Flicking down my Facebook news feed today, an image of a 1981 print advertisement particularly stood out because of two reasons:
A. It had a redheaded girl in the image who had a cheeky smirk, jeans, t-shirt and joggers on. My (not so) little girl is redheaded, cheeky and often found getting around in jeans and a band-based t-shirt with Chuck Taylor’s on her feet. I love her style.
B. That girl was holding Lego. And I mean old-school Lego. The Lego I remember from my childhood. A seemingly random assortment of blocks in red, yellow, blue, green, black and white, along with a tree and a couple of people figures (not mini-figures, but their predecessors – true old-school). This is the Lego I remember and love. The Lego from my own children’s collection barely resembles the Lego in the picture. Today, it’s so specific and detailed, with Lego based on themes and films, with pieces created specifically for just one set, and so many fricking tiny pieces!!! Twelve months after packing away my kids’ MASSIVE Lego collection (more about that later) I am STILL finding teeny tiny pieces of Lego all over my house.
So the little girl and the Lego stood out, and I immediately thought, “That is awesome” but then I glanced at the picture next to it and saw a woman about my age, holding onto a TV van made from a Lego Friends set. Overlayed on this image of the woman were the words, “What it is, is different” compared to the words overlayed on the 1981 advertisement of, “What it is, is beautiful”. I then looked above the images and saw that my edu-mate Bianca Hewes had reposted the image suggesting it would be great for a stereotype unit for English. That spiked my interest further so I clicked on the image and the link within the comment led me to this blog post about the 1981 advertisement, where I discovered that the woman on the right of the Facebook image is in fact the little girl from the 1981 advertisement. Reading the blog post and thinking about my childhood and adulthood Lego experiences made me think…lots. Hence this blog post!
I started to share the picture on my Facebook feed and type my opinion about the image, and they way Lego and society have changed, but the post just kept getting longer and longer. I talk too much. I post excessively to an excessive number of social networks. I write really long blog posts, which is probably why I don’t blog much. I started this whole blog with the intention to reflect on my teaching experiences but I’ve found that I’m more inclined to blog about things I experience or think as a parent instead. I ramble. I know I do. But that doesn’t stop me! Though I initially saw that image and blog post as a teaching opportunity for the English classroom, as I wrote that really long Facebook post, I thought more and more about the stereotyping my own kids have experienced, and their views of the world based on the toys they’ve played with and the TV or films they’ve watched, ultimately, the plethora of media they have consumed in their short lives. I’m not aware of them judging others based on stereotypes formed by this exposure, but I’m not around them 24-7 either.
The blog post made me question Lego! Lego for crying out loud! LEGO!!! That’s almost sacrilege! Then it made question other choices I’d made. I thought nothing of plonking my kids in front of DVDs/Foxtel. Granted there were good programs like Dora the Explorer and Little Einsteins that definitely avoided the negative stereotypes but there was a lot of rubbish too. Then it seems that once they hit school-age, many of the books, games (online and offline), TV shows, films, and toys (including Lego) all begin to conform to a gender stereotype. We choose to put our kids in front of those shows, and we choose to buy them the books and toys. We need to choose wisely when it comes to toys, books and screen time. You guessed it, we need to choose awesome. I thought I was choosing awesome with Lego and now I’m questioning that.
There is so much more STUFF in 2014 compared to 1981. More TV, more films, more books (yay!), more media (yuk!) and more toys! As the girl (or woman, as she’s now 39yo) from the advertisement said, “In 1981, LEGOs were simple and gender-neutral, and the creativity of the child produced the message. In 2014, it’s the reverse: the toy delivers a message to the child, and this message is weirdly about gender.” When did we start letting toy companies dictate to our kids? I think I can answer this one in regards to my kids and Lego.
Twelve months ago I packed up four 22 litre containers of Lego. I tried to find a picture of the boxes, but it’s so far down my Instagram feed it will take forever to find. I’ll put it on my to-do list. So I packed it all up. They had barely played with it for the last few months and I was sick of treading on it when they did play with it. We didn’t have any of the Friends Lego but we had plenty of Harry Potter, Star Wars, Spongebob, and other character-based Lego. I was a bit sad. They didn’t seem to care. I had ‘played’ with Lego into my early teen years and thought my kids would too. My daughter was 11 when we packed up the Lego. My boys were 8 and 9. They didn’t bat an eyelid. I’m sure I shed a small tear. Only after considering that 1981 advertisement today did I really think about why they didn’t care that the Lego was packed away and why I was sad.
When I played with Lego as a kid, I made the stories, I made the characters and I made the places. With today’s Lego, all of those decisions are made for the kids playing with it. That’s a bit sad. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Harry Potter and Star Wars Lego but I make it and display it on a shelf…coz I’m old. So kids’ creative choices when playing with Lego are limited. I think that’s why my kids weren’t too concerned when I packed up the Lego. I wasn’t robbing them of their creativity so it was okay.
As I packed the last box of Lego away I noticed that all three kids were on computers. The boys were playing Minecraft on a server with about 25 other young kids from around the world. They were creating epic structures, with no instructions, made from very basic, 8-bit materials sourced in-world. They had probably updated their ‘skin’ at some stage so their characters had different outfits, hair and faces. Meanwhile, my daughter was playing Sims 3 and creating yet another house that would impress any architect, having first created a couple of Sims with unique hair dos, facial features and names. They were making choices about their characters, their stories and their setting. They were getting the same buzz I got when I played Lego as a kid. I think, whether it was conscious or not, that with Lego, they were over being told how to play when gaming provided them with so much more creativity and freedom.
Think back to your childhood and when you had the most fun just ‘playing’. Was it when you were making choices or when they were being made for you? Do we form stereotypes in our minds because our choices are taken away?
We aren’t born with those stereotypes in our heads. We develop them based on the things we see and hear. My hope is that my kids, whether conscious or not, abandoned Lego because they wanted to think for themselves. I don’t regret spending what is probably an obscene amount of money on all that Lego. I think it provided all the fun of Lego that I remember from my childhood; the feeling of completing your new set, breaking it all up after playing with it for a couple of weeks, creating your own new structures from your vast collection, and that glorious sound of a large bucket of Lego being tipped over the floor. But the Lego days didn’t last as long for them as they did for me. Perhaps because Minecraft and Sims 3 provided more creative appeal. Perhaps because, like the text overlay on the picture of the grown woman says, it’s different. Lego in 2014, is not how I remember it from 1985.
In summary, finally, I hope that the small amount of worldly experience my kids possess means they will choose to base their opinion of people on face value, and the stories those people tell and the adventures they share, not because the media or a toy company dictates their idea of ‘normal’ to them.
Do you question the ‘messages’ toys are sending to kids? Are they developing negative stereotypes based on those toys?