Rookie Dad: Fun Presents Only, Please

Ah, yes. It’s that time of year. Your kids — and your living room, which you just cleaned — are about to be inundated with holiday gifts. There will be toys from Grandma and Grandpa, Nana and Papa, aunts, uncles, the dog, the dog’s dog-cousin, friends, co-workers and random acquaintances.

Your kids technically will own more stuff than you do. In fact, you may have to construct an addition to the house, or at least build a shed in the backyard, to hold everything. It’s true — you’ll be living in Romper Room.

Of course, you and the kids will have a blast playing with each new toy and finding out how far it can be thrown and how many different sounds it will make when you sit on it. The litmus test: If the toy makes you laugh, then it’s a winner. In short, you’ll be having fun. Which, if you bother to read the labels on toys these days, is apparently what you’re not supposed to be doing with them.

No, according to the manufacturers, you’re actually supposed to be learning from today’s toys. Yawn. You’re supposed to be developmentally engaging your child with these toys. Snore. You’re supposed to be introducing your kid to higher-order thinking skills with these toys. Zzzzz. You’re supposed to be stimulating a lifelong foundation of knowledge with these toys. Huh-what? Oh, I was, uh, just resting my eyes.

A couple quick examples from actual toy labels we have in our house: First, a wonderfully fun set of soft cars and trucks includes a “Parent Play Tip Card” (if you need to be told how to play with toy cars, you’re in real trouble!). The card reads, “Newborns clearly see bold graphics and effortlessly grab onto the windows and doors for lots of tactile (and oral) stimulation.” Really. The card concludes, “Convenient storage pouch also encourages put-in/take-out play and teaches responsibility for clean-up time.” Woo-hoo — let the good times roll!

Next, a bright and colorful picture book filled with animals, says its publisher, was “created by a team of educators and other professionals in early childhood development.” The book is intended to “engage young children in learning and help them learn important academic concepts faster.” Booooring.

To all of this, I say a great big “FOOEY!” Our kids are only little for a short period of time, so let’s have some FUN, FUN, FUN! What other time in your life can you make animal noises — I’m talking dog, cat, cow, pig and monkey noises — at the dinner table to the delight of your fellow diners? When else, besides toddlerhood, is it acceptable to run through the living room wearing a plastic fireman’s hat and carrying a small football yelling “AHHHHH!” (Yes, my sons do this nightly.) I’m telling you, let’s take advantage of this!

Flashcards for 1-year-olds? No! Homework for 2-year-olds? No! College-preparatory curriculums for 3-year-olds? No! Fun and laughing and skipping and jumping and singing? YES, YES, YES!
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-education. My entire family, it seems, is involved in education in one capacity or another — administrators, teachers and staff members. And I’m all for being smart (as long as you, like radio legend Garrison Keillor often says, don’t flaunt it or think it makes you better than everyone else).

But my point is this: I want my sons’ learning to be natural and fun, not a chore or a task or a scary, lonely walk in front of a flashcard firing squad. There shouldn’t be any pressure or stress in your life when you’re 2 years old. You should be able to play with little toy cars for the pure fun of it and make vroom-vroom sounds and drive the cars up the side of the sofa because it’s funny, not because you’re learning what gravity is. You should be able to flip through a book of animal pictures without being told that it’s helping you learn academic concepts. You should be able to let your imagination run wild — and the learning will happen naturally.

So, this holiday season, I’ll be on the look out for any toy that has a label that simply states, “This toy is designed exclusively for your child’s enjoyment. Its purpose it to make you belly-laugh until you pee in your Pampers, which is going to happen eventually anyway, so it’s no big deal. Please be assured that any learning associated with this toy is purely accidental. To the parent: Thanks for letting your child have some good old-fashioned fun and for letting your kid be a kid.”

Brian Kantz is a stay-at-home dad and writer. You’ll hardly ever learn anything of academic value from his column, but you may potentially laugh or find the corner of your mouth curling into a small grin. His new book, “Stay-at-Home Dad. Stay. Good B