Objects of curiosity

According to Philippe Aries’ “The History of Childhood”, the world of the child was changed for ever because the lonely world of the child was transformed to real curiosity and interest in the toys with which he was presented by his parents who were often equally inquisitive and interested in these toys which - in the most literal sense - were built “to play with”!

It became a life habit for the most progressive and development-conscious parents (at least those who could afford it and who were interested in their children’s childhood, upbringing and development) to ensure that their children were introduced to an impressive gallery of significant and interesting objects. Curiosity about “new things” was shared by children and adults alike.

One of the major theories within modern psychology concerns the elemental principles which tempt and attract children and juveniles to examine and investigate the things and objects presented to them or to which for some reason or other their attention is drawn.

Berlyne (1960) theorises over such concepts as “novelty, complexity, description, conflict, uncertainty and surprise” which can motivate and stimulate real human curiosity and interest for things and objects. In a cunning way, Martin A. Hansen in his novel “The Liar” (Løgneren,1960) relates how the protagonist (a teacher) hones his pupils’ curiosity, interest and concentration by showing them something covered with a cloth (a small model of a Greenland dog sledge, as it turns out) which he will reveal and tell them about  - but only once they have worked for some time on other lessons in the classroom.

These (especially Berlyne’s) theories about curiosity are possibly not entirely credible in their attempt to explain the background for “human curiosity” but they represent a rhetoric which tells us that toys or objects exercise their own power over children and that toys contain some innate principles which can partly explain the background for children’s exploration and curiosity.

Most parents like to see their children show an interest in miniatures, interesting small copies and machines and to see them become adept at handling them. Metaphorically, it seems parents want their children to be good small copies or miniatures which play and work in accordance with internal, useful and positive laws - as the toys do. The toy itself is a model of independence - and the child becomes a model for an independent person.

This relationship between individual and object, between child and toy is an example of the power which is learning to master things through play.

One of the most influential theories about modern play (Erikson (1977)) is based on the idea that play is a form of control training through which the child hallucinates that he has “control” - which he has not yet mastered -  but which he will gain later if he continues to dominate things, if he plays that he has power over things.

This phenomenon could well be called “the Descartes syndrome” (Sutton-Smith coins the phrase (1985)). It is both the wish to create a self controlling machine and master it - and the fear that that the “thing” created might take control of one’s own world so that both one’s own and the creator’s power and control will be lost. Very many parents have this attitude which manifests itself in the form of angst/fear of different media. It has also been expressed over the past two centuries first through the contents of fairy tales, pictures and books, later on cassette tapes, in comic strips, films, cartoons, on TV and video, computers and video games, in addition to many different toys and toy advertising for in particular mechanical cars, Barbie dolls, Masters of the Universe figures, Nintendo games, Bart Simpson and, most recently, for the Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers TV series and figures.

Many parents’ angst is expressed as constant moaning about the media’s making the children dependent on specific products. (TV gets the most blame - see chapter 7, influence of TV advertising).

Angst is psychologised through claims that children risk losing their “authenticity consciousness” when they play certain types of video games and electronic games and that they do not develop sufficient linguistic skills.

Paradoxically, this is a doubtful expression for a real belief in progress, development and knowledge for the benefit of the next generation. At the same time, many claims about the destructive effect of the media on children have never been proven, checked or tested.

Within the past couple of years, some examples of the claims have been identified, especially in research into toys with specific connection to TV programmes and advertising with a stereotype narrative content (Kline & Pentecost (1990), Kline (1993)).

On the one hand, parents in our culture want to bring their children up as autonomous and independent individuals  which toys can help them to become. In this connection, Sutton-Smith (1984,b) describes a “conflict socialisation of the children on the strength of the toys the children want to play with but which their parents won’t let them have”. On the other hand, some parental groups would like to see their children achieve object control but the same parents have constructed their own ritual of magical danger in relation to the objects, the toys.

The children must therefore try to manoeuvre through their own play rituals with interesting, sometimes prohibited toys - or toys of which their parents are sceptical - whilst having to counterbalance their parents’ notion that they are developing into helpless zombies.

Children emancipate themselves and express opposition in different ways, all of which are part of child “culture” and always have been. In earlier times, the ways and expressions were clearer, more direct and appealed to the desire for greater personal freedom, free choice and independence.

This happens today too but nowadays it is more symbolic, e.g. motivated by children’s wish for objects and toys to which their parents to some extent and for a wide variety of reasons take exception.



Table of Contents