For many children, the passing of years is marked by when they got for Christmas. There was the train set when I was 3 (which you see above), walkie talkies and a “spy kit” when I was 9, chemistry set and electrical experiment kit when I was 11, and books for most years thereafter. The things I got seemed to reflect who I was and how the people around me saw me. I wonder how much our childhood gifts shape us?
I’m thinking about this because of different presents I’m seeing for kids around me today. Two contrasting examples stand out, because they represent entirely different approaches, at least in my mind.
A couple of my friends have a beautiful and charming young daughter named Linnea. Among Linnea’s Christmas pictures this morning, there’s a whole series of her with her 36 new containers of Play-Doh. She looks happy, and it makes me imagine all the things she’s going to pull out of her little imagination and bring to life with those little pieces of modeling clay.
A 12-year-old neighbor of mine named Joseph came running over to me excitedly a couple of hours ago to tell me that he had gotten an iPhone 4S for Christmas. He knows that I have an iPhone and he’s told me about wanting one before, so he couldn’t wait to tell me about his.
Nobody could accuse me of not thinking the iPhone is a great gift. (An iPhone that I gave someone four years ago stands out as the Christmas present I’ve been most happy to give so far.) But as I thought about different things that kids can get — and what those things represent — that Play-Doh looked better and better.
It’s not really fair to compare what you give a 12-year-old and what you give a 3-year-old, but these still represent different philosophies, it seems. One represents being more passive — consuming content — while the other represents a blank slate that can become anything. Many of the things that kids receive today — smartphones, gaming devices, media players and so forth — are all about being passive. I wonder if that is going a long way toward creating a generation that’s more comfortable consuming content than creating it.
Linnea’s parents are both artists. They don’t do it for a living, but they’ve both made films and have creativity and insight about the world around them. It seems to me that the dozens of containers of Play-Doh reflect that creativity — and they reflect that they want her to create, rather than just be a passive consumer.
I don’t object to kids getting iPhones — although it surpasses everything I could have even imagined when I was 12 — but I wonder whether we help them in the long run with presents like that. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s not a big deal. But I just know something inside me says they’d be better off with someone that would encourage them to make things instead of consume things.
Decades after I got that train set when I was 3, I still have parts of it. The engine and tender sit proudly on a bookshelf near my desk. That’s it below. I used and abused it as a kid. I pulled the engine out. I broke parts of it. I fixed what I broke. The cow-catcher from the front is missing today. I learned to imagine it was something more than it was. I made up (and even recorded) stories that would embarrass me for you to hear today.
But that train and others that followed were things that required my imagination. They helped shape me. They made me a creator rather than just a consumer. I think that’s a good thing.
Linnea might not still have her Play-Doh decades from now. (I suspect it will have dried out by then.) But I suspect she will keep a sense of imagination that will be fostered by parents who want her to be creative. Joseph will be a consumer with his iPhone, but there will be no lasting impact. I know which one I think got the better present today, even if Joseph wouldn’t understand that.