I took one of my favorite college courses during the third quarter of my fourth year. It was my last elective, though it was closely related to my already begun graduate coursework: “Education for Liberty: Locke and Rousseau” taught by Nathan Tarcov.


In this class we read two main works: Some Thoughts Concerning Education by John Locke and Emile by Jean Jacques Rousseau, in which both present their vision of the right education and upbringing of a child. Both are quite unrealistic. My final paper for the class described how there was a line of influence from Montaigne to Locke to Rousseau, and how each became increasingly removed from reality – to the extend that Rousseau’s Emile would live in almost complete isolation until he is 15 years old.

Still, the two books had an influence on me.

Here is John Locke on toys and playthings:

Playthings I think children should have, and of diverse sorts; but still to be in the custody of their tutors or somebody else, whereof the child should have in his power but one at once, and should not be suffered to have another but when he restored that. This teaches them betimes to be careful of not losing or spoiling the things they have; whereas plenty and variety in their own keeping makes them wanton and careless and teaches them from the beginning to be squanderers and wasters. These, I confess, are little things and such as will seem beneath the care of a governor: but nothing that may form children’s minds is to be overlooked and neglected, and whatsoever introduces habits and settles customs in them deserves the care and attention of their governors and is not a small thing in its consequences.

One thing more about children’s playthings may be worth their parents’ care. Though it be agreed they should have of several sorts, yet, I think, they should have none bought for them. This will hinder that great variety they are often overcharged with, which serves only to teach the mind to wander after change and superfluity, to be unquiet and perpetually stretching itself after something more still, though it knows not what, and never to be satisfied with what it has. The court that is made to people of condition in such kind of presents to their children does the little ones great harm. By it they are taught pride, vanity, and covetousness almost before they can speak; and I have known a young child so distracted with the number and variety of his play-games that he tired his maid every day to look them over and was so accustomed to abundance that he never thought he had enough but was always asking, What more? What more? What new thing shall I have? A good introduction to moderate desires, and the ready way to make a contented happy man!

How then shall they have the play-games you allow them, if none must be bought for them? I answer, they should make them themselves, or at least endeavor it and set themselves about it; till then they should have none, and till then they will want none of any great artifice. A smooth pebble, a piece of paper, the mother’s bunch of keys, or anything they cannot hurt themselves with, serves as much to divert little children as those more chargeable and curious toys from the shops, which are presently put out of order and broken. Children are never dull or out of humor for want of such playthings, unless they have been used to them. When they are little, whatever occurs serves the turn; and as they grow bigger, if they are not stored by the expensive folly of others, they will make them themselves. Indeed, when they once begin to set themselves to work about any of their inventions, they should be taught and assisted, but should have nothing whilst they lazily sit still expecting to be furnished from others’ hands without employing their own. And if you help them where they are at a stand, it will more endear you to them than any chargeable toys you shall buy for them. Playthings which are above their skill to make, [such] as tops, gigs, battledores, and the like, which are to be used with labor, should indeed be procured them; these it is convenient they should have not for variety but exercise. But these too should be given them as bare as might be. If they had a top, the scourge stick and leather strap should be left to their own making and fitting. If they sit gaping to have such things drop into their mouths, they should go without them. This will accustom them to seek for what they want in themselves and in their own endeavors; whereby they will be taught moderation in their desires, application, industry, thought, contrivance, and good husbandry, qualities that will be useful to them when they are men and therefore cannot be learned too soon nor fixed too deep. All the plays and diversions of children should be directed toward good and useful habits, or else they will introduce ill ones. Whatever they do leaves some impression on that tender age, and from thence they receive a tendency to good or evil; and whatever has such an influence ought not to be neglected.

And from Rousseau:

We can do nothing simply, not even for our children. Toys of
silver, gold, coral, cut crystal, rattles of every price and kind; what vain and useless appliances. Away with them all! Let us have no corals or rattles; a small branch of a tree with its leaves and fruit, a stick of liquorice which he may suck and chew, will amuse him as well as these splendid trifles, and they will have this advantage at least, he will not be brought up to luxury from his birth.

Most who have seen a young child at a first or second birthday party or at an early Christmas can recollect the child finding the wrapping paper or box more interesting than the gift itself, which brings disappointment to the gift-giver. I have also been witness to students in class who have no problem at all using crayons and pencils as characters in their own mental plays just as happily as they would with little plastic action figures or Barbie Dolls.

The idea of having a house strewn with loud, plastic, expensive toys is very unappealing. In contrast, the idea of our son playing with common objects and learning to create toys (with our help) is very appealing. I realize there is research into the educational benefit of toys, but I am very skeptical about the claims of toy makers and their guilds, and I don’t think this benefit is unique to items made of injected mold plastic or powered by batteries.

