?
Of course, Zelda loves many of the most annoying toys, which is sort of an inescapable truth of parenting: No matter how badly you want to avoid bringing cheap, hideous, plastic garbage into your house, it will arrive, unbidden, sent by well-meaning relatives or friends, left there by other, evil babies and parent friends, desperate to lessen their familial load by one piece of crap. Then, once it’s there, you realize that it’s possible, after all, that you’ve been denying your dear little thing an experience that she actually wants very badly! You’ve been, it seems, almost abusing her by withholding these very loud, extremely gaudy, ugly ass toys. So out of guilt, you buy more.
My first talking toy purchase was the VTech — which has the market cornered on horrifying baby toys — Baby’s Learning Laptop, bought as a decoy to try to trick my daughter. It looks almost nothing like a laptop, however, so I don’t know how it could have ever done the job I wanted it to do. It didn’t, but it did bring this into my life: “My first laptop is SO FUN, it’s made just for me-eee / Learning all about my home, come along and see!” Every time the thing is touched, opened, or looked at, this “song” kicks on. A lot of these toys have a weird narrative thing going on that I can’t quite grasp, but find extremely unsettling: What is the point of describing what the toy is? The “My First Laptop” song is written… from the perspective of the baby? The words and songs are always dumbed down so far that it sounds like maybe a dog actually wrote them using a translation engine from 1999.
By far the absolute worst purchase I have ever made as a parent, one which I regret daily, is a very recent one, what I like to call a “desperate Amazon one-click” buy of the VTech Click & Count Remote. I bought this, according to my purchase history, on February 28th of this year, when my daughter became relentless in her need to possess one of our many remote controls. Thinking this toy version might appease her was misguided of course — I knew that from experience. But to the house it came, two days later. She didn’t think for a moment that it was an actual remote control. I remember her dropping it casually into her bin of other toys, as if saying to me, “This goes in here. The remotes, they belong on the shelf up there.” But really, nothing could prepare anyone for how bad the remote’s “Hi, I’m turned on” warning shot is: “Gather round, to pretend, it’s time to enjoy TV shows with some friends!” It barks, in a voice which is neither male nor female, adult or child. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5 so many fun channels to watch live!” it continues, “6, 7, 8, 9 so many to watch, so little time!” Even ignoring the fact that most TV channels are NOT live, the message this thing delivers is SUPER bad! So much TV to watch, so little time! I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the thing blurt out, “Ahhhh fuck dude Pulp Fiction is on!”
Every so often I purge all of the noise-making toys from my daughter’s life: turning them off one by one, depositing them on the top shelf of her closet. I know that, if they’re not exactly damaging her in some way, they’re annoying to me, so I tell myself that it’s for her own good. But then slowly, out of my exasperation or her boredom, they all come back, one at a time, over the course of a few weeks. You see, these toys are annoying, and that is their secret: at the end of a long day, nothing will hold a fourteen-month-old baby’s attention that isn’t complete sensory assault. One by one, the toys make their way back out of the closet, seeping into the inoffensive collection of blocks and building supplies and mute dolls. Out comes the ugly, annoying, useless “remote” which controls nothing, except her attention.