Toys or Mud: The Challenging Decisions of Parenting

When my daughter was born, we lived in a simple house that we shared with another family in the Mayan Highlands of Guatemala. A combination of hard, cold cement floors weren´t exactly great for putting our newborn onto the ground, so she spent the majority of her first couple of months tied to our back with the beautiful shawls hand woven by local women artisans, and being passed from arm to arm when we took our child into the villages where we worked with a small community development program.

Our rather meager income, coupled with our lack of “contemporary” parenting knowledge (bad internet didn´t allow me to scan Google for what we should have been doing), meant that our little girl didn´t have much toys. During our trips into the villages, we would bring pine cones, rocks, and other things from Nature that seemed to interest her. The “toys” on our floor looked more like we hadn´t swept our floor very well.

After those first couple exhilarating (and sometimes sleepless) months of being a parent, we took our child into Guatemala City for her first trip on Guatemala´s not exactly infant friendly local transportation system. During a visit to friend (who has 3 young daughters of his own), we found that there home was literally overflowing with every type of toy imaginable. When we put our 6 month year old daughter onto their nicely carpeted floor, she immediately began to play with the hundreds of toys, and spent hours seemingly enthralled by the dozens of flashing lights, talking toys, and jingling, dinging, and rattling devices.

My friend´s wife, quite the parent “expert” told us all about the “usefulness” and practicality of each toy. What looked like a simple puzzle to me, was supposedly helping my child learn fine motor skills and increase the speed of her cognitive development. The bright colors on some stuffed animal were allegedly helping to stimulate my child´s vision. The jack in the box “thing-a-ma-jig” was purportedly helping my baby learn cause and effect relationships.

After the bouncy bus ride back to our simple home in the Highlands, we put our baby girl back onto the bed we shared as a family, and put her collection of toys in front of her: a wooden spoon, a drab giraffe stuffed animal, and a necklace of my wife´s made from the seeds from local trees.

I couldn’t help but fear that my child was going to grow up being slow, uncoordinated, and, who knows, perhaps even color-blind. At the time, the trip to our friend´s home proved to be a rather humiliating and disgracing experience for us as new parents.

Perhaps every parent at some time or another experiences these feelings of inadequacy and questions the choice they´ve made regarding the way they raise they children. Though we thought it extremely important to deliberately find ways to introduce our world to the natural world around her, there were times of course when I compared my child´s seemingly “slow” development to that of children surrounded by toys, educational TV shows, and the like.

It can be difficult to maintain a sense of fidelity to the values that drive us to have children in the first place. During the nine months of our pregnancy, I remember spending many sleepless nights thinking about what world I wanted to introduce my child to, the values I wanted to instill in her, and also what I wanted to keep her distanced from. In my case, this differed quite a bit from the “baby world” of Toys-R-Us, Nickelodeon, and other aspects that I felt reduced the wonder of a bringing a child into the world into nothing more than yet another consumer experience.

When Fisher Price tells me that buying toys from them will make sure that as a parent I am giving my child “the best possible start”, it still sometimes makes me question whether we´ve chosen the best path. However, the fact that my child can identify a ripe peach on the branches of our orchard, yet doesn´t begin to whine when she sees the Golden Arches of McDonalds makes me feel proud as a father. The fact that she will get lost in our garden scavenging for fresh, sweet peas in the pod instead of spending time in front of a screen also makes me feel like we´ve done something right as parents.

As my child has grown into her toddler years, there are certain moments when her tendencies toward free-spiritedness have needed to be checked by a certain level of pragmatism and “conventional” parenting. For some reason or another, brushing teeth has proven to be a task in life that she simply abhors. As her once white teeth have turned a not-so-lovely shade of yellow, our local dental clinic recommended cartoons that encourage teeth brushing have helped inspire the need to for some basic hygiene. Though she loves to explore every nook and cranny around the farm, we´ve struggled to teach her that the creek (where snakes abound) is off limits.

Finding ways to encourage our child´s natural curiosity and desire to explore the world around her has been one of the most important values that our parenting experience has been founded on. Though our child doesn´t have millions of toys and favorite cartoon shows to aid her in the supposedly necessary cognitive development that she needs, I do believe that her interaction with the world around her has inspired a more profound sense of holistic development that hopefully will help her become a woman who finds her home in the world that holds her.

Nevertheless, there are times and moments when the Toys-R-Us and Nickelodeon type of parenting has been useful. From learning to find joy in brushing teeth (or at least make it bearable) to learning how to share toys with her friends, I would be lying if I said that the infamous “screen time” hasn´t at times been helpful. The challenge, of course, has been to maintain a faithfulness to the values that we hold dearly, and not give in to the temptation to let the consumer-driven, corporate influenced style of parenting dictate what is important for our child.

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