I recently attended a short seminar on education and multiplayer gaming. While I was hoping it would inform us on how to harness this motiving activity, I came away disappointed because the presenter simply wanted to sell us his “educational” multiplayer computer game. It’s a very good business decision of his, to be sure, but as an educator I decided it would be worse to feed into the culture of videogaming than suffer some disinterested students during math class. I would rather them know a little bit less math and have a greater desire to go outside and explore instead of staying inside staring at their screen (or riding the train, staring at their iPhone screen.)

I am worried about an influx of toys and complicated doo-dads into our home for the sake of the child.  Elizabeth decided a while back that we would have a Barbie-free household, and now she’s decided to veto anything associated with a television cartoon or animated film. I’m with her on both counts.

The truth is, however, that I enjoyed toys of both types when I was a child. And this gets to the real crux of the matter – I will have to teach my son primarily by example. If I want him to be industrious in creating playthings and to avoid consumerism and covetousness, I must show him how I create things for use and play, and I must not show a wanton habit of buying what I like – fancy new technologies, books, restaurant food, etc
If I want him to prefer outdoor play to watching television, playing video games, or surfing the Internet, I will need to take him outdoors and refrain from staring at the computer screen myself for hours on end as I have for the past 10 or 15 years. That would probably lead to even less blogging!

I will need to change my lifestyle in other ways to show my son how I hope for him to grow, to begin to realize some of the healthy habits that I have come to admire in others. But I also must start early with toys and possessions, and it’s a good time to start throwing some stuff out.



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7 Responses to “Toys”

  1. Katina Says:

    One question for clarification: does Sesame Street fall under the category of “television cartoon or animated film.” I would never purchase an annoying Tickle Me Elmo for Little Cap, but I do love Grover, Snuffleupagus, and especially Oscar. Let me know if those are out of bounds.

  2. precisewoman Says:

    Muppets are not animated – they’re alive! :) In my book, at least.
    I’m not sure how the author of this post feels about that…

  3. ya ya brooke Says:

    oh,please don’t take all my fun from me! This really sounded like a warning to us. and the blog will be needed for Margie and me to see the daily changes in…….did you decide on Theo yet?. Remember, you and evan came out pretty sane and sensible.

  4. vagueperson Says:

    I like what AK mentioned in an email – paperdolls. It reminded me of fourth grade, when I made puppets out of paper with my friends. We would wrap each finger with paper and tape, and the middle finger would become a head while the other fingers became arms and legs. After connecting the pieces with more paper and tape we had a body and could remove the puppet to put on whenever we wanted to play. I think he let us do this in class, which is amazing (would I?).
    I thought Elizabeth’s decision about television-related toys would absolutely apply to Sesame Street, but she seems to have softened her tone with others. Sesame Street, I think, like others, has become a great commercial for a merchandising empire, just as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was for the action figures I used as a kid.
    Mom, I don’t think all your fun has to be taken away. I would rather have you DO things with him than BUY things for him (take him to a zoo, park, museum, concert). But if you wanted to buy, you could buy him planting soil and exotic seeds or send him stitching or knitting patterns for dolls that could be made with help (a friend just sent us a sock monkey – looks so easy and fun to make!). Remember when I used to play with the erector set? I may be convinced that things like that are good – things more along the lines of legos (without the little starwars men) and lincoln logs for more constructive, imaginative play.
    I think letters sent are better than stuff sent.

  5. YiaYia Margie Says:

    Knowing the two of you, your child will be extremely creative. I have seen the best and the worst of the current playthings this year during show and tell. Steer clear of Bionicals which need the parent to construct and always have weapons. I do love Legos. They are creative and a great toy for boys and girls (Little Cap and Stella?) to share. I prefer the huge tub of undesignated Lego pieces with an occasional generic person included. Remember that all children will manipulate whatever they have available for play. I remember Mike talking to his match box cars as if they were dolls, “Don’t cry red car. It’s ok the yellow one is just faster.”
    Parenting is a consistent challenge. We want to set the best possible example but we always fall short. What Little Cap wants most is your time and attention. Remember to read, read and read before he can jump off your lap. Great blog Eric – I love to read your thoughts.

  6. precisewoman Says:

    Brooke, don’t worry about the blog going anywhere when LC comes. I may be exhausted and Eric may be trying to limit computer time, so I guess we can’t promise witty prose… but there will certainly be PHOTOS :)

  7. More on Toys « Saathoffs Says:

    […] it reminds me of the Rousseau-influenced post about toys I wrote sometime last year, and this may be part of the reason they thought the book […]

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