The Spice of Life

The other morning as I was getting ready for a day of shopping with the girls, I tripped over a Power Ranger toy. From that place on the floor, I glanced at dozens of action figures piled in the center of the family room. It looked as if there was going to be a mass burning of carnage--the Holocaust revisited. Then, I noticed my husband's computer toys stacked in a corner. I began to reflect upon the types of treasures that have filled my life. What would my life be like without these colorful objets d'art?

Twelve years ago, we began moving from traditional baby toys--rattles, teddy bears, blocks--to the world of baby dolls. We had two little girls (later we added a boy). It was a natural progression. Little girls instinctively gravitate towards life-like simulations of the real world. I know this to be true because I tried in my best, non-sexist, liberated way to offer boy toys to our darling daughters. However, unless they could find a way to fit baseballs, toy hammers, or trucks into their doll scenarios, they were simply not interested.

From baby dolls, we moved to the world of Barbie dolls. Barbie dolls! Now, there is a sexist stereotype of womanhood. But try as I might to steer my daughters away from these male images of the perfect woman, Barbie, complete with all of her paraphernalia, was ours to keep. (I digress.) What kind of person makes Barbie stuff? As those corporate types sit in their Barbie think-tanks, are they laughing their way to the bank while poking fun at the parents of little girls, or are they in some demented way seeking revenge? I believe they are more than a little crazy because who else would think to design minuscule twelve piece sets of flatware the size of staples, or tiny shoes and hair accessories so small that they ruin the rollers in vacuum cleaners? I did hear several years ago that the Barbie people put tiny pieces of metal in these small toys so in case a child swallows one, it will show up on an x-ray--how considerate of them!

Barbie and her whole array of friends and family have experienced every type of disaster known only to the characters of Days of Our Lives, The Young and the Restless, General Hospital, etc. To live out her life, Barbie has needed a designer wardrobe equal only to that of Princess Di's. Barbie would not be caught dead in an economy car, so she drives a hot pink Porsche. Barbie owns every convenience known to modern woman from a pink computer to a pink motor home. When I tell my own daughters that I only owned one Barbie, they remark, "Oh, Mama, you must have been so poor."

I mutter, "No, my parents were just much smarter than I am."

As they embark upon adolescence, I notice that Barbie is spending a lot more time in the closet. My daughters are spending much more time on the phone and giving a considerable amount of attention to real Kens. (Ken is Barbie's main squeeze.) They also have progressed to CD's, makeup and more than a passing interest in clothes. In fact, we have our very own fashion police living at our house. Whether we ask for it or not, she is always ready to hand out advice on our attire. (I wonder when she will begin to issue citations.) Clothes are so much a part of the emerging identity of my teenager.

"Julie, what is this piece of paper?" I asked one day as I was putting away some of her clothes.

"It's my clothes diary. I keep track of what I wear so I never repeat an outfit more than once every three weeks."

"Do you really think anyone else notices how often you wear something?"

"Oh yes they do. One time I forgot to write down what I wore and someone asked me if I had worn that shirt last week! I am not going to be embarrassed like that again."

* * *

Six years ago, we were blessed with a blue bundle of joy and so entered into a new world of play and a completely new set of toys. Of course, toys for babies, whether they are boys or girls, are the same. However, by the end of his first year of life, I began to notice a distinct difference in the types of toys and how my sweet little boy chose to play with them. Anything that would fit into the palm of his chubby little hand was perfect as a projectile instrument. We quickly retired these toys to the backyard, hoping for a Joe Montana or a Mickey Mantle.

To be fair, we decided to buy our little boy--a doll--to protect, care for, and love. We were surprised to find him twirling his little buddy by its hair and flinging him onto the floor. The same was true with the many Barbie dolls that still filled every corner of our home. Our miniature caveman would think of new and different ways to manhandle these feminine toys. (I began to wonder if these behaviors will carry into adulthood and whether he needed therapy now before it is too late.)

Our sweet little boy has graduated to action figures, the masculine equivalent to Barbie. Action figures are macho images of the perfect male: muscular and able to accomplish physical feats without any harm coming to him. I think those same deranged but rich people that design Barbies also design action figures along with their midget accessories: guns, knives, and other weapons. Action figures come in a variety of sizes and shapes from Mighty Ducks to the latest movie craze, such as Jurassic Park and Batman characters. I have noticed that little boys are not interested in playing out relationships. They like to see their toys overcome inhuman odds.

