What Children Need: A Little Creative Deprivation

Don't turn Lego sets into model-airplane equivalents, urges one mom. The product's gift was its ability to engage a child's imagination, not his direction-following skills.

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I must confess that I believe in certain absolutes when it comes to raising children. Kids should be taught to sit still, so they can make it through a piano recital without disrupting the entire event. They should eat what's put in front of them at dinnertime without complaint. And when it comes to play, they should be given toys that nurture connections with the world around them and that develop the latent notions rumbling around inside their heads. That is, play should be about exploration and imagination. And that last belief is why I am distressed by the changes in Legos that I now witness through my son, Ethan. In lieu of big buckets of blocks and the freedom -- and the concomitant expectation -- to create on his own, Ethan has a variety of Lego theme kits that sit neatly assembled all over the house like so many model airplanes. Fun to build? Maybe -- if you like following complicated directions. But then what? And heaven forbid your sister should accidentally knock over that Lego soccer field on the coffee table, because how will you ever manage to reassemble it without the directions? And now we have Bionicle, the just-introduced realm of Lego action figures that are all the rage with my son and his third-grade friends. He has five of them and is saving his allowance to buy the next one he desperately wants, the one that will allow him to merge all the creatures together into some giant monster Bionicle. That is great for Lego's profit margin, but as a parent, I ask, What is it doing to my kid? It's feeding his desire for the acquisition of objects and turning him into a good American consumer, but those are not character attributes I'm particularly keen on developing in Ethan. In the responses to the Fast Company article on Lego, I was struck by the number of adults who credited free-form Lego play with developing their ability to invent. So what do today's toys portend for a generation of kids raised on directions, carefully designed kits, and themes from Hollywood? How can we expect them as adults to solve problems and to look beyond the obvious, when their childhoods have been spent within the confines of cultural scripts and explicit instructions? We have a moral responsibility as parents, as consumers, and even as toymakers to give our children constructively challenging playthings that can prepare them for satisfying lives as adults. Unfortunately, in today's cultural marketplace, that is not an easy task. As a parent, I find myself on the defensive at every turn: in the grocery store when I won't buy that orange-colored macaroni and cheese with the Rugrats kids on the box, at home when I rearrange the antennae on the TV to get better reception for PBS because I won't fund cable and all that comes with it, at breakfast when my son peruses the Lego catalog and points out all the new Harry Potter and Jack Stone kits he needs to have. I often feel like a one-woman battalion, struggling to keep my kids and my home from being totally overtaken by popular culture and its plastic fallout. But then, on occasion, I get small rewards from my strategy of creative deprivation, like my daughter's impulse to make a paper telescope for her granddad's birthday, rather than run to the store, or my son's persistent interest in U.S. presidential history and his nagging questions about whether I think Carter, Kennedy, and Hoover were good presidents. It's just a lot harder now, I think, than it was when I was a kid. Sure, we've got great catalogs with creative toys. But the products lining the shelves at the nearest toy store are likely to be Star Wars action figures, Barbie and her odd collection of sisters and boyfriends, and now those characters of Lego's Bionicle series. Oddly enough, my vigilant navigation of the cultural landscape is my clearest act of faith as an adult. Somehow, I believe that by adhering to my values in the face of pressure and distraction, my kids will become better people. They will learn the difference between real needs and fleeting desires. They will learn to appreciate literature, poetry, and history -- things that, I think, do matter. I trust that they will remember how glorious the woods were on New England fall days when I made them come with me on long walks. Somehow, I don't think they will remember the Sleeping Beauty Barbie my daughter didn't get for Christmas or Tahu, the one Bionicle Toa Ethan does not yet have. I am not convinced by arguments that today's children learn differently or faster than previous generations, or that they need to be entertained, even in play. Today's kids need to learn to entertain themselves, to work through moments of boredom, and to discover things of interest and wonder in places they had not thought to look before. We do a great disservice to our children if we don't help them become independent thinkers, capable of separating the ephemeral from the more or less eternal, and if we don't teach them the importance of making a contribution to the larger community, not just to the marketplace and its relentless focus on the bottom line. Lisa Gates ( lgates@wesleyan.edu ) is the mother of eight-year-old Ethan, the boy cited in the Fast Company story on Lego, and five-year-old Anna. She is also an associate dean of the College at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

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