November 28, 2020

The Junk Drawer: ‘Toying with my childhood’

I’m pretty sure the “N64 Kid” copied my reaction from Christmas morning in 1998 when I opened the wrapping paper and saw my very own Nintendo 64. That day, I’m sure I also added to my collectionof Thomas the Tank Engine toys, “Toy Story” action figures and Legos. Those years were a simpler time. The youngest member of my family (one of my cousins) is now 17 years old, and we seem to have outgrown the warmth and innocence of that moment.

“The Junk Drawer” is a biweekly column written by Journal sports editor Tim Doty.

No, not the meaning of Christmas or whatever. I’m talking about unwrapping a present and freaking out over getting that must-have toy of the year. Even if we were still in our youth or pre-teens now, what would we even be excited about opening?

With children owning iPads, smartphones (which I now own) and laptops, most gifts are now being given electronically — gift cards for an iPad game, etc. I am obviously not a child anymore, but I couldn’t tell you the first thing I would want if I were still 10 or younger.

Jay Moneta and Hunter Thomson, from Believe Kids Elementary Fundraising, put together a presentation on some of the hottest toys by decade. From 2000 to 2009, some of the most popular toys were iPods and “kid computers” (such as LeapFrog). Compare this to the 1950s when children woke up on December 25 to Mr. Potato Head, Matchbox cars, Barbie dolls and hula-hoops (I never got hula-hoops. I mostly just threw them at my cousins.)

I was a child of the 1990s, so I grew up with Beanie Babies, Buzz Lightyear, Tomagotchis and, strangely enough, water guns. The horror that was Tickle-Me Elmo also reared its ugly head in this decade. Those laughs still haunt me.

My cousin owned a Furby, and I’m glad I didn’t. While they may look adorable, they were a tad too sentient. You couldn’t go an hour without the gremlin-wannabe speaking in tongues and bothering you. I was at my cousin’s house sleeping over one night. Here’s how that went:

I’m 12 years old, sleeping in my sleeping bag. I hear a buzzing noise and then, “Feed me!” It might have been one of the scariest moments I’ve experienced. The next weekend, I spent the night at my cousin’s again, only to have the same thing happen. The E.T.-like voice cried out “Feed me!” I responded, “Feed you what? It’s 4 a.m.!”

Yet these toys were simple. Stretch Armstrong was literally stretchy goop in a rubber casing that any child could stretch, and it was glorious. Hot Wheel tracks, action figures, Nerf guns and Barbie dolls didn’t require much assembly or know-how, just imagination or begging your parents to get you the toys. Yes, we sometimes only played with the toy for a week after it was bought, but that week was magnificent. All we needed was our imagination, as Albert Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

I was at a restaurant one Saturday night, and as my friends and I were finishing our food and drinks, we looked over and saw a table of 11-year-olds on their iPhones — not talking to each other, not playing thumb wars or talking about movies, but staring like zombies into their phones.

This incident led me to think about how much has changed, even in five, 10 or 15 years. What do kids like to play with? If I was at that restaurant and was about 5 or 6, I would have had a Power Rangers action figure or toy train to keep me occupied. These children weren’t even talking to each other.

Maybe it’s a sign of the times. I don’t believe children are getting dumber because of technology. I’m sure they are more intelligent — one of those 11-year-olds at that table might find the cure to cancer. But are we substituting technology for toys? If you grow up to have children or already have young ones of your own, give them the tools to succeed, but also let their imaginations grow. An iPad is no substitute for building a box fort, playing wiffleball or dress-up.

However, a word of advice to everyone: socks are still a lame gift, no matter if you’re 5 or 55.

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