THE BLOG
12/09/2013 09:05 am ET Updated Feb 08, 2014

Toys in the Attic

One of the stories in the news this Christmas is that there might be a shortage of toys. Hand-wringing business reporters say that because the stores were worried about a soft season, they ordered 2 percent fewer toys this year, which is probably a lot of toys. It's one of those Christmas danger stories: "Not enough toys!"

They tell us to expect difficulty finding Spin Master Ltd.'s Zoomer robotic dog toys, the Disney Doc McStuffins Get Better Check-Up Center, and Hog Wild's Power Poppers. It got me worried, so I went over to my local Toys R Us, where there seemed to be plenty of brightly colored plastic and packaging. Same at Wal-Mart and the little toy store in the neighborhood.

Just to be sure there are enough toys in America, I went into the garage and found some toys there, too, even though both my daughters are teenagers and one is in college. We've got a good tricycle, some roller skates, a soccer ball, and hockey sticks. The wooden peg and ring game they loved so much is in the front closet.

We still have the modern dollhouse my mother bought the girls at the Museum of Modern Art. Only my high-culture mother would buy a dollhouse at MOMA.

Toys are a $16.5 billion industry; inventing, designing, making, and selling them. I've been to a toy design school and strolled the aisles of the creative department at Mattel toys. Thousands of people around the world spend their entire lives trying to inhabit the minds of 4-year-olds to find out what will make them happy.

But the sad secret about toys is that children are not very interested in them. They like a toy just to rip it out of the package, explore it, break it, throw it in a corner and move on to something new. They often like the foam peanuts, the box, and the ribbon just as much as the toy.

My daughters must have owned about 50 Barbie dolls. They had surf Barbies, princess Barbies, tennis Barbies... every kind of Barbie you can imagine. Barbies showed up at our door with the regularity of the postman. In short order the girls stripped the clothes off every one of those Barbies until it was like every other one of their Barbies, a naked Barbie.

My girls liked Barbies, but what they liked the most was taking the clothes off Barbies. And once the clothes come off a Barbie, no one, and certainly not a five-year-old, can ever put them back on.

They were just as happy pulling the pots and pans out of the lower kitchen cabinets. We'd be in there cooking and the girls would be at our feet, creating endless shapes, messes, and landscapes, and noises with the pots and pans. It doesn't matter what kids play with so long as it's something that lets them use their brain and imagination. Most toys have a short life in a child's attention because they don't do that. Pots and pans will be around a lot longer than Hog Wild's Power Poppers.

We give children toys more to make ourselves happy than to make them happy. We love children and want to please them. When your children are young, toys tend to fall around them like rain. When the girls had birthday parties every guest brought a present and sometimes my daughters lost interest before opening them all. A couple of times a year we shoveled out the old toys because new toys were surely coming. One thing I know, there's no shortage of toys at the dump.

One of my favorite toys of all time was a World War II ranging sight that my father gave me. I could set in on the windowsill in my bedroom and pretend I was an artillery officer or a submarine commander. In the morning, I targeted the commuters in fedoras walking to the train station.

I still have the slingshot I made myself out of a hickory crook. I have a metal truck I got when I was about two years old, and a couple of beautiful little 1930s-style racing cars. They appeal to me as much today as the day I got them. I have a handful of lead soldiers I managed not to break. They live on in my imagination, and on the shelf over my desk.

You might not be able to find the Disney Doc whatever this year, but there's no shortage of toys in the world. If you have trouble buying toys for your kids, just go to the closet or the basement and re-wrap what you gave them last year. They won't notice. They'll be more interested in the wrapping and the box than what's inside.