Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Mattel, Moms & Toy Cars

Photo by jencu
The headline -- "Mattel Thinks Moms Need Help Playing with Hot Wheels" -- drew me in.

So did some of the comments, both within the article and elsewhere online. One mom said she found the concept "insulting," while another mom wrote, "But where do the ribbons go? Can I put play makeup on a car? I'm really confused. Which end is up, again?"

Clearly, Mattel has tapped into the culture wars, and that, precisely, may have been the point. ("If a debate breaks out around the value of this toy, that is really good for Mattel and very good for Hot Wheels," a child psychologist told Bloomberg BusinessWeek.)

So I'm reluctant to weigh in. I'm reluctant to help Mattel promote their agenda (which is to make money off of my family), and I'm reluctant to take seriously the comments of bloggers who were invited to Mattel's penthouse pow-wow to learn more about the play potential of toy cars. Because let's face it: being wooed by one of the nation's most powerful toy companies, in Manhattan, while drinking bloody marys, is a pretty heady experience. If Mattel served me mimosas and bloody marys for breakfast, I'd be pretty inclined to say that whatever they told me was a good idea too.

But in this case, I think Mattel is right. While it's always dangerous to make generalizations based on gender, I don't get toy cars.

Hi, my name is Jenny. I'm a mom-of-boys, and I hate playing cars. 

Now, the Mattel executive who foolishly stated that mom "has never played with [toy cars]" is not quite right.  I did play with toy cars as a kid. But only as a gender statement.

See, the boys in my class used to race Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars down a concrete drainage ditch near our playground. The boys raced cars. And as a budding feminist, I thought that girls should be involved also.  So I saved some of my money, headed to the local 5-and-10-cent shop and bought my very own vehicle, a blue van.

I took that car to school and I won some races. And you know what? I stopped playing soon after that, because I just wasn't all that into racing cars.

Of course, that wasn't really the end of my racing career. I had four brothers. And a sister. And while the six of us have many diverse interests, the one activity that we all enjoyed was racing toy cars down our Fisher Price garage ramp. The one that looked like this:

In fact, we loved that activity so much that this past Christmas, my sister gave each of us our very own vintage Fisher Price garage. That way, we don't have to fight about who gets the original.

But I'll be honest: In the nearly 3 months that I've had the garage, I haven't raced a single car down its ramp. Because I really don't enjoy playing with cars. Every single time I've played with cars, it's because I wanted to a) spend time with the people who were playing cars or b) prove that girls can do anything boys can do.

I don't get the appeal of toy cars. Not the way my boys do.

My boys -- every single one of them -- could make the "vroom, vroom!" sound of a toy car before they could speak. "Truck" was the first word of at least one of my boys. (Except he couldn't make the "tr" sound yet, and substituted the "f" sound instead.)

If you look hard enough, you can probably find a toy car of some kind in every room of my house. My boys have played with them in the bathtub, on PlayDoh, down the stairs and even through the front porch window. (That little incident ended up costing me $75.)

Me? I quickly bore of car games. I've tried to play along, but just can't seem to summon any real enthusiasm for what, to me, looks like the same thing over and over and over.

My sons, though, don't experience it that way. My sons see every race and car launch as an opportunity to learn and observe something new. This might be the car that make it all the way to the front hall!

When my boys play with toy cars, their imaginations are completely in gear. Sometimes, they're making up stories, as when my youngest manages an entire road crew of mini-machines on a chunk of PlayDoh. Sometimes, they're experimenting with science and physics. (The front porch window fiasco is just one example.)

Sometimes, I don't know what they're doing, and that's OK. I may not be innately attracted to movement and crashes, like many boys are, but that doesn't mean I need a lesson or tutorial in how to play with cars. It doesn't even mean that I need a toy executive to tell me why my son enjoys playing with mini-cars. It just means that I need to have confidence in myself and my children.

Successfully parenting children does not depend on shared interests, or even shared play. Successfully parenting boys does not require an understanding of the biological and social constructs of gender, though a basic understanding of both can be helpful.

To successfully parent my kids, all I need to do is watch my kids. I need to pay careful attention to what catches their interest, and support those interests. Then, I need to give them the materials, time and space they need to explore their world in a way that makes sense to them.

I don't need to understand why my boys are so intrigued with cars, and I don't need to get down on the floor with them. I definitely don't need a toy executive telling me that I need to buy his cars in order to enhance my sons' life.

All I need to know is that my boys enjoy playing with cars.

That's enough for me.


  1. I had that garage. ;-)

    1. You know, the thing with that garage is that it's so much better than the ones that followed. I bought the Fisher Price garage for my kids in the 2000s, but that ramp wasn't nearly as good for racing as the older one.