I have a good friend whose son went through an obsession with GI Joes.

"Kyle, have you seen my red nail polish?" asked his mom.

With a sheepish grin he answered, "Is this it?"

"Yes. What were you doing with it?" She took one look at the GI Joes and realized that for months there had been a bloody war going on. There was blood all over hundreds of GI Joes, as well as their tanks and jeeps. Puzzled she remarked, "With all of this blood, they should all be dead!"

"Oh no, Mom. Just the bad guys have blood. See. Here are the good ones, and they don't have any blood on them at all!" Sure enough, there was another pile of army men, free of the crimson color--invincible men!

Girls and boys play differently also. Often, I would find myself calling, "Mindy, where are you?" I went from room to room looking for my second-born daughter. I would find her in some corner of the house coloring or drawing for hours at a time. Sometimes she would have several friends over and they would color together quietly. This activity is not so with little boys. From dawn to dusk, winter or summer, there my little man is outside or inside, playing rambunctiously any kind of ball--baseball, basketball, soccer, football, or golf. I could not imagine him ever sitting quietly while still awake, unless under extreme duress to do so. Not long ago, I noticed a new and worrisome play behavior: action figures tied to chair and table legs with belts; tied to the string of the mini-blinds; and worst of all, taped to his bedposts! I wonder, "Is my son working out some deep inner turmoil?" (Yes, he definitely needs intensive psychoanalysis.)

By my rough estimation, we may have another six years of childlike toys cluttering our house. However, when I consider the alternatives, I think I prefer the toys. As girls and boys mature, their toy preferences change but not their interests. Boys go from play cars to the real thing. Girls go from playing at relationships to living the real thing.

A case in point--fourteen-year-old Julie hung up the phone and turned to me saying, "I can't believe what just happened. Kayla told Diane that Dorie likes David but Diane is still going with David's best friend! That is just not right because Diane doesn't even like Dorie and David is all wrong for Dorie. Can I go to Megan's house so we can get this whole thing straightened out?"

I really did not understand this "whole thing" but knowing better than to over-react, I reluctantly said, "Okay, I'll drive you over, but get ready quickly because I need to run some errands."

In an hour she was finally ready. "I had to wash and dry my hair, and I had to change my clothes because Megan hasn't seen my new outfit, and I think she has a pair of shoes that match this that I can borrow."

I have yet to experience first-hand male adolescence, but I am willing to bet that it will be a totally different adventure.

Grown men and women are really just children in big bodies. They still enjoy their toys. Big boys love their computers, cars, and sports equipment. These are all things that are related to activities. The act of control over objects is very important to them. I think part of the man-overcoming-enormous odds is tied up in their fascination with sports. They love to be the master over things, and that is why they enjoy tools, ball-games, and mechanical instruments.

Big girls love jewelry, makeup and beautiful things for their home. They aspire to making their world a more beautiful place. Women grow out of toys that replicate relationships, and women's toys are things that enhance beauty. That is probably why women prefer clothes, flowers, and interior decorating.

Certainly, women appreciate things like computers and cars. They like them because they make life easier--conveniences. Men like clothes and nice things for the home too, but those things are more a matter of necessity or function. Numerous experts have spent many hours discussing these differences between men and women. I am certainly not an expert, but I have noticed that the types of toys that males and females choose, define who they are.

"Have you seen the checkbook balance lately?" asked my husband.

"Yes, I have, and I am wondering why you spent so much money on a newer modem for the computer and another mouse." I responded.

"Never mind that," he quickly answered. "Tell me why a six-year-old needs three pairs of shoes?"

"One for Sundays, another for school, and another for play. Besides I didn't spend money on a totally useless thing. What about the time you spent $100 on fireworks? You can't eat fireworks." I replied.

"What about the time you spent several hundred dollars on clothes? You can't eat clothes either!"

"But you said I looked so nice the other night when we went out with your boss," I quickly answered him with a smile. So it continues.

Throughout time, men and women have valued those things which they view as important. I imagine that back in the days of the cave dwellers, a new club was as precious to the man as a new animal skin dress was to the woman. People do not really change. Maybe what we all need to realize is our differences are good, and we are each unique. We should appreciate that our world is filled with so many variations of what is a treasure. After all, variety is the spice of life.

Cathi Martin