I try not to be one of those cane-shaking “In my
day . . !” kind of adults. Really, I do. My kids enjoy Elmo’s usurpation of Sesame Street and that new computer animated Mickey Mouse Clubhouse
without the slightest raise of an eyebrow from me. I can even see how the new versions are, in some ways, superior. But every now and then, some new-fangled fabtraption manages to cross my line and release the inner curmudgeon. I had a moment like this in Toys-R-Us the other day.
We usually try to patronize our local, independently owned (and quickly disappearing) toy stores, but The Boy was most insistent on buying his friend’s birthday present at Toys-R-Us for some reason. The minute we set foot in the building, we were caught in the tractor beam of a huge display of Star Wars toys. No surprises there. The Boy hasn’t seen any of the Star Wars movies, but he’s well-versed in the narrative and positively captivated by all things Sykwalker – books, Legos, stickers, that old Muppet Show episode
featuring Mark Hamill and friends.
Star Wars is a fond part of my childhood too. And while I think the movies are a bit much for his sensitive little 5-year-old self, I’ve otherwise merrily encouraged his obsession. I mean, come on, who else is going to sit down and watch that Mark Hamill Muppet Show
episode with me? And finally, someone who appreciates my Jawa impression!
But bonding with his geeky mom isn’t the only benefit. The Star Wars world combines his love of science with a literary schema of sorts. It’s a friendly entry into the good-and-evil paradigm that children of this age are starting to contemplate. And it’s great on the playground. Star-Wars-speak is a common language among his peers. The mere mention of it moves them from awkwardly looking at their sneakers to tearing across the playing field in a joyous attempt to defeat the Empire.
So, when The Boy made a beeline for that Star Wars display at Toys-R-Us, I didn’t give it a second thought. Then he picked up a sleek box depicting a lush underwater scene – luminous bubbles in deep blue water, fantastical sea monsters, jagged sea cliffs and . . . sea monkeys? The label read “Naboo Sea Creatures.” The price tag read $29.99.
“But it’s just . . . brine shrimp,” I said as it dawned on me. “What does that even have to do with Star Wars?” An amused dad caught my eye and pointed to another shelf.
“You think that’s bad, check out the volcano,” he said. Sure enough, there was the Star Wars Mustafar Volcano Kit for $24.99 (volcano eruption ingredients not included).
And, okay, I must admit it’s a pretty cool looking volcano. Much slicker than the ones we made last summer in our backyard out of old Gatorade bottles and packaging tape. These kits combine science and literary narrative, which I just praised the Star Wars world for a minute ago. I’ve cheerfully welcomed Star Wars Legos
into the house. And I’ve eyed other branded science kits in toy stores before, like Bill Nye the Science Guy
’s paper recycling factory
and the whole series of Magic School Bus kits
. I have no problem with science concepts made fun and accessible for children. So why does a Star Wars branded science kit suddenly rub me the wrong way?
Well . . . there is
a fine line between the Bill Nye / Magic School Bus products and the Star Wars science kits. For starters, Bill Nye and Magic School Bus are about
science in the first place. Their science kits offer a hands-on version of the books and TV programs, so the relationship between the science kits and the brand is less of a stretch. And the kits themselves are pretty innovative and unique, whereas Star Wars just took its name and its look-and-feel and slapped them on time-honored DIY science standards like sea monkeys. What’s next? Star Wars jump ropes?
I guess my inner hand-wringing “think-of-the-children” self finds all that slick, branded presentation a little worrisome. Pro-Star-Wars as I am, it would be nice to have some
things left generic. Especially science. There’s something so intangibly beautiful about kids discovering science on their own. It’s a kind of chemistry in itself: a child’s insatiable curiosity meets the everyday marvels in her own backyard. Fireflies. Spider webs. The neighbor’s cat yakking up hair balls. It’s all a rich tapestry.
I guess The Boy is approaching the age when wide-eyed wonder gives way to tough-guy wonder. Didn’t that age used to be older than five? But here we are. Last winter, right around the time when he was discovering Legos and Star Wars (and Lego Star Wars), he decided out of the blue that he didn’t like science anymore. He gathered up the Magic School Bus books and insisted we return them to the library. He went to his room and pulled everything science-related off the walls . . . the dinosaur pictures, the digestive system he’d made out of construction paper . . . everything. It broke my heart, but I let him do it. It won’t be the first time he moves on before I’m ready.
I can’t blame branding for that. Kids grow and shed their old identities and seek new ones. Star Wars is an easy and attractive vehicle toward that end, but the kid’s impulse toward “out with the old and in with the new” would be there no matter what. I know that. And yet . . . I still kind of want to shake my cane at Star Wars branded brine shrimp. I guess I’m getting older too.
How about you folks? What new-fangled branding has set off your
inner curmudgeon lately?