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Personal essay: Fighting the tide of ‘hot’ Chanukah toys


by Lila Hanft, Cleveland Jewish News, 11/16/07

I wrote an article for the upcoming Winter Jstyle magazine about shopping for toys this holiday season. While I was waiting for people to call me back for the story, I began to answer some of the questions myself. The result was this essay, which ran on p. 4 this week in lieu of the editor's column:

“My kids don’t have any idea what the ‘hot’ toys are,” said a mom I’d once chatted with on a playground. She crooked her fingers in quote marks around the word “hot.” “They’re happy with whatever we get them -- even if it’s just crayons or blocks.”

What this mother didn’t mention was that she resided on Planet Smug in the Pollyanna Galaxy far, far from where you and I live.

By November, normal earth kids have already had so much exposure to this year’s hottest toys that the list is practically imprinted in their DNA. Sure, there’s a chance your kids or grandkids aren’t keeping a mile-long wish list n if they never watch TV, go to school, talk to their cousins, or attend kids’ birthday parties.

From a parent’s point of view, resisting the tide of holiday toy advertising is like being a salmon swimming upstream. We won’t get them toys that don’t meet our standards for safety, cost, durability, educational value, and longevity. But we still must endure the journey through those eight pre-holiday weeks known in the toy industry as the “hard eight,” when the barrage of toy commercials gives new meaning to the phrase “ad nauseam.”

Early in October, my 9-year-old saw an ad for “Deathstrike G.I. Joe with Real Dismemberment Action” (not its real name) and, eyes alight with what I hoped wasn’t homicidal frenzy, said he wanted it for Chanukah.

My 4-year-old heard him and said, “Yeah, me, too! We can use his blade to put people’s eyeballs out!”

“Honey,” I say, flinching, “you know we don’t buy toys with weapons.”

“But, Mom, it’s not a weapon!” the 4-year-old protests. “It’s, it’s, it’s …”

His brother leaps triumphantly into the breach. “It’s really surgery! It’s called dismemberment, but really he’s doing emergency surgery in the jungle. They don’t have medical equipment, so they’re improvising.”

“Decapitation is not surgery,” I say. “A machete is not a scalpel.”

“Oh, Mom,” the elder sighs, “you’re so predictable.”

By mid-October, with toy commercials coming fast and thick, the boys have long lists in their heads of all the toys they want for Chanukah.

The lists are my fault: Instead of arguing over each ad, I’ve taken to saying, “You can put it on your list.” The 4-year-old can’t write, so he’ll have forgotten his list by Chanukah. But I may be in trouble with the 9-year-old.

Two weeks later, high on Halloween candy, my 4-year-old asks for the 50th time if he can please have the Monster Slime Machine with Glow-in-the-Dark Snot for Chanukah. I’m irritated by watching him bounce off the walls in a sugar rush, so this time, instead of the usual “We’ll see,” I say, simply, “No.”

He looks up from the TV in evident surprise.

“There’s no way I’m buying you that,” I reiterate, in case he missed it.

His shock turns to amused incredulity: “Oh, Mommy, you don’t mean that.”

We’ve seen one ad for the Hot Wheels Monster Dino-Park 12 times in the space of an hour, so I’m not surprised when my 4-year-old says he wants it for Chanukah.

“You know,” I say, getting creative, “in the attic we still have your brother’s Hot Wheels Pterrordon Terrordome. Would you like that?”

“Mom,” he says, disgusted. “That’s just a pteradon. A Monster T-Rex is much scarier.”

A week later, after watching a morning of “Dora the Explorer” with ads, the 4-year-old decides he wants the Bratz Glitzy Glamour Car with Bling.

His brother is horrified. “Mom, you have to tell him he can’t have that. It’s for girls!”

“It’s OK if he wants to play with it,” I say. Hey, I’m a feminist. And in any case, I know it will only be a matter of days, if not hours, before his friends will tell him in no uncertain terms that he has stepped over the line. Preschoolers are more rigid about gender roles than born-again Christians.

Sure enough, the next day the 4-year-old glances dismissively at the TV and says, “I don’t want the Bratz Glitzy Glamour Car anymore. That’s for girls.” He makes a yucky face.

A few minutes later, however, he muses, “Although … maybe if Deathstrike G.I. Joe could drive it, it would still be cool.”

Like there’s any chance those Bratz would relinquish their car keys to G.I. Joe! They’re no fools.

