Little girls and their gadgets
- Scott R. Garceau () - June 22, 2008 - 12:00am

I have a confession to make. Some of the toys I buy for my five-year-old daughter Isobel are actually meant for me. Like the miniature foosball table that once caught my eye and which now sits gathering dust bunnies in a box under her bed. Or the kids’ books that I treasured as a child (like Harold and the Purple Crayon), which get a second life on Isobel’s book shelves.

Then there’s the remote-controlled cars. This habit started around Christmas one year, when I came across the battery-operated buggers at a good price in a bazaar. I chuckled and told myself, “Isobel and I will have tons of fun with these…”

Guess who ended up playing with them for hours on end?

Dads don’t really have a clue about buying little girls gifts, it turns out. Either they’re projecting father-son activities on the wrong gender, or they’re trying to recapture a toy-abundant childhood they never actually experienced.

Basically, dads are drawn to toys and games that light up, jump around or do something nature didn’t intend. That’s why we find ourselves wistfully eyeing the remote-controlled helicopters in toy stores, even though we know we’ll either get bored or end up breaking the thing in the span of two days.

It must be said, I do remember a time when kids’ gadgets weren’t, by any definition, high-tech. They weren’t even low-tech. They were barely even analog, come to that.

We played games like Battleship, which required you to provide your own explosion sounds whenever you successfully sank your opponents’ plastic ships (“Ploooshhh!” was a popular one).

A big breakthrough came with Operation, which at least lit up and buzzed whenever you hit the side of the patient’s abdominal cavity, instantly killing him and resulting in a malpractice suit.

And that was about it, until Pong and Atari brought us into the dawning of a brave new era in gadget games. And now, though I don’t mind playing a little cellphone Sudoku while waiting on line at the bank, I really don’t get too thrilled about digital gaming systems.

This changed, briefly, when we tried out a friend’s Wii system last year. While we adults enjoyed mastering the hand-gripped “wand” and found we could work up a sweat waving an imaginary tennis racket, tossing virtual gutter balls and hitting sliders out of the ballpark, the game had a decidedly different effect on Isobel. She was instantly hooked, of course, in that preternatural way that always reminds me of the Children of the Overmind in Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (kids today just seem genetically hooked up into some technological mental grid, leaving us analog parents lagging behind). Anyway, she was playing Wii golf with my brother-in-law Gary, who shoots about a 75, three over par, and Isobel got impatient waiting for her Ninong to master the Wii wand and take his shot. “I stink at this!” Gary finally said in frustration. To which my daughter snottily replied, “If you stink, why are you even playing?”

Needless to say, she was banned from the Wii after that.

We’re very glad that our daughter loves books, and will happily spend hours with art materials, drawing or coloring or painting. But she’s starting to make noises about other gadgets. We’re not ready to cave in yet.

First it was the request for a cellphone. In my unevolved mind, I just can’t see giving a five-year-old a cellphone. It’s not gonna happen. First there’s the health and safety issue, which is still being debated among doctors. Then there’s the fact that kids just shouldn’t be toting around cellphones, acting like miniature teens. (Right now, she commandeers her yaya’s cellphone whenever she wants to hear a ringtone she’s fond of. Someone taught her how to text, so she’s been showing off that skill by SMSing us at work.) And finally, I don’t like the idea because cellphones are notorious devices for exchanging phone numbers, which little kids seems to think is a safe and wise practice, even with strangers. So, “no” to the cellphone request.

Lately, too, she’s been sighing a lot and asking us if she can have a PSP — like her Aunt Marie’s. We point out that she has other electronic games that have not fallen apart from constant use yet, and add that when she’s in her late 20s like Marie she can surely purchase a PSP, probably with her own money. This leads to a bout of eye rolling.

The PSP is the time-killer par excellence for this wired generation, though I usually carry an even handier, battery-free one — a book — if I think I’ll be stuck in some traffic or waiting limbo.

When I realized how much Isobel likes music, I did cave in a bit and gifted her with a small, cheap MP3 player (I had a spare one, you see), which I loaded with age-appropriate digital songs. It may seem like an indulgence that might cause her to tune out from adults, but so far, she’s not that hooked on the device. It’s more of a novelty to her, though I expect that will change in a year or so.

For a while, she was obsessed with getting a computer, and we did go so far as to look into the cool, green-tinted XO laptop (billed as the “$100 laptop” and designed for Third World kids, though it costs more like $200), but we gave up after finding out that most of the available supply had been scoffed up by greedy First World parents.

As for desktop computer games, there are quite a number that she excels at, even at age five. Most of them involve laboring in a fast-food kitchen or a hair salon, where the number of customers grows with programmed regularity, until most adult players’ heads start emitting smoke and then spontaneously combust from the mental exhaustion — though Isobel never seems stressed while playing. I’m starting to worry, though, that too many games are training kids to prepare themselves for a future in the service industry, either flipping burgers or fixing hairdos.

Lately, Isobel and I haven’t had too many high-tech moments together. I must say, I enjoy the peace and quiet. Her birthday requests may become more and more techie and mind-boggling as the years go on, but for now, she seems reasonably content just being a little, low-tech girl.

Her latest wish? A foot-operated, analog-style scooter.

That I can handle. Maybe I’ll even get one for myself.

ARTHUR C AUNT MARIE CHILDREN OF THE OVERMIND EVEN ISOBEL ISOBEL AND I WII
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