Monday, October 01, 2007

Good Toys and Bad Toys -- some reviews after a year

What makes a good toy for a child? Obviously, one wants the toy to be stimulating to the child in some way, and also safe, durable, and not so loud that it drives all the adults in hearing range totally insane.

One doesn't particularly need toys that are "educational," not during the first year anyways. Along those lines, we've had very poor luck with the Baby Einstein brand. The classical music that is supposedly some huge step up from "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" on toys like this doesn't really interest children all that much. Better are toys that are fun -- which is to say, they make interesting noises (that may or may not have anything to do with Beethoven or Bach), or do something interesting mechanically (that may or may not be "educational"). Baby Einstein toys seem to have been designed to impress adults rather than to actually entertain real babies; I suspect people will wake up and notice this any day now? Or not.

(I should note that we haven't tried any of the Baby Einstein videos; perhaps they work better.)

Initially, we tried to make sure every toy was age-appropriate. At six months, we generally didn't give Puran many toys that were marked Age 1 or higher. But we've given up on that now; even toys he doesn't quite understand yet are sometimes interesting to Puran. His relationship with even a single toy can go through multiple stages of development, and it's sometimes worth exploring whether a toy can be "used" out of developmental sequence. If it's bright and makes music, it works when he's just a few months old simply as something to watch. Later, he might start to pull the lever or press the button that makes it light up and sing. He might only learn what looks to an adult like the main function of the toy (i.e., you deposit a ball in the top, and pull the lever to let it out again) after having had it for several months. I have been talking about Fisher-Price's Swirlin' Surprise Gumballs toy here. Other toys Puran has enjoyed are Playskool's "Busy Ball Popper" and "Swing n Score Baseball". These are all toys that Puran has never quite used the way they were intended. But he's had a lot of fun with them all the same.

Bouncers. Most people get bouncers for babies, and I have to say our bouncers (we had two -- both were gifts) were pretty much essential for the first five months. The "vibrate" feature didn't work all that well (it only put Puran to sleep a couple of times), but he sure did sleep well on it. Often when we couldn't get Puran to sleep flat on his back on the bed or in his crib, we strapped him into the bouncer; perhaps the slight angle made it easier to breathe in those difficult first few months. There are many, many different kinds of bouncers, with different kinds of toys meant to stimulate babies. My sense is, just about any bouncer will do -- just keep in mind that some bouncers are strictly 0-3 months, while others are 3-6 months. Once the baby sits up comfortably on his own, you don't need it (even if he still technically fits into it).

Gyms. Between about four and seven months we had good luck with a "Rainforest Jumperoo" gym, which allowed Puran to bounce up and down on his toes. He was able to enjoy this toy even before he could sit up on his own. The current prevailing wisdom is that what used to be sold as "baby walkers" were actually bad for development (they actually a child's retard learning to walk), but things like the Jumperoo are considered ok. The one problem here is that Puran outgrew it pretty quickly; now this rather large toy is taking up a fair amount of space in the garage. Could we have done without it entirely? I'd like to say yes, but I'm not sure. Starting at around four months, we were really anxious for toys that Puran could do on his own, and this fit the bill. Still, our daycare did have a similar toy in the infant room; I suppose we could have done without getting him one of these.

Keyboards. It's no great secret that babies love music, and Puran is no exception. A little keyboard-cum-nursery rhyme book S. found on sale for five dollars somewhere (Barnes & Noble), called "Play me a song!" has been a working toy for several months. Initially, we played songs for the baby on the keyboard, and he just kind of watched. Now he bangs on the keys himself. (Note that this toy is marked as "Ages 3 and up"; we've been using it -- admittedly not quite the way it was probably intended -- since he was about nine months.

We also have a keyboard on Puran's "standing gym", the Chicco "Music 'n Play Table." This keyboard can play individual notes, or it can simply play melodies in response to being hit at random (any tap on any key will start a pre-set melody). The nice thing about the Music 'n Play Table is, the top of the table can be removed, so Puran was able to play with it before he could quite stand up. The music selection and little "widget" toys on this toy are also particularly good.

Teething rings and pacifiers. During Puran's initial teething period (between six and nine months) we never really found a good teething ring for him; the concept just never caught on. Pacifiers worked better, but he lost interest in them too about three months ago.

Proto-video games. There's a new class of toys that work a little like video game consoles -- one part plugs into the TV, and there's a "console" with large buttons and shapes that are meant for a baby. Puran got one of these as a present from his grandparents, but he's still a little young for it -- he doesn't quite make the connection between pushing buttons on the console and seeing the result on the TV screen. Luckily, the toy has a "play alone" mode, where the console makes noise in response to the pressing of buttons without the TV component.

Swings. Nothing makes Puran happier than sitting in a swing. Luckily the playground three blocks from our house has a baby swing, which we started using when Puran was as young as five months. More recently, we also put in a simple swing under the patio, which is pretty convenient. We never got an "automatic swing," so I don't know how well they work. My guess is, the automatic swings is another class of baby item that looks necessary, but isn't.

Impromptu toys. Puran loves cell phones, cordless phones, remote controls, and, as I mentioned earlier, computer keyboards. We noticed it and got him a "toy phone" a few months ago, but he seemed to pick up on the difference right away. He wants the real phone, the one he sees his parents using -- not some imitation.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Alternadad, Parenting in Literary History

I don't have that much in common with Neal Pollack, except maybe a certain attitude, but I still read about his book Alternadad with great interest. Here's Michael Agger's reading of it in Slate:

What's fallen away from marriage for artist-intellectual-professional types are the traditional genders and gender roles. But, as new moms have been observing for years, the arrival of a child has a nasty way of reinstating the old dynamic. Pollack, who feels the need to make money and provide a safe place to live, is among the first to relate the re-emergence of breadwinner angst among men. (Although he fights this pressure by smoking pot and forming a rock band.) Regina is divided by wanting space for her artistic ambitions and her feelings of being a "bad mother." Parenthood, which looks from the outside like a step into maturity, is actually a descent into a new set of insecurities. Including renewed tension with your parents, who are often willing to overlook a funky wedding ceremony but want to see you step in with tradition and/or religion when a grandchild appears. An infamous chapter in Alternadad details the three-way gunfight among Neal, Regina, and Neal's Jewish parents over whether Eli should be circumcised.

As I said, I don't have that much in common with Pollack (the religion question is a non-issue, for instance), though many of the questions raised in this review of his book in Slate are ones I'm thinking about too: as in, how to rethink conventional gender roles to support slightly non-traditional (in my case) careers. Also of great interest is how to inject a spirit of originality -- one's own idiosyncratic taste -- into parenting in a way that's both "cool" and nurturing.

As a side note, maybe I should follow Pollack's lead, and write an article (or book?) related to parenting sometime: parents and parenting in literary history. James Joyce was an unusual dad, though not a very good one, I gather. Rabindranath Tagore was in many ways a better father -- still highly unconventional -- though there are questions about him marrying off his daughter in a child marriage.

Of course those are only biographical bits -- the "real" question might be, how and whether writers posed characters as parents in their fiction. In some cases, it didn't matter whether they were parents or not: Virginia Woolf, for instance, did not have children, but she created some very memorable mothers in her novels -- Mrs. Dalloway and Mrs. Ramsay.

Other famous parents in fiction?

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