Saturday, January 06, 2007

The CPC Catalog

When I get catalogs in the mail, I've learned that the absolute best thing for me to do with them is put them straight into the recycling bin (actually, the best is to keep trying to get off the mailing lists, but second best is recycling them). Otherwise, if I start leafing through them, I invariably see something that ten minutes ago I didn't know that I absolutely needed to have. It's the same reason I rarely go to malls, department stores, or big box stores. Who needs to see all that stuff you don't have and probably shouldn't buy?

The kids, unfortunately, have become catalog addicts. Before these bits of mind-sucking consumerism can even make it from counter to recycling, they are flipping the pages relentlessly, only to pause momentarily to utter that chilling phrase: "I want that." The same thing happened when we were on vacation and we watched TV that you couldn't fast forward through the commercials. Every 15 minutes, a chorus of "I want that" would issue forth from the small beings on the hotel bed.

Now, I'm not opposed to the kids getting things that they want and love. Like any unschooling parent, I support their inquisitiveness, their joy in play, and their need to learn what they like and don't like, what lasts and doesn't last, through their own experiences. As an environmentalist though, I have to admit that this is one of those places where values clash. The thought of buying more and more and more new Stuff, undoubtably manufactured in China from the cheapest possible, least-renewable materials by underpayed workers in sweatshop conditions, and then shipped thousands of oil-fueled miles across the ocean sets my treehugging teeth on edge.

One way that I've been able to embrace these two halves of my value system is that we've given the kids their own money to spend. We don't in any way control their money, and they can use it to make a purchase of something they'll love and cherish and play with for years and years, or something that will fall apart the instant it's out of the box. Over the years, they have done some of each of those things.

The kids do, however, ask my opinion, and they know full well my Scale of Toy Quality. On one end are toys with "Sticking Power": the ability to be enjoyed for a long time, the ability to keep engaging one's brain or heart or relationships. Toys that fall under here have been well-loved stuffed animals, Legos, games, puzzles, yo-yos, musical instruments, dolls, and more. On the other end of the scale from Sticking Power is CPC. For those who aren't offended by the occasional colorful word, that stands for Cheap Plastic Crap (or, since my kids abhor curse words, unlike their sailor-mouth mother, "Cheap Plastic Crud). CPC does nicely for short. We've all seen (and dreaded) these toys - they fall apart instantly, they have insufferably small pieces that get lost almost as quickly, or they simply have limited play power and are quickly tired of and relegated to the dregs of the toy bin with a couple of old thrift-store-purchased Happy Meal toys.

Well, today was one of those Dreaded Days, the day when the Oriental Trading Company catalog (a.k.a. Penultimate Catalog of CPC) arrived. The kids leafed through it with the usual oohs and aahs over the five dozen rubber ducks with assorted accessories, and the flashing spiky plastic ball keychain thingamabobbies, but as time goes by, the oohs and aahs are often followed by "But I'm saving my money for that game I really want". It's nice to know that, even though we've never banned the kinds of toys that I personally abhor, they're able to find their way to their own understanding of what matters to them. That doesn't mean we'll never see another "made in China" label, but I think that the chances are ever-increasing that the objects that are brought into our house are things that the kids will love and cherish.

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