Along For the Rye’d

The Trouble With New Toys

By Annabel Monaghan

Pullquote: I’ve come to believe that directions to children’s games are written by people who are personally vested in my not being able to understand how to play.

Everybody has something in their house that nags at them. Maybe it’s a pile of laundry (never bothers me) or a single insurance form that’s going to take a two-hour phone call before it turns into a check. These things promise great payoffs, but first you have to wade through a little pain. For me, the loudest nag in my house is an unopened toy with a steep learning curve.

A gift to a child can feel like a liability to the parent. Worst-case scenario: the gift comes with an Allen wrench and an Owner’s Manual. But sometimes the liability is just the 30 minutes it’s going to take to read and understand the directions well enough to teach your child how to play.

I’ve come to believe that directions to children’s games are written by people who are personally vested in my not being able to understand how to play. They tend to over-explain the obvious, like “To start, place all game pieces on the square labeled Start.” And then drop lines like, “At the beginning of subsequent turns, you may trade in matched sets of cards and take additional armies based on the total number of sets anyone has traded in so far.” <Oh, okay.>  

Often while I’m poring over the rules of the game, the owner of the toy wanders off with the spinner and both of the dice. I suspect that the age at which a child can read and understand the directions to any given game is the exact age when he’s outgrown that game.

The loudest possible nag has come from the toy my sister gave my kids last Christmas. It came in a box sized to make me think she’d gotten them a Sub Zero. When we opened it, we found a large rectangular wooden box with miniature bowling pins, tiny spindles and, most curiously, six pieces of string. It was Christmas and we were maybe too busy/tired/fat to figure that thing out, so for six months it sat in my basement, a large wooden box accumulating the spinners and dice from other discarded toys.

It’s not like I have an aversion to toys. The problem seems to be the timing of the new toy’s introduction into my house. Namely, gifts come on Christmas and children’s birthdays – the days where you are least likely to be looking to fill your time with an extra little project. Those are the days when my house is as cluttered as my brain, and there’s no space in either to lay out the pieces and dig in.

But this year, on July 4th, my 11 year old and I found ourselves at home and a little bored. My husband was golfing, my teenagers were sleeping, and there was nothing on TV but people eating too many hot dogs. We decided to sit down and figure out what that big wooden box was for. As with most wooden toys, the instructions were sparse. It’s almost like if you have to ask, you probably weren’t around in the 1930s when this thing was all the rage.

I sat there with what looked like a tiny wooden barstool and a piece of string in my hand, wondering how this could ever amount to a toy. My son suggested we see if there were any instructions on YouTube. I assured him that no one who has ever played this toy knows about YouTube. But a few clicks later he found an elderly gentleman explaining just what that string was for. We quickly became experts, and then competitors, and then sworn enemies. I now admit, it’s a great game.

On some occasions, I’ve been faced with gifts where the first instruction is “download the app.” <The app?> It’s a basketball. <The app?> It’s a set of goggles. This is when my face registers defeat and the owner of the gift says, “Mom, I’ve got this.”