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Years ago, I was present as our friend’s son unwrapped birthday gifts.  One was a school bus with the alphabet emblazoned on it.  Each time you pressed a letter-button, it would name the letter.  Our friend took great delights in pushing “F” “U” over and over.  It went right back to the store.  Later, either in one of the many daycares I visited as an itinerant early intervention speech therapist, or in Kohl’s as a hormonal woman pregnant with twins, we chanced upon a toy lawn mower.  It looked just like a regular toy mower, with a handle, some noise when you pushed it around, like many walking toys, but it had one more thing – a label proclaiming it to be a “learning mower”.  I laughed it off, deciding the manufacturers had given it that title because there were ABC and 123 stickers, which added supposed educational value without actually doing anything extra in product development.

Unfortunately, the trend caught on, and it’s more than just some colorful decals on the side of a toy.  Behold: the Fisher-Price “Laugh and Learn” line.  Characterized by the goofy (and I’m sure trademarked) eyes and mouth emblazoned on every single toy, the “Laugh and Learn” line has remade such classics as mowers, vacuums, shape sorters, telephones, cameras, puzzles,  and now encompasses such things as lanterns, mirrors, chairs, iPod cases, stuffed dogs, smart phones, and ball poppers.  There’s even a soccer ball.  Fisher-Price has created a cash cow by slapping the word “learn” on their products, as if the plain, classic version had no educational value whatsoever.  Parents see a plain toy next to the jacked up “Laugh and Learn” (or, increasingly, see only the electronic version), deduce there’s added value in the battery power, and bring that home instead.  I cannot stand the battery-powered version with its repetitive mechanical tunes, and promises to “teach” babies.

Let’s take one example, the shape sorting cookie jar.  Shape sorters teach many things to babies and toddlers.  My kids, who just turned one this weekend, are able to open the lid to their classic 1972 Fisher Price shape sorter, and take out all the shapes, as well as put them back in, with or without the lid.  They can learn visual-spatial skills as they put things inside, hone fine motor tasks of grasping and releasing, fine-tune pre-puzzle skills of rotating shapes to fit into the holes, explore gravity as they drop the pieces in or out of the bucket, and there are even opportunities for such pre-academic classics as shapes, colors, and numbers.  The triangles are all green, the rectangles are red, and the circles are blue.  We can count them as they go in or out.  We can introduce an action vocabulary — push, drop, hold, count, sort.  We can sort them into different piles by shape/color.  We can even add advanced vocabulary and learn the names for 3D forms such as cylinder, rectangular prism, and triangular prism.  Maybe I’m the only one who does that.  We can learn the opposites “on” and “off”, and take shapes “out” or put them “in”.  They learn determination (“grit”) as they persevere to fit the shapes through the holes.

We received, by way of hand-me-down from my nephew, the Fisher-Price Laugh and Learn Cookie Shape Surprise cookie jar shape sorter.  It has five shapes/colors, so you know it already has added value (my kids may never learn what a star or a heart is otherwise). Plus, the shapes are all emblazoned with a raised numeral, even though it’s not developmentally appropriate to be teaching number symbols until kids have an awareness of quantity of real objects (“two” feet?  My kids just learned they have feet).  Then, we get to the battery-operated wonder.  The cookie jar has little ball-bearings in each opening, so when you successfully force a shape through the hole (it requires more force than the traditional shape sorter owing to the motion sensing technology impeding the shape’s progress), it labels the shape (or number) for you.  And then sings its stupid song.  “Shapes are in my cookie jar, triangle, heart and star.  There’s a circle over there, here’s a square!”  Or, if the toggle switch is set on “number” mode: “Would you like some cookies? Here they are!  Five different shapes, in my cookie jar! You can take them out, you can put them back, five little cookies make a tasty snack!” You can also just push the red nose of the cookie jar’s face to get a bonus song.  The most positive reviews of this toy range from detailing how the song is “catchy, not too annoying” to “It’s my kid’s favorite toy, but I want to shoot myself for buying it”.  That seems to be the theme.  As a parent, you have to put up with the stupid songs or noises because of their “educational” value, and if they’re only mildly annoying, that’s as good as you can expect to do.

