On batteries

I have never striven to be one of those parents.

You know the ones I mean.  The ones who would rather commit seppuku than allow their children to consume high fructose corn syrup.  Whose children will only set foot in a fast food restaurant by stepping over their parents’ cold, dead bodies blocking the door.  Who insist on nothing but hand-knitted sock puppets made from homespun wool and sewn with eyes made from the wood of trees that blew over naturally in a windstorm.

Not one of those parents.  Our son has had McNuggets.  While I don’t think he’s ever had soda (though maybe he has at his grandparents’ house and I’ve blocked it from my memory) and we don’t keep it or juice in the house, if he has the occasional soft drink I really don’t care.  And I know for a fact he consumes a Montessori-unapproved amount of television and movies.

Have I established my cred as a non-doctrinaire parent?  That I’m not some stern martinet, pursing his lips in disapproval of all that is artificial or commercial?  (None of that is to say that I don’t get into far too many utterly fruitless battles of will with my son, almost all of which serve no useful purpose other than to remind me of my own powerlessness.)  I like to think I’m relatively mellow regarding the corrosive effects of the modern world on my children’s physiology and psyches.

But man, some of those toys make me want to go all Waldorf in our house.

Now, let me make something clear.  My son is… I think we’re using the term “spirited.”  He is quite content to draw on his chalkboard or sit quietly with a book from time to time, but he is also very much a rambunctious (often truculent) preschooler.  He can get riled up with a handful of tennis balls.  So I’m not going to sit here and moan that buttons and flashing lights are warping his little mind.

However, I do wonder if some of the nifty new playthings kids have these days don’t have a deleterious effect on their play.  Specifically on their ability to pretend and form their own imaginative worlds.

The shiny new prize that set me off was a Woody doll, as in from “Toy Story.”  The Critter got a totally awesome “Toy Story” parcel from his grandparents, replete with all three movies, several related games, as well as Buzz Lightyear, Woody and Jessie dolls.  (As I said, an awesome package on many levels, not least of which is that it gave me the opportunity to see the amazing final installment at long last.)  The Woody doll says a handful of things when you pull the string on his back, à la the film.  However, he also laughs when one “tickles” his stomach, à la the second film (in which it is revealed that he is ticklish).

Damned if I didn’t have the hardest time figuring out how to hold the fool thing without it talking.  I was trying to play with my kid along the lines of the story he wanted to make up (which involved fighting a giant, for the record), and protests of ticklishness were a distraction from the imagined storyline.  Grasping the doll around the chest turned out to be the best solution, and we proceeded with vanquishing the giant.  But I suspect my son, who will quite contentedly “play” with Buzz Lightyear by simply pressing his various buttons over and over and over until the batteries die, will not be motivated to find a grip that doesn’t trigger the freaking speaker when he plays with the doll on his own, and will likely just make it talk over and over and over.

Am I crazy to think that maybe the people who eschew this kind of toy have a point?  Given a choice between games and toys that require a little more thought to make them fun, my son (who I believe to be totally normal in regard) will opt for the ones that entertain with more ease.  I worry that playing with toys that do the pretending for him will leave those skills underdeveloped.

Maybe this is all just so much hand-wringing on my part.  As mellow and non-alarmist as I try to be as a pediatrician, I am much more prone to anxiety and self-doubt as a parent.  (I am also awful at taking my own advice.)  Heck, I could probably dig up some expert somewhere to provide an “everything bad for you is good for you” take on all of this.  Maybe this worry is silly.

But worry I do.  And sometimes I think maybe becoming more like those parents isn’t such a bad idea after all.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. As long as toddlers still prefer the boxes to the content, the world is safe.

    • Junior loves boxes so much, Granny brings them over on special trips, just for him. His favorite toys are his wooden blocks, a do it yourself train set made of wood and a couple of wheels, and Legos. No buttons. That’s not to say he doesn’t like the button and flashing light noisemakers, but they aren’t his favorite. I can live with that. He’s a little too interested in television, but he makes up for that with all of the creativity he dusplays during bath time.

      • The shipping and receiving department is between my office and the campus coffee shop.

        Occasionally, when I indulge in a latte, I’ll see a freakin’ ginormous cardboard box. Remember how awesome refrigerator boxes were, when you were a kid and someone in the neighborhood was blessed with a refrigerator catastrophe, and the parents had to buy a new one?

        Anyway, large complicated science instruments are usually in bigger boxes. Sometimes nice 3/4″ plywood crates, too.

        If you’re a fan of letting your kids muck about with large empty containers, check the shipping and receiving department of your local university.

  2. “However, I do wonder if some of the nifty new playthings kids have these days don’t have a deleterious effect on their play. Specifically on their ability to pretend and form their own imaginative worlds.”

