In Defense of Beautiful Toys

When that recent New York Times article mentioned, in passing, an expensive Amish-made bassinet I bought for Maya before she was born, many of the comments pounced on it as evidence that I was a spoiled, status-seeking housewife – an amusing idea for my husband, who often has to remind me to shower. Pass the bon-bons, I say!

Of course, my whole point was that attempts to shop our way to an answer on the problem of toxics often lead to an impractical and expensive result, because, frankly, safer materials for items like furniture come with a hefty pricetag. Obviously, this is unfair to families with a more limited budget (including us, as I’ll post soon on my effort to find a truly green sofa for less than $5,000! Ouch, couch.).

As I’ve explained in this blog, for my family, we save money by prioritizing greener options on what we eat, clean with and use on our skin, because these are the entry points for chemicals. We also save moola on clothes and books, and sometimes buy used toys in good condition.

But I’ve also developed a fondness for gorgeous toys, many of which are on the more spendy side of things.

Truth be told, I’ve always paid attention to aesthetics (to the extent I have a “style,” I like mid-century modern plus eclectic patterned pillows, whatever THAT is). Champagne tastes on a beer budget, as they say. And one of my concerns in having a baby was the “crap invasion:” all that extra junk that accumulates through the mere act, it seems, of having a child.

And, wow, the plastic! (Oh, the horror!) It’s ugly, as well as full of suspect chemicals.

So since she was born, I’ve slowly tried to build a small collection of mostly European and some made-in-America nicer toys – focusing on those that are constructed according to more stringent health and safety standards, and are really wonderful to play with. I’ll be posting a list of the companies we like.

Here are what I see are the many advantages of choosing fewer – and better – toys for Maya:

1)   We buy less. With the higher pricetag, we tend to pick and choose one or two nicer items for birthdays or holidays that will be more likely to grow with her (blocks to knock down today, and build with tomorrow). That means less stuff to pick up, fewer parts and pieces to worry about, and fewer distractions. I can keep the sets together, so that they actually work as intended, or use baskets and crates to put them away until they are “new” again.

2)   I like to play with them too. My husband always says the toys are for me, and it’s totally true. Rather than a gizmo with limited buttons that do one or two things, when I buy toys that I like, I’m far more tempted to get down on the floor and build things with Maya, interact about colors and shapes, or talk with her about the animals. The blocks are inviting and fun, and the hand puppets do insist on singing a silly song. Besides, the clean-up after a toddler is constant, and I’d rather handle stuff that I like to touch and put away, over and over and over again.

3)   The natural materials are a teacher. Like every child, Maya is learning a visual and tactile vocabulary of shapes, colors and sizes. There are just more possibilities with simpler, more open-ended toys for imaginative play, or with things that imitate colors and shapes found in the outside world. The toys have more context and, often, more flexibility, and sometimes even seem like the start of something like art. (Both the Montessori and Waldorf educational traditions foster respect for natural materials as part of the learning process, so I think this must make some kind of sense.)

4)   They have fewer moving parts. Simpler and more natural toys have no batteries, fewer safety recalls, fewer moving parts, and often (though not always) fewer choking hazards. Unlike electronic toys, they have fewer heavy metals, and no annoying little tunes that threat my limited sanity. They don’t fall apart as easily. They’re quiet instead, and ask for Maya to assign them a role, to call them to a purpose herself. This is a skill she will need. It’s one thing to push buttons, but it’s an entirely different thing to know why.

5)   They retain their value. Nicer items don’t show much wear and tear. They can be re-gifted, and no one will complain. They can be kept around as brainteasers (some of Maya’s puzzles are a challenge!), or, failing that, resold on listservs and the like for half their value. If you think of yourself as renting them for a longish time, even with the mark-up, it’s actually not such a bad deal.

6)   We’re (mostly) avoiding the crap trap. Any friend or family who comes by tends to notice that the toys are nicer, and we generally avoid the unwanted, if well-intended, plastic gifts. And I’ve unwittingly harnessed the power of “no:” when we go shopping, Maya has no expectation that she gets a toy from the big box retail store. I do collect dress-ups and nice instruments for the music basket, but party favors and other cheapy stuff get tossed to keep the clutter to a barely-human minimum. (And we’re still plenty cluttered!)

7)   We’re voting with our dollars. I love the idea that our money goes towards hand-crafted, well-made toys from companies that respect our family’s safety and the environment. We do consider what we buy more carefully, and try to jump ahead of Maya’s developmental stage to ensure it gets maximum use, so I usually covet an expensive item for awhile with furtive on-line visits, and then one day take the plunge.

And about that Amish bassinet – while it’s true that Maya outgrew it all too quickly, I loved putting her in it when she was born, and having her next to me in the bedroom. Like a Moses basket time machine, it’s hand-lathed, with hand-stitched organic linens from a women’s seamstress collective in North Carolina.

Given the ridiculous money that is spent on diaper bags and nursery items just for the cute factor, I don’t really feel guilty for picking this up. It’s still in her room as a toy bin, and its still formaldehyde-free.

It was beautiful then, and it’s beautiful today, and some day, it will doubtless pretty up another little baby’s room. So I’m just saying: we could all do with a little more hand-crafted prettiness, whenever we can make it work.

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So, blogging…

Credit: Darren Higgins

When the New York Times ran a picture of my daughter Maya last week under a snarky headline, it changed something for me. I’ve been a public interest advocate for 12 years for a range of important causes, but this was about my family, and felt, well, personal.

Ok, so it took me a while to get the “personal is political” thing. The comments picked up on the river of condescension flowing through the article (which used words like “paranoid” and was led by a large image of a toddler smiling through a glass bubblehead in a “hazmat onesie,” whatever that is).

Some folks suggested I was mentally ill for trying to protect Maya from the sea of toxic chemicals now commonly found in all of our bodies. Many confused germs (not so bad, really) with toxics (bad, really). And others just wanted to sneer at the overprotective helicopter moms in the article, you know, the ones who stay up late making their own deodorant out of spit and eco-sealing wax.

I replied to some of their startling insights on Fark and other places where the piece was picked up, trying to take back some of my dignity. After all, I gave the reporter a lot of the references and other material for the story, but I was the one with the ridiculous (but gorgeous, btw) Amish bassinet and the only dad in the article had “done the research” and was skeptical about the risks. (Thanks, Mary Brune, for correcting his ignorance on the science, pointing out the other signs of sexism in the piece and being ticked off right along with me.)

Frankly, I’m used to being called far worse names. But this was different. It cut right to my sense of fairness.

Like all parents, I’m just trying to use what I know to protect my family from harm. Like some parents, I have time to do the research on what might be safe, and what is not. And like not too many parents, I’ve had a front row seat for the past 12 years on the spectacle of bought-and-paid-for federal agencies, and weak and backwards looking laws (most of which haven’t been updated since the 1970s). I’ve also had some run-ins with the phalanxes of corporate lobbyists that swarm Washington, always with your health and safety in mind. Sometimes we win, but mostly, they do.

Even with all that, I still make mistakes, and find out that something in my home is truly awful for us. Mostly after the fact.

In short, the system’s rigged. And parents who try to do something to change things are not neurotic: they are trying to make the world better. Safer. Healthier. For their children and all the ones who come after them.

I hope to take my sense of outrage, and instead of making deodorant, make this. Lists of items I found that I like. Little bits and bobs of decent ideas about how to make it work. Shout-outs to good companies and developments. A lifeline to the parents and other people who know I’m not crazy to dream about, and when I can to try to make, a better world.

Hope you’ll join me.

Laura