What’s ironic, is that in trying to bolster educational value by adding sounds/music, the companies are actually grossly simplifying what the toy can actually “teach”.  It also makes parents feel like they’re depriving their child of something educational if they buy the plain shape sorter.  What do kids “learn” from these toys?  They learn mostly cause and effect.  If I push the button here, I get a song.  Many, many toys teach this concept.  While this is an important baby toy skill, it is only one aspect of play, and of learning.  Just as hearing a mechanical voice say “triangle” is only one exposure a child will have, and will mostly certainly not be the way my children end up figuring out the abstract concepts of shapes.  What I cannot stand is when parents measure educational value by the amount of time their child pushed the red nose over and over and stayed quiet in their crib.  While I appreciate time to go shower, make a phone call, or eat a sandwich, I do not conflate repetitive button-pushing with “learning”.  Nor do I think my kids will figure out shapes, colors, or numbers from playing with educational toys.  I also rail against what those songs are replacing.  For the parents who think it’s the toy’s job to “teach”, and not theirs, it’s replacing a parent coaching a child along, saying, perhaps, “Yes, mummy, that red square goes in the hole.  Can you put it in there?  Oops, not quite.  Try it a different way.  Yes, like that.  Push.  Almost.  Good job!”  The toy says, “Square” or “Four” and then sings a song.  If recent research in language acquisition is any guide, the child playing with the toy without the parent has just lost out on 28 additional words.  Fast-forward to preschool-aged children using a “learning vacuum” for pretend play.  If the vacuum’s job is to teach letters or numbers, and the toy constantly sings when you push its buttons, where is the voice of the child going ‘vroooom’ pretending to suck up dirt?  Where is the child narrating his play as he imitates the adults in his life?  Where is the integration of the vacuum into a larger ‘house’ play scheme?  So-called educational toys are by far the least open-ended toys I’ve seen on the market.

Why does a soccer ball need additional value?  So you can charge more for it, obviously.  So you can guilt well-meaning but anxious parents into purchasing more crap.  So you can assuage the guilt parents feel about not providing constant stimulation so their children can “get ahead” by the time they get to preschool.

In my family, the premier purchaser of this Chinese-made, battery-powered plastic crap is the last person you’d think of — a librarian.  But my mother-in-law gobbles up these toys, from the Vtech Infant Learning Jungle Fun Music Box my nephew was scared of for his first six months, to the “Rhyme and Discover” “book” (from a librarian — this shocked me), the infamous cookie jar, and the newest one, that just left my jaw hanging open, the Singin’ Soccer Ball, which, in addition to ABCs and 123s (again, not developmentally appropriate for the 9 month old pictured holding it), purports to teach sportsmanship.

I try to pretend I’m coming around on the electronic toy front, for the sake of family harmony.  I try to pretend it’s all copasetic if I just turn the toy off when I’m around. (though the kids are confused why the buttons that used to light up are now dark…) I try to pretend it’s okay if our household isn’t 100% battery-powered toy free.  In short, I try not to be a helicopter control-freak parent.  But every time we unwrap a new gift, whether it’s a talking puzzle from my uncle, or a battery-powered walking toy from my in-laws, or when we receive a new bag of hand-me-downs (and that fucking cookie jar) from my nephew, I just want to cringe.  It should simply be a parent’s choice to offer these toys.  It shouldn’t make me so angry, should it?  Yet, short of explaining (again) to my in-laws that we don’t want those toys, they keep on coming.  I doubt they’d sit and listen to a condensed lecture from this diatribe.  Maybe it’s more the fact that I feel disrespected in my parenting decisions, the fact that the burden of deciding whether to return a well-intentioned toy, try to remove the batteries, allow it, or smash it into a million pieces falls on us.  I’d rather spend my time building block towers with my kids for them to smash than arranging for childcare so I can run to Kohl’s for the third time this month, and return the piece of junk.

As I goggled in disbelief at the Singin’ Soccer Ball, I was unable to disguise my contempt in the usual forced smile I reserve for playtime at my in-laws’ house, and my father-in-law asked, “Why, it’s bad?” while I searched in vain for the off switch (IT HAS NONE!!!), I replied, through gritted teeth, “No, they’re just not my favorite kind of toy.” It’s true, kind of.  If my wonderful mother-in-law is sitting on the floor with my children, interacting with them and the heathenous toy, it’s not harming them.  If my brother likes pushing the buttons, and it helps him play with my kids, then that’s great for everyone.  No one toy sitting on the shelf is going to make or break a child’s kindergarten readiness.  No open-ended shoebox, or high-priced baby laptop can replace a parent’s interactions.

