Toy catalogues put a Nerf gun to a mother’s head

Toy catalogues relentlessly exploit the notion of educational product purchases as acts of motherly care. EPA/Erik Lesser

The rise of intensive mothering has turned parenting into the ultimate ironwoman event. In an age in which the demands of the workplace have increased, so too the ideals of motherhood have become more – not less – demanding. In recent years, ideas about what constitutes adequate mothering have expanded to include extraordinary sacrifices of time, money, feelings, brains, social relationships and indeed sleep.

Of course, this is a contradictory – if not irrational – message to be sending to women in a society in which the majority of mothers are in paid employment. It’s little wonder, then, if it induces anxiety in most women.

With Christmas around the corner, much of this anxiety will be dissipated through acts of consumption. Christmas toy catalogues — like self-help literature — seem to be designed to broker the deal between competing and perhaps even incommensurate claims.

Take the “Kidstuff — For a Brighter Child” catalogue. It’s a gigantic toy advertisement pitched straight at me — the over-educated, guilt-ridden, middle-class mother, madly juggling paid work with a culturally aggravated case of Intensive Mothering Syndrome.

Advertising as advice

The Kidstuff catalogue’s message is clear. Good mothers are mothers who introduce their children to reading, who take early childhood training seriously, who devote copious quantities of time to skill building. Manual dexterity, hand-eye co-ordination, pre-literacy and pre-numeracy skills are relentlessly advertised on every page.

Toy advertisements are interspersed with parental advice on how to deal with bickering on the back seat of the family car, or how to go about throwing out used and broken toys. If you are emotionally attached to the Kidstuff you bought last year, says the catalogue, you can simply take a digital photograph, throw out the old toys then go out and buy more.

We sell toys that inspire individuality and reward curiosity.

That’s what the blurb says on the front inside page. Indeed, the toys are carefully chosen.

Take Lottie, for instance. Lottie is a doll who provides a “wholesome alternative for Girls Aged 3-9”. Lottie “doesn’t wear makeup, jewellery or high heels” and “can stand on her own two feet”. “Be Bold, Be Brave, Be You,” says the caption. This toy will apparently teach your child autonomy and independence.

So too does Goldie Blox, an interactive book and construction set featuring a child engineer, designed by a woman with a Stanford PhD. The advertisment boldly states:

Goldie Blox will nurture a generation of girls who are more confident, courageous and tech-savvy, giving them a real opportunity to contribute to the progress made by engineers in our society.

This appears to be a very big claim for a matching book and plastic peg set.

Skills discourse is not confined to the upmarket catalogues. Kmart, Target and Toys ‘R’ Us also feature brands such as Bright Starts, Imaginarium, Baby Einstein and Leapfrog.

Leapfrog is a battery-operated talking book. In the Toys ‘R’ Us catalogue, the Leapfrog advertisement seems to promise that you don’t need to read to your child, let alone teach your child how to read. The Ultra Learning Tablet, the Ocean Music School and the Magic Learning Bus can do all that for you.

Remarkably, the boy featured with the Leapfrog Tag Junior Book Pal Scout appears to be no more than three — yet he is deeply absorbed by the electronic Pal (a plastic bear) who is apparently teaching him his reading skills.

One of the striking things about toy catalogues is that they overwhelmingly feature children playing alone. The central promise attached to these images seems to be that skill gains can be made without any investment of parental time. For just a few dollars you can have some respite, and respite is guilt-free if the toy is “educational”.

The image of a child playing alone with their toy suggests a promise of respite for the parent. AAP/Richard Berts

Gender agendas

The skills discourse is only absent on those pages that are heavily gendered. In an age of straight, gay, single and blended families, it is surprising just how gendered toy catalogues are. The girls’ pages feature miniature kitchens, ironing boards and nursery equipment, along with pink tutus, tiaras and fairy wands. The boys’ pages feature little Johnny blasting away with his Nerf gun.

These pages often feature little or no text. If there is text, the mode of address is carefully studied. The implied reader is often mum, but it could also be dad, or two dads.

These pages draw attention to the fact that children are also active agents in the consumption process. Children, after all, are consumers of toy catalogues, too. Pocket money doesn’t provide much purchasing power, but the toy catalogues recognise children as co-consumers.

Mothers (like me) tend to understand consumption as an extension of their caring role. This means that children are emotionally (if not physically) present, guiding their mother’s choices at the point of purchase.

This is why the Nerf gun in the Toys ‘R’ Us catalogue looks very good to me.

Time with your child may be “Priceless”, as Mastercard says. But most of us are engaged in the constant calculation of costs. Toy catalogues point to a clash, then propose a solution — but the compromise itself appears to be irresolvable.