Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

It's best not to toy with your kids' imagination

There are, I accept, some ways in which I am a manipulative nazi mother (small n). When it comes to guiding my children's reading, watching and listening choices, I exercise a cultural stranglehold which is unhealthy, unfair and may result in years of resentment.

I got my son (6) and daughter (9) to see out Edward Scissorhands by promising them popcorn instead of chicken for dinner. I told them Simon Cowell was a bad man who knew the devil and the safest way to avoid looking into his eyes was to watch Doctor Who instead.

I cuddled up with my daughter to read her Peter Pan, Matilda and Goodnight Mister Tom but took up a frosty side-of-the-bed position when she requested The Tiara Club: Princess Charlotte and the Birthday Ball.

I laugh loudly and heartily and shout 'the Maltesers are on me!' when Phineas and Ferb comes on TV, but frown killjoyingly and say we've run out of biscuits when it's Hannah Montana. I have also been known to tell litigious lies about pierced ears (poison the bloodstream), supermodels (smell of vomit and faeces), Nigel Farage (drowns puppies).

I know this behaviour is wrong and unhinged. I know I'm subconsciously trying to create human beings I will like and relate to as adults. I'm thinking, if you grow up laughing at Father Ted, The Simpsons and Mike Myers you'll proceed to Woody Allen and The Office and then we can be friends.

If you are emotionally educated by Hans Christian Anderson and Wall-E, rather than The X-Factor and Cheryl Cole, you'll be a better person more worthy of a place in heaven. And I'm hoping by the time my kids realise I've spent years trying to brainwash them, they'll be too convinced of my omniscient being status to hold the odd bit of militant indoctrination against me.

One area, however, in which I have always been (consolingly?) liberal, is toys. Whether my children fall in with the stereotypes or exhibit signs of deep eccentricity, I go with the flow of free expression. So I've been cheered lately by some real successes for the increasingly powerful Let Toys Be Toys campaign, led by parents who want to get rid of divisive gender marketing. Boots admitted this week it was (howlingly, knuckle-grazingly – my words) wrong to put all its Science Museum toys in the boys' section, but it's not the only offender.

Science kits are regularly branded as masculine, and cookery sets feminine. Marks & Spencers have even declared globes to be 'Boys' Stuff'. (Fair enough, women are generally ditsy things who don't quite know where they are and aren't bothered about finding out.)

I found my son's brief penchant for pushing a pink pram full of baby dolls around charming, even if my husband was a tad unnerved. What I most liked was that some little boy pals at nursery teased him about it and he didn't stop.

Equally, though I find camouflage the very ugliest of fabric designs, I also let him have guns. When my daughter, who has shown promising, hardline feminist tendencies from a young age, fell hard for Disney princess merchandise, I indulged her passion and shared my living-room with Little Mermaid pencil cases and plastic Cinderella carriages until it passed.

It's essential that toys are a passage to flights of imagination and escapist fun.

If we don't intervene, we can find out who our kids really are by means far less painful that the gut-kick betrayal of a Justin Bieber collection.

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