I am officially going on record to speak for all those parents writing Amazon reviews about annoying songs and tolerable noise levels — you don’t have to buy that crap.  I absolve you of your feeling a need to buy “educational” toys.  You are so much better than that.  You are not only your child’s first teacher; you’re also his first — and best — toy.

I attended an all-day seminar today on social communication.  There was a presentation on traumatic brain injury (TBI), and discussion about how important social communication skills are for people who have had TBI.  Since damage from TBI is often diffuse, complex, and can change over time, there is no easy way to predict what a person will need help with.  The presenter made a parallel to spinal cord injury.  Doctors and rehab personnel can make predictions on recovery, ability, and prognosis based on the level of the injury (C1, C3, C5, etc.).  The same is not true for TBI.  As a result, SLPs have developed checklists and ratings scales.  They assess areas of social communication such as taking turns in conversation, staying on topic, making appropriate eye contact, and staying within “polite” social parameters.  One of the ratings scales is given to both the patient and his/her spouse.  The presenter queried, what did we think a person without TBI would say if he/she assessed him/herself?  In other words, how would we, as healthy-brained humans with a certain competency in social skills, view our abilities?

Dismally, it turns out.  I would have enjoyed if he had actually demonstrated this fact by handing out the questionnaires and asking us to rate ourselves before he told us the results, but I believed him, if skeptically.

Later in the day, as I prepared to trade the goose bumps of the icy conference room for the sweltering humidity of the 88 degree day, I briefly touched in with a woman I used to work with.  She was my SLP supervisor for my clinical fellowship year (CFY), and we developed a wonderful relationship as I adjusted to the stresses, challenges, and rewards of that job.  I made a point to ask her how another supervisor of mine was doing.  I left my old job almost a year ago, and she was undergoing chemo and radiation for aggressive lymphoma.  My SLP supervisor began telling me about her, then backtracked and said, “Well, she had cancer, did you know that?”  and I replied, “Of course.  That’s why I’m asking.”   Why else would I ask?  I was in the office as she lost her hair.  I was there when the secretary sent her home because her stamina would not let her work through the day.  I was there when we played substitute supervisor roulette, with a different person to answer to each week.  Of course I knew. 

Now, three hours later, I replay the conversation in my mind, and I’m thinking not just of what I said, but of how I said it. The conference today reminded us of the importance of the tone of voice we use, and how we teach this skill to our clients.  I feel like I snapped back, like I spoke too soon, or too matter-of-factly.  I feel like I came off as a know-it-all.  I blurted it out.  And, just like the rating scale would indicate for a person with “normal” social skills, I find I am beating myself up mercilessly at my apparent inability to say the right thing. 

All of which seemingly makes me normal.  People with typical social communication skills are aware when they make solecisms, reflect when they commit faux-pas, and it appears that they also harangue themselves about it, to some degree.  I do speak too quickly.  I do blurt things out without thinking.  I do have trouble staying on topic.  I do have trouble making conversation in large groups.  I do feel making eye contact can be challenging. 

Don’t we all?

I pulled at my dog’s leash, guiding him towards the strip of snow by the street, as I chided him gently, “We don’t poop on people’s lawns.”  The use of “we” began to gnaw at me, until I’d pieced through it. 

“We don’t poop on people’s lawns.”  Well, I don’t.  And I don’t want him to.  This use of “we” would seem to mean, “I don’t want you to,” or “Don’t do it.”  I have the authority (if not the absolute power) to make commands like, “Don’t poop here,” but I didn’t say it that way.  I used “we”. 

“We don’t hit.”  This is something I have heard countless times in countless preschools and out of countless parents’/teachers’ mouths.  This use of “we” is similar to the first, in that the parent/teacher has almost complete authority to decide (and mandate) what is acceptable behavior. Somehow, the “we” softens the command. 