    Yes. I am a believer in all things in moderation. Toys that do stuff have their place. But if all toys do stuff and do stuff in such a way that kids can’t do anything… That’s bad.

  3. on the question of the third movie, btw, had i known the content i wouldn’t have let my son or my wife watch it. i think it’s a bit violent and scary for my son, and my wife spent the entire time crying. “mommy’s crying!” he’d say every ten minutes or so, then get back into the movie (at least for the first hour).

    plus the ending is kinda horrifying – ned beatty crucified to a truck for however many years it takes for toys to die in that world?

      • my wife’s a film weeper, so the “kids grow up and stop needing you” thing was bound to get her repeatedly. and my son will have to get used to it, as some folks cry more often than others and that’s life.

        but the series certainly does ramp up in darkness (ramp down?) – sorry to have spoiled the very end for you – and had i known he wouldn’t have seen the third one until much later.

        on the other hand, disney movies from the golden age tend to be pretty harsh – not just bambi but cinderella (child abuse), snow white (scary, comas), peter pan (truancy, attempted murder) and alice in wonderland (drugs, capital punishment). not that i think kids pick up on that stuff entirely, especially in the 2-4 age range.

        • Go read the original stories. Far worse. Many originally had evil parents but there was fear this would be unpalatable. Hence evil stepparents.

          • grimm is indeed grimdark, and the stories they picked from are even crazier.

            heck, even most of the original beatrice potter books – though the wee one loves them – are insanely dark. are you a careless free spirit? lose your tail. and yeah peter, go steal from the farmer WHO ATE YOUR DAD. great planner, that one.

        • Snow White: Raping a woman while she’s in a coma, and only having her wake up after her twins start nursing. (The Sun, The Moon, and Talia’s the name).

          Disney used the pretty version.

    • Yeah, we haven’t let my boy see #3 yet for these reasons, though he liked 1 & 2.

      3’s a bit…dark.

      Did you see that prank (I think JB linked it one time at MD) where those kids edited/truncated the film, to make it even more dark & depressing, & showed it to the unsuspecting mom & sister?:


      • I will elaborate later, but as with all systems, Montessori does some things very well and some things very poorly. My objection is that which they do poorly are things I value, both as a teacher and a soon-to-be parents. In particular, Montessori does little to develop social skills and creative thinking. Some kids will be fine in this regard no matter, with spirited boys being most likely among them (they actually tend to struggle in Montessori for this very reason). But when we get PreK and K applicants (those I evaluate) from the local Montessori, we can often predict exactly where they’ll struggle: social interactions and open-ended work, two hallmarks of my program.

        But, damn, those kids will pour juice without spilling a drop. The “practical life” aspect of the program impresses me.

        • And I don’t mean to get preachy and apololgize if I’ve already done so. I think most Montessori programs fail to recgonize their shortcomings and don’t communicate this to parents. A lot end up seeing the program as without fault, in part because the weak spots don’t present until the kid transitions to a more traditional school setting, outside the parents’ eyes.

        • Some kids will be fine in this regard no matter, with spirited boys being most likely among them (they actually tend to struggle in Montessori for this very reason).

          You have no idea how reassuring this is. Really.

          • Montessori touts the amount of time their kids spend in solitary play (I’ve seen it quoted at 61%) and they have rigid restrictions on material use (a ruler is a measuring device; god help you if you fashion it into a ramp). For kids prone to introversion or who struggle to work outside the box, this can lead to poorly developed social skills and creative thinking. These are the kids who don’t interact with other students during visits or who’ll stare at you and ask, “What do I do?” If you give them pipe cleaners and popsicle sticks.

            “Spirited” boys, of which I am one, generally don’t fit that profile. And take with a grain of salt any concerns his Montessori teachers express about his “spiritedness”. Maria prefers her children focused and sedentary.

          • this actually explains a bit about a disasterous visit with a montessori program in our neighborhood. the kid is pretty spirited, to put it mildly, and is deep into imaginative play. the director asked us if he’d been tested for autism. (the director may also just be an asshole, mind you)

          • Wait… What? High functioning autistic kids often excel in Montessori!

          • man, i dunno. he threw a fit because he wanted to stay and play with all the other kids (all 30 of them, all of whom were very calmly eating lunch, which is what sold me on the joint in the first place) and not have to leave. she lost her cool pretty bad. it was a strange day overall.

            this whole process is strange.

          • “Calmly eating lunch” … Heh… No spirit in those kids, I tell ya.

            Everything about Montessori is calm.

            Unfortnately, children (as you witness) generally aren’t calm. A Montessori school can be an unnatural place for some children. Though some certainy will thrive in it, but might have some difficulty if/when transitioning to a non-Montessori school.

