The great wooden toy drama continues
Thoughts on consumer culture and conscious consumption with Erin Boyle
A couple months ago, I wrote this piece on aspirational toy guides, the thesis being that often, the purchasing and social-media-sharing of children’s toys says more about the parent’s aesthetics and perceived moral goodness than the children’s actual play preferences. And I still believe that social media encourages us to equate our consumerism with our identity. HOWEVER. I have a much more nuanced view of the whole thing after talking to Erin Boyle about wooden toys, conscious consumption, conspicuous consumption, and holding onto our aesthetic preferences and our environmental awareness despite all the noise of mommy marketing telling us to buy this plastic wipe warmer or that beautiful birch play kitchen or the “only product every new moms needs.”
I’ve been following Erin’s work for a long time, probably every since I knew blogs were a thing (which was pretty late in the game - probably 2013ish?) I think I discovered her blog, Reading My Tea Leaves around the same time I discovered Naomi Davis’s Love, Taza and Amber Fillerup-Clark’s Barefoot Blonde, but I never really thought of Erin as a mommy blogger or a momfluencer (even though she’s a mom who blogs and I’ve def been influenced by her content). While I historically found myself scrolling Love, Taza or Barefoot Blonde in a futile attempt to purchase my way to a rosier version of maternal bliss, I went to Reading My Tea Leaves because Erin’s words clarified and nurtured my own preoccupation with the stuff of life and what it all means (or doesn’t!) Her blog was and is a source of beauty, intellectual curiosity, irreverent humor, and creativity. I am, in short, a long-time fan.
Erin’s writing has deepened my understanding of my own consumption (and it’s impact on my environmental consciousness) in really meaningful ways again and again. She always links to thinks I want to see and hear and read in her Friday round-ups, and I delight in discovering that instead of doing almost anything on my to-do list in any given moment, I could make this outrageously adorable pincushion instead. I was lucky enough to talk to Erin for Momfluenced (she shares a searing story tangentially related to paper towels and yes that is very much a teaser), and I 100% made a nightlight according to this tutorial (I used a cardstock photo of my kids and that nightlight has been bringing me joy every damn night for 4 years!)
Erin’s first book, Simple Matters, is a nod to the growing consensus that living simply and purposefully is more sustainable not only for the environment, but for our own happiness and well-being, too. She’s currently working on a new craft book with longtime collaborator, Rose Pearlman, tentatively titled, Making Things: Finding Use, Meaning, and Satisfaction in Crafting Everyday Objects (Hardie Grant, 2024).
Erin (like me) is obsessed with material culture and what it communicates about human culture, and when she emailed me some thoughts in response to the aspirational toy piece, I immediately asked her to do an interview, and our conversation lit up allllll the synapses for me. I can’t wait to share!
Erin: I want to start by saying that I’m in no way the ultimate expert in material culture or the history of children’s toys.
Sara: There are very good reasons I asked you to talk to me about children’s toys! Can you give readers a bit of insight into your background?
Erin: I live in Brooklyn, New York. I'm the mother of three children. I’m the author of Simple Matters, and am currently writing a book about making things. I’m interested in interrogating questions of consumption and materialism and whether or not we have control over what we bring into our homes.
I used to live in a very, very small urban apartment, and now I live in a moderately small apartment, and I’ve always been interested in our relationship to things. I have a background in public humanities, and am interested in material culture and the history of shit more broadly. And in terms of viewing these questions through the lens of conscious consumption versus conspicuous consumption, I’m interested in why and what we fill our homes with and what it means for us as human beings and also for the planet more generally.
Sara: I’ve written a bit about this before, but to provide my own personal context, I want to start by saying that I am obsessed with aesthetics. I love them. I have strong feelings about them. Home decor and home stuff is a hobby I enjoy, and I fully realize it’s not a hobby everyone enjoys, but it is for me. But even as someone who loves this stuff and consumes a lot of home-centric content, I can still see when aesthetics are weaponized as like, moral indicators, you know? Like, because someone owns a non-toxic wooden toy, they are somehow a better parent. And then there’s the flip-side of the conversation which is like, the parents who don’t care about aesthetics as long as their kids are happy, and if the kids are happy with an overflowing basket of heinous plastic toys, then so be it. It feels like a very black and white way of thinking about kids’ toys, and I’d love to unpack that with you. Either you’re a smug elitist with gorgeous toys whittled in Sweden or you’re a chill mom who’s too cool for aesthetics. It feels pretty reductive.