“How are we doing today?” Here is the classic, cloying yet condescending nurse, peeping in on you as you wake up from anesthesia after having your skull cracked open or your belly vivisected, asking you to comment on how “we” feel.  As in the other cases, it is clear here the nurse does not expect you to common on her own state; “we” plainly means “you”. 

The first two cases I can comfortably group together under one tier of a hierarchy about power.  In his book “Outliers”, Malcolm Gladwell examines the role ethnicity plays in airplane cockpit communications, and the crashes that happen (or can be avoided).  What he found was that if lower officers (e.g., flight engineer, first mate) tried to warn a superior officer (e.g., captain, pilot) of dangerous circumstances, they often hinted, or hedged their comments, rather than being direct and admitting that the pilot had made an error.  They said nonspecific things like, “We’re running out of fuel,” (as Gladwell points out, planes are usually running out of fuel as they prepare to land) or mitigated their observations by saying, “I think” or “We might,” or even went at it obliquely by saying, “The weather sure is nasty, eh?”  My instances of “we” for “You do it” would seem to be the opposite: a superior speaking to an inferior.

At least, I use my language to make myself seem superior to my dog.  However, he has me pretty well trained.  If I am in the office and he wants to come in, he scratches gently at the door, effectively knocking, and I immediately spring to action to open it for him.  If we are in the kitchen and it’s any time between 3:30 and 7pm, all he has to do is start barking incessantly, and I will serve his dinner without delay.  My spouse and I are programmed to walk him 3 times a day, and we even stoop to examine and pick up his shit, as if his leavings are some fecal oracle.  With my language, I try to repair our power rankings, though, apparently, I don’t want him to feel bad about it.

“Finley, get your arthritic ass off the neighbor’s lawn before I yank you to the curb!”  Of course, people may be watching.  You don’t speak to a companion animal that way.  He wouldn’t understand.  Not that he understands, “We don’t chase cats; they’re not in season,” either, but that one is for me. 

When it comes to correcting the behavior of young children, the projected “we” (meaning you) is also used.  I have of course observed many child care providers and parent making liberal use of direct commands and corrections with their children.  “Stop that right now.” “Don’t hit her.”  “Get off the wall.”  “Don’t touch that.”  “If you wander off, you’re gonna get took!” I wonder if the difference between, “Don’t touch that” and “We don’t touch that, it’s dirty” is cultural, based on socio-economic status, situational, or some combination thereof.  Again, though, as with the pets, we are “in charge” in some way – the superior officer – and we are giving commands.  We wish to mitigate the strength of our commands in a small way, to take the edge off being direct.  Perhaps we hope this will increase compliance.  I know as a preschool teacher I learned the indirect construction, “I can’t let you…” (jump from the top stair, come to lunch without washing your hands, hit another child, throw sand) as a way to increase compliance and stop sounding like such a meany.  It seemed to work, too.  Maybe the effectiveness was in the strangeness of the phrase itself.  Kids did not recognize, “I can’t let you throw sand,” as a reprimand, and it seemed to reduce their defiance.  Perhaps adults use “we” with the same hope – to seem less harsh, to increase the likelihood they’ll be obedient and to make the task of raising model human beings less odious.  In that case, as with the dog, our “power” never seems truly absolute.  Sure, we may set bedtimes, and offer absolute “no”s, but kids can keep on throwing sand (and dogs will poop wherever and whenever they want) until we take it away. 

To the third example, our saccharine nurse friend.  Arguably, she (or he), too, is in a position of power, albeit artificial and temporary.  Does the use of “we” take down the harshness, the clinical side of nursing?  Yet at the same time, does it hope to increase compliance?  “Did we take our meds today?”  “Do we want dinner now?”  “Did we do all the exercises the PT recommended?”  Maybe the nurse is trying to put herself on your side, so you’ll be more likely to try to please her.  She can hope you’ll be a good little patient, following directions, not demanding too much, just to make her life easier.  I think this third “we” is related to the first two, that it is an attempt by a “superior” to cut herself down one notch verbally, to forfeit one level of power so that you’ll be more comfortable and more compliant.  Unfortunately, due to the artificiality of the situation, most adults chafe at the patronizing construction and/or tone.  It’s ironic that a form intended to alleviate the disparity in power is often perceived as exactly the opposite – as a construction used with small children and animals. 

And we know how that makes us feel, don’t we?