The Hidden Message Of Toy Story
Kids forget toys because people are more important. We’re wired for people, not toys.
I went to another birthday party yesterday. It was a fun party. I went there with my mom and my kids and we all had a good time (my wife was recording for a voice project and we needed to leave the house quiet for her). The kids ate pizza, cake and they watched their friend open his birthday presents. As a parent, I see a lot of birthday parties, too. Kids celebrate birthdays with parties and gifts. And lately, I’ve noticed a change in how I perceive birthday parties, in particular, the gifts that are revealed during the party.
Yesterday, I watched the birthday boy open something like 10 or 11 cool gifts. I don’t really know for sure how many, but they were all dazzling. Every gift was met with surprise, glee and a brief moment of happiness. The shiny new thing takes a place in the child’s mind, but only for a few seconds because it’s time for the next one! Radio-controlled cars, water and nerf guns, construction sets and more were received by this lucky boy. And each one of them must take a place in the mind in order to be enjoyed. Each one of them requires time, energy and an open mind to be experienced. Every toy requires space in time and in the brain, that would otherwise be reserved for people.
What changed for me at birthday parties is that I don’t just marvel at the cool toys that kids get these days, toys that I never had as a kid. When I see the expressions of surprise and happiness upon the faces of the kids opening presents, I’m thinking through that experience of the first contact with the toy, I’m thinking a week or two weeks from now. I’m thinking back to how I was with toys. I’m thinking back to how my kids as babies and toddlers treat their toys. They’re fun until they’re not new anymore, and until they become “not change”. When toys become a normal part of the environment, they are no longer novel enough to hold attention. We’re wired to notice change.
A toy requires effort to play with. They don’t respond to what we say or do (though that may change in the next decade), so we have to make them do the things we want them to do. When my kids play with dolls, they make up the conversation as they go. They improvise, they make their own stories for the toys. But that time with the toys can only last for so long. For once the novelty of a toy is gone, they go into a bin with all the other toys. The legos, the dolls, the sets of toys with missing pieces and so on. And then life reminds them that there is much more to life than toys, so the toys are eventually forgotten. The kids will outgrow the toys.
Life gets in the way of any plans we might have made with toys. We want to play with our toys, but our parents take us to grandma’s house. We have to go shopping for food since we’re not old enough to stay home on our own. We go to school, we eat, we play with other kids, we sleep. The toys we receive in our lives, even as kids are merely incidental to life. This may seem counterintuitive, but I’d say that it’s not easy to have a relationship with a toy.
I’m not arguing against toys here. I’m just trying to make a much larger point, which the Toy Story movies touch upon but they don’t fully articulate. They don’t articulate the reason for what happens to the relationship kids have with toys. Toys are possessions, and all possessions require time and effort and space in our minds to enjoy. Toys are not people — we try to make them like people as the Toy Story movies do— but we can’t relate to toys in the same way that we relate to people.
As adults, we have similar relations with our possessions. In American culture, we work hard for our possessions. We work 40–50 hours a week to buy a car, rent an apartment, buy a house, go on vacation, visit distant relatives, keep food on the table, pay the utilities, and fill our houses with possessions. We buy furniture, TVs, video game consoles, computers, and knickknacks. We even buy curio cabinets to display our collection of knickknacks for our guests or for our personal adoration. And all of that comes at the expense of our relations with the people in our lives.
Everything we buy requires time and effort that could be used for relating to other people. We work to buy stuff, but we play with other people. Kids enjoy their toys more with other kids. I enjoy the home I live in now with my family more than without a family. I share everything with my family and I don’t keep score. I work a day job for my family. I write these articles for my family, for someday, my daughters make take an interest in what I write, and they will want to read my articles for themselves. All of this effort, in a sense, is for other people.
Even if you live alone, you’re working for someone else. When you buy things with the money you earn, you’re paying the bills for someone else. It’s not really possible to live among other humans without giving something to someone else. We are always relating to someone else, it’s just on a continuum as to how close we want or have the capacity to be with others. Our relations with other people will always be more important than how we relate to our possessions.
The people in our lives are why were are here. We’re not here for the toys, however fun and nice toys may be. We’re here for the other people in our lives. And it’s easy to forget our possessions and our toys when there are people in our lives to share time with.
Ever seen how a baby responds to a toy? They are interested in their toys for a few minutes, and then they move on. Mommy can hold a baby’s interest far better than any toy can. Daddy can, too. We’re purpose-built to give and receive attention to and from other people. We need other people to survive. We evolved this way for a reason.
Possessions and property are concepts that have come relatively late in the evolution of humanity. Our relations to the things we own are contrived to say the least. Such relations may serve a practical purpose, but they will never be more important than how we relate to other people. That the Toy Story movies give so many human qualities to otherwise inanimate toys in their stories is a subtle acknowledgment that people are more important than toys.