In Dante’s Inferno there is a special place reserved for the gluttons. It is the 3rd Circle, where they lay in mud, besieged by snow, hail and filthy water, guarded by Cerebus*. I do not doubt that their moans of misery and cries of greed fill the dark skies of this region of Hell, just inside the Gates.
While I’m sure the interiors are much brighter, the inside of Toys ‘R’ Us sounds about the same.
I haven’t been inside of one of these temples of child-targeted marketing and consumerism in a few years, at least. Perhaps it’s because I buy my gaming software at EBX, perhaps it’s because I’m an adult, or perhaps it’s because I don’t collect ‘figurines’ of my favorite movie and comic characters. Regardless, I’ve had little occasion to enter Geoffrey’s domain. Until now.
My mission in the store is irrelevant to this account, but in trying to complete it, I discovered a few unfortunate facts about the child-parent dynamic and how it relates to toy stores.
Fact #1: Children are incapable of controlling themselves in the face of incalculable wealth.
Don’t get me wrong. I like kids and I love babies, but children are not mentally equipped to cope with the glowing, talking, just-like-real, punching-action monuments that Toys ‘R’ Us calls ‘shelves’. Each aisle is a canyon of unabashed playtime possiblity for a child, who is, by definition, a still-developing human. They are not yet ready for this kind of stimulation. By “stimulation” I don’t mean visual and audio, I mean the possibility of leaving without everything they want. It’s clear to the child that Mommy (it’s almost inevitably Mommy) loves them, and Mommy has taken them to Shangri-La. Their brains are not wired to comprehend money and its inherent limitations. The child is assaulted with the physical manifestation of everything they do not yet own. How can this possibly result in anything but crying and/or pleading?
Children are well aware of their parents’ buttons, and they quickly realize that if they turn on the Drama, they can leave this Citadel of Ecstasy with its spoils. Unfortunately, this is not a mere “do you want apple juice or milk” kind of a decision. Every choice is immediately followed by the presentation of a superior choice, an infinite grass-is-greener buffet, where buyer’s remorse isn’t an after-effect of a purchase, it’s the inevitable outcome of any possible decision. The moment a plastic-coffined figurine, a 1/100th scale military replica, or a pastel-colored version of a domestic chore is clutched needily by the child’s tiny fingers, the decision is immediately challenged by the presence of more options than the child’s eyes are even capable of beholding simultaneously. Hell, even I was overwhelmed. On top of this, the child does not understand that their parents aren’t capable of giving them everything they want inside of this place they took them to, they simply see that their parent chooses not to.
This leads to…
Fact #2: There are two kinds of children in a Toys ‘R’ Us.
When faced with the terrible realization that Mommy and Daddy don’t want them to have Everything Good That I Want in the World, they immediately snap into a junkie state. They lose all sense of propriety (the little they had) and all sense of loyalty. The parent becomes both an obstacle and a facilitator for the fix they need. What this involves for a child, since they can’t knife you and steal your TV, is falling back on one of two tactical categories. These tactics are deep-seated in their personalities, and while the child may end up trying both, the first one is the telling move. The child is either: A) a Crier, or B) a Bargainer.
It’s very easy to tell which is which, even in the first moments of the child’s decision to go for the throat. The Crier will start to make The Face (an almost imperceptible muscular scrunching, as though their whole face is beginning to slowly spasm) and perhaps assume the Assault Pose (which consists of either the ‘I throw myself on your mercies’ drama-dive, or the ‘I am planted like a tree, but unlike a tree I don’t stop crying and focusing the scorn of other shoppers on you’ move). The Bargainer, on the other hand, will slow down for just a moment (if this is old hat for them) or a few seconds as the itty-bitty gears start to turn, and The Bargain is constructed. The tiny lawyers in their mind begin to consult one another and put together a strategy for attack. Then, the bargaining begins. Pleas for “just one X” or “if I do this for you when we get home, can I have X” begin. The melodrama of need and want become intertwined, and the promises become Herculean. Chores the child barely comprehends go on the table. The little one who can hardly take a dish to the kitchen promises services comparable to indentured servitude. Sometimes a jab about past half-promises, or better yet promises unfulfilled, is made. Oh, the guilt. Oh, the suffering.
Now, these two tactics are intermingled. The Crier ultimately bargains, and the Bargainer uses the threat of crying and sadness (and guilt) to get to their Spoils of Toy. But the sound. The sound. It is inevitably a whiny plea, or a long dejected crying with garbled epithets and begging. Ultimately, the child gains ground because the parent has been worn to an emotional nub while trying to purchase something that probably has nothing to do with the child (or, better yet, the children). A note on this: if there are two children, particularly ones of differing age, they will split the roles for maximum effect. That way the parent cannot deal with their needs simultaneously, but must play task master and lawyer to two audiences, which wears their resolve. Regardless, the child accrues emotional currency and uses it to work the parent like a lever on a Toy Making Machine.
Fact #3: I don’t understand, but then again, I’m not a parent.
I don’t get why these parents play this little game with their children. Not the game of taking them to the store, that’s a matter of convenience. Most of the women I saw are probably ferrying around their child, home from school during the summer, as their husband works. What I don’t get is what appeared to be the lack of saying “no.” I’m sure a few of these kids were promised something, or it’s for their birthday or whatnot, but I saw parents making deals based on rewards for good behavior. Um, what?
When Alisa and I have kids, it’ll be a different ball game. Oh, our kids will want things, and they’ll cry. But I’m not going to let them near a damn Toys ‘R’ Us. It’s a question of making things simple and not over-stimulating the child. It’s a clear understanding of the nature of the situation. Keep it simple, control the variables. I’m going to tape a picture of a teddy bear on a blank wall and say, “See anything you like?”
Now that’s shopping.
Just keep these facts in mind the next time you think about taking a young child to a center of commerce. I know I will.