"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Toys ‘R’ Us And The End of Childhood Innocence

A South American doctor in town for a long international conference, needed some staples for his stay – bread, milk, cheese, lettuce and a few other basics – and was taken by a colleague to the local supermarket which was also the company’s flagship.   As such it was large, well-stocked, and given its wealthy, upper middle class clientele, had a variety of boutique items, unusual imported products, and a wide range of brands for the more commonly-produced foods.  Its thirty-two aisles were well-marked, and all the shopping carts were equipped with an alphabetical list of foods and where they were located.

It was, like all supermarkets, brightly lit and easy to negotiate.  The aisles were broad, access to the 30 check-out lanes equipped with digital wait-time read-outs and high-speed barcode readers, and the thermostast adjusted given the number of shoppers, ambient temperatures, and type of food displayed.  The friend who worked at nearby NIH had shopped at the supermarket for years,and had always found it an easy-in easy-out experience especially since shopping had become even easier thanks to smartphone links, product-linked GPS, and product layout arrayed according to consumer data tracking.

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The colleague looked over the doctor’s shopping list, took him to the bread aisle, and told him that he would meet him at the checkout counter in twenty minutes.

When a half-hour had gone by and no sign of doctor at any of the checkout lanes or kiosks, the colleague started to look for him.  Perhaps he had, like many new shoppers, gotten lost.  Despite the new consumer data-based algorithms, store traffic pattern analysis, and digital references, some things simply aren’t where you expect them to be.

The Bethesda supermarket was the worst possible place for a doctor from a small town in eastern Peru.  Although Santa Rosa was no village by any means, and although there were two mid-sized supermarkets there, the Giant was far beyond anything the doctor had imagined.  He was no campesino or rural naïve.  He had traveled to Lima and Buenos Aires, and although he had stayed in small pensions with full board, he was not ignorant or unaware of the quickly modernizing life of these capitals. 

However there was something fundamentally different about his small town market – not the size, the lighting, nor even the layout.  The atmosphere in this modern store was still much like the open markets on the other side of town – orientation by color and smell, shared advice on quality and value, and service which – because everyone knew everyone else – personalized, intimate, and tailored.

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What for the shoppers at the Giant was a normal, necessary, and purely functional experience was for Dr. Morales an intimidating, anxious, and paralyzing experience.  There was no culture shock at NIH nor at the conference of international health physicians; no surprises at the Holiday Inn, nor any in residential Bethesda.  The supermarket, however, was every bit the epitome of the capitalist excess, American indifference, and neutering technology he read about in Adelante! the popular paper of the Socialist Party.  An exaggerated, hyper-lit, impersonal, cold, and incessantly demanding place. 

Anyone could have suffered the paralytic dysfunction of the Peruvian doctor,  but there was no way that this mild, Socialist, engaging man from a small town in the Peruvian rain forest could have avoided it once he set foot in the Giant.

Toys ‘R’ Us revolutionized the toy industry when it opened its first store.   Founded by Charles Lazarus in its modern incarnation in 1957, the company quickly caught on and had a remarkable, high-value run for sixty years.  It was the supermarket of toy stores, stocked with every possible stuffed animal, play set, board game, bicycle, baby stroller, doll house, monkey bars, toy guns, dolls, and cowboy and space suits.  The store was designed for impulse buying.  Shopping lists were irrelevant; and although mothers might have had some idea what to buy for Christmas or birthdays, their choices were made on site and by appeal.

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Older parents remember being taken to FAO Schwarz in New York City – then the premier toy store in the nation.  At Christmastime, the store was festive, colorful, decked out, a d an extension of Fifth Avenue and Rockefeller Center.  Its toys were displayed rather than arrayed.  It was more museum than toy store.  It was elegant but simple in its offering of high-quality, selective toys.

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For them, Toys ‘R’ Us is as paralytic an experience as the Giant was for the Peruvian doctor.  It was as much an expression of over-sized American commercialism as the Giant, but worse.  At least at the supermarket the products were consumed.  Perhaps one did not need imported Porcini mushrooms or organic kale, but at least they were consumed.  Children have never needed anything more than old pots, pans, spoons, and water to bang, fill, and empty. No more than a sandbox to build roads, castles, and neighborhoods.  No more than a ball to play with, or a doll to love; or a frilly skirt or a cowboy hat. The toys at Toys ‘R’ Us are unnecessary and irrelevant to growing up.  They limit imagination, fantasy, and creativity.

Yet there are hundreds of aisles of plastic, discardable cheap toys demanding nothing, asking nothing of children’s imagination and creativity.  Before the chain went bankrupt in 2017, the victim not of a changed consumer demand but the Internet, its offerings became more electronic.  ‘Interactive’ meant interaction between child and computerized toy, not among children; and the essence of childhood experience – simple, inventive, playful, and innocent was further damaged.

There is no longer any practical reason to have children – sons to light the funeral pyre, to provide for parents in old age, hereditary legacy, or labor.   Modern, highly individualistic societies like the United States, are based on individual achievement and enterprise.  Children are brought up to be independent, self-secure, and ambitious.  Retirement accounts and retirement homes cover old age.  Caregivers are hired.  Marriage is less an extended family affair than a partnership. Why then, have children?

Innocence – natural, pure, uncomplicated, and brief.  Only when a child is born and for a few months and years afterwards, does it last.

There is no need to hurry growing up and no need to complicate childhood or distort the natural innocence, curiosity, and intelligence with which babies are born.  The simpler the childhood and the simpler the playthings, the more the innocence, imagination, and limitless creativity of children can be extended.

It was completely understandable why Dr. Morales froze before the rows of canned peas; and why new parents stand paralyzed before the acres of florescent, oversized, plastic and electronic toys at Toys ‘R’ Us. For the parents, the shock and paralysis is far worse. The end of childhood is far closer than its beginning.

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