The week before Thanksgiving, I overhear my husband explaining to the 4-year-old that the ad for the Hot Wheels Monster Dino-Park is misleading. “This part of the commercial is animated,” he says. “The cars won’t really move on their own like that. You’ll have to move them around with your hands.”

Stubborn silence. TV does not lie.

“It’s a trick,” my husband starts again. He stands up, seeking a visual aid for this lesson in consumer literacy. “I’ll show you what I mean. There’s a Pterrordon Terrordome in the attic that your brother’s barely touched. Wanna go take a look?”

“Dad,” he says, disgusted. “That’s a just a pteradon ...”

I snicker and walk away. I know how this one ends.

On Thanksgiving Day, the cousins hotly debate my kids over which toys are the coolest. The Monster Slime Machine? The Remote Control Hell-o-Copter? The Blood ’n Guts Team Portable Autopsy-Mobile?

Finally, the kids disappear upstairs and silence ensues.

“It’s quiet,” I say.

“Too quiet,” adds my husband.

We go upstairs, where we find speechless, slack-jawed children glued to a huge plasma TV, Playstation 2 game controllers clutched in their sweaty hands.

On the screen, jerkily animated guys in fuzzy green combat gear spray what appears to be napalm on their enemies.

“We have to get this for Chanukah, Mom,” the 9-year-old says.

“Yeah,” echoes the 4-year-old, in a trance. “It’s cool.”

I’m stunned speechless.

“Boys,” I finally say, “you know we don’t buy toys with weapons and fighting.”

The 9-year-old glances up at me.

“But Mom, they’re not really fighting … it’s more like they’re spraying paint on each other.”

“It’s sunscreen,” says the 4-year-old. “They’re just squirting each other with sunscreen to protect them from all the fire around them.”

“It’s not sunscreen. It’s napalm. And it’s what’s causing the fire,” I say between gritted teeth.

“Are you sure it’s not just water?” the 4-year-old says.

“It’s … not … water,” I grind out. “It’s A Horrible. Chemical. Turn. It. Off. Now.”

A sigh from the 9-year-old, as he and his cousin, also 9, roll their eyes.

“Mom,” he says, “you’re so predictable.”

Yup, I’m just another diligent salmon, heaving herself upstream for the good of the species.

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Jill November 17, 2007 at 10:01 AM  

Lila - you are going to LOVE this:

Years ago, we told our kids, if you see it on tv, we can guarantee you won't ever get it so don't even ask. And so - for example, when, one Chanuka, we opened a gift from a relative and it had, written all over the manufacturer's box, "AS SEEN ON TV!"? Our daughter immediately, said, "Oh - we're going to have to send that one back."


Lila Hanft November 17, 2007 at 2:02 PM  

Oh, Jill, that's excellent. I wish I'd thought of doing that -- and started years ago.

This morning my son, seeing an ad for "low cost mortgages" on TV, asked, "Mom, is every commercial on TV a lie?"

His skepticism comes from hearing my husband, the housing court magistrate, rant about criminally misleading advertising for predatory lending practices.

But can his skepticism about Countrywide or Quicken be extended to include Mattel and Hasbro? Eventually, yes, but probably not before Dec. 25.

Jill November 17, 2007 at 3:46 PM  

What December 25th, Ms. Hanft!? Chanuka starts on 12/4!

Speaking of which - I'm plugging the Latke-Hamantash debate at BJ. :) I'll be defending the Hamantash on 12/8 w/ Harry Potash and Rabbi Michael Hecht!

Lila Hanft November 17, 2007 at 10:31 PM  

Chanukah may start 12/4, but the "hard eight," the industry's name for the eight weeks when toy commercials, replace ads for cereals and candy, won't end then. For some reason, they seem to continue until December 25 every year. Go figure.

Ah, the Latke-Hamantash debate. Honestly, I've never understood why those 2 foods are compared to each other -- shouldn't it be the latke-sufganyot debate? Comparing latkes with hamantash is like comparing, oh, potatoes and poppyseeds, or, um, Chanukah and Purim.

I believe Rabbi Hillel once said, "To praise one holiday above another is like praising Hashem's right hand over his left. Who among us can say which is better -- unless Adonai is right-handed, in which case, never mind."

Jill November 18, 2007 at 2:50 PM  

ROFL - can I use that? lol thanks too funny - hope to see you there.

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