            Are you currently looking at schools/pre-schools?

          • I’m going to start looking for preschools as soon as I quit procrastinating, so I’m totally eating this conversation up. Just thought you should know, I feel like a stalker.

          • oh, it’s obviously a terrible fit for him, to be sure, outside of the other issues we had with the management – but i swear watching those kids march in so orderly…man. that must be nice sometimes.

            “Are you currently looking at schools/pre-schools?”

            yeah, long story short he already got asked to leave from one catlick program and he’s going to do some pre-k prep at a local joint two days a week and a gymnastics and art program another two days a week. i think he’ll do well with at least some of it. i hope he does, as we’re completely out of options otherwise.

          • Montessori in Singapore has a different image. I went to a traditional kindergarten while my sister went to a montessori one. She did all the playing and the tucking in chairs and the pouring juice into cups and everything. 2/3ds of my thime was spent in front of an assessment book. Until the age of 5 I couldn’t read. So,for about more than half my kindergarten life, my time was spent looking at pages upon pages of squiggles which I did not comprehend, and then required to figure out what to write in the blanks. The other 1/3 of the time was spent on “games” that the teacher told us to play. e.g. if we were playing london bridge everyone played london bridge. Going off and doing your own thing was not an option. Oh, and we had uniforms. Compared to what I went through and my eperience as I undertand it was typical, montessori in Singapore is the creative alternative.

          • Knowing a number of parents with kids in the public system (in Canada) and in Montessori schools, my anecdotal information is along the same lines as Murali’s experience. Public school is not the place for creativity, unfortunately (though it’s lovely to hear what you like to do in your class).

            That being said, I seem to remember hearing that there was some sort of split within Montessori schools and that there are now a few different “branches”, if you will. Maybe this explains different experiences (and maybe it’s only within Canadian Montessori schools… which I could look up, I guess).

          • JM and Murali,

            I work in independent schools, which might explain the difference in my school and public ones. Additionally, I work in preschool/pre-kindergarten, which generally allow for more creativity than middle and elementary schools, even in public programs.

            As I said somewhere else on this thread, there are areas of the country where Montessori is the best/only option for preschool. Given the choice between public elem./middle and Montessori for my own (unborn) child, I’d still probably choose the former because I cam better supplement what it lacks outside of school. Montessori’s near non-existent focus on social skills development is hard to make up for.

  4. This was my problem with the talking GI Joe dolls.

    When I played GI Joe, we ran around, yelling about Cobra, and the need for tactical air strikes, and calling Breaker and having him call Rock and Roll to lay down some heavy fire and the mortar guy, whatever the mortar guy’s name was, to lay down some mortar fire…

    You get the talking GI Joe doll and it yells three phrases. “Yo Joe!” “Move Forward!” and “Something Else!”

    And that sucks compared to the wars we waged.

    Less violent, though. I’ll give them that.

  5. Wait, you don’t let the Critter have juice? Not even no sugar added, blah, blah, blah juice?

      • Alright, but I’d rather give Junior juice on occasion instead of soda.

        • Sure. It’s a better alternative. And there’s really nothing wrong with it in moderate amounts.

          But some parents let their kids drink an essentially unlimited supply, thinking it “healthy,” wherein they consume hundreds of empty calories a day.

          • It’s fixed in my memory: the night I babysat a 2 1/2 year old toddler who had to have his “appy juce” at night. And they’d run out. And it was snowing hard. And leaving him and his 5 year old sister alone while I ran out to get some was of course out of the question.

            He screamed like a human sacrifice.

          • All yours.

            Of course, it’s only fair to say that by the 30-minute point, he almost became one.

  6. It’s actually unlike me to agree completely. I say unlike me because I eye roll over similar objections of other things.

    Kazzy should write a full- on post about montessori.

    • I could only write on Montessori as an outsider who has read up on it and seen its products. I am neither trained nor fully-versed in the methodology.

      Now, if the LoOG starts offering graduate credits, I could certainly do a series on different educational approaches. 🙂

      And I should temper any criticisms of Montessori with an acknowledgement that in many areas, it is the only or far-and-away best option for pre-school (as opposed to nursery and day care, though those words are becoming increasingly meaningless in making distinctions).

      It’s not horrible. I wouldn’t send parents who take advantage of it off to the Gulag. But it seeks very different ends than I do as a teacher and what I would want for my child.

      Waldorf, also mentioned in the post? Yea, those folks have a screw loose. No reading until certain teeth grow in? Pass the sugary juice…

      • I suppose it really doesn’t make much sense unless paired with a Statler education.

        • I thought the same thing when I first saw the word “Waldorf”.

          Two old guys, heckling you from above whenever you get the wrong answer? Yeah, that could work.

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