Erin: 100%. Okay, there's so many aspects of this. First, literally everything that mothers do is weaponized against them one way or another. There is never any winning. You know, some people say, if you let your own aesthetics guide your kid toy choices, then you are depriving your children of a world of color and possibility and educational stimuli or whatever.
Erin: And then there are people who will say you’re filling your children's built environment with toxins and you know, non-biodegradable toys that will ruin their creativity or whatever if you buy them the plastic Paw Patrol figurine from a big box store. It’s interesting to me to think about toys and decisions around home goods and children as a reflection of someone’s parenting. To me, it has very little to do with parenting. And we know the whole idea of a “good mother” is bullshit. When I choose toys for my kids, I’m not thinking to myself, Because I’m a good mother, I’ll choose this toy. I’m thinking, Because I like this toy, I will choose it.
This isn’t to say there isn’t a moralistic undercurrent to such decisions. It would be disingenuous to say that my consumer choices weren’t impacted by my personal morals or any consideration of the types of materials I’m bringing into my home. I’m also an over-thinker; there’s nothing I don’t think about! So these are conscious, deliberate choices I'm making. I’m interested in the agency and control we have over our consumer lives, which of course, is wrapped up in all sorts of privilege.
And I think there’s a backlash to choosing to make informed, deliberate consumer choices; choosing to spend time considering those choices. As if the only way to show you’re cool is to not give a shit. And to not care about the branded toys, the plastic toys, the beeping toys, whatever. But it’s like, wait a minute, I made a choice in the first place to decide I wasn't gonna do what capitalism told me I should do, which is to go out and buy an enormous quantity of goods because I was having a kid, which supposedly represents this “lifestyle change” or whatever marketers call it. And I made a deliberate choice to not have a baby registry filled to the gills with every possible new baby item. And to me, that was a conscious effort to say No to what I felt was an imposition on the part of corporate America.
And sure, you can call this another form of conspicuous consumption, and yes, there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism. But also, are we not allowed to make the best choices we can with whatever set of constrictions we’re dealing with? And I think there’s this pressure to not seem overly invested in one’s twee wooden blocks or be in danger of virtue signaling. And often this pressure results in people throwing up their hands and giving in to marketing.
Sara: One thing I value about your blog is that you seem to derive a great deal of pleasure from problem solving. Like, you make finding creative consumer solutions look like fun (not like an exercise in deprivation and rigidity).
Erin: Yes! I mean, prior to this phone call, I was making a children's toothbrushing timer out of air-dry clay and toothpicks and a little hourglass because all of the available purchasable options that I found were so heinous. And now I’m like, gleeful that I made something myself that I like better than the stuff I could’ve bought.
Sara: And of course, this type of problem solving within the home is not for everyone. Some people are simply not interested, and some people don’t derive joy from investing time into conceptualizing and creating their own toothbrushing timers, which of course, is fine and great! But I think there’s something cool in examining our consumer choices and in finding creative workarounds. So often, I feel like conscious consumption is framed as this very un-fun, precious, sterile way of being.
Erin: Right! I also think caring is often framed as pretentious and elitist. But what is wrong with someone making a consumer choice based on the fact that maybe the workers making whatever plastic piece of shit are not being treated properly, or maybe the materials used are derived from fossil fuels, the consumption of which is causing global warming? And obviously, many, many people don’t have the capacity to even think about these types of consumer choices, much less act on them, or have the financial resources and creative energy. There are any number of factors that people might not invest the time or money into prioritizing these consumer choices.
But if you do decide to think deeply about consumption, it’s really similar to becoming vegan, or reconsidering what kind of vehicle you drive, or making a choice about where you live and how your commute to work will be impacted as a result. It’s ok to make choices for the moral good. I don’t love the idea that because there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism we should all simply give up.
Erin: I should also say the glass hourglass of my little hand-made toothbrushing timer came wrapped in bubble wrap, you know? The truth is that all the shit created on this planet has detrimental effects on someone somewhere and some things somewhere. So me making the stupid toothbrushing timer was not a morally superior choice, but it’s a choice I made to have some agency and some control over a thing that came into my house. Even though my kids have dental appointments in like, three weeks, and I'm probably going to be handed a little plastic baggie with three plastic toothbrushes in it only to sheepishly push it across the timer and say, “No thank you!”
Sara: Because so many of the systems undergirding consumption are broken, and because capitalism is the air we all breathe, I do very much empathize with someone thinking, like, I can't make a difference with my toy choices and to ask me to make a difference on top of everything else you're asking me to do as a caregiver and mother in the US is too much. So fuck it, let them have the Fisher Price jingly jangly nightmare. So yes, the systems all need to change first and foremost, but I also appreciate you showing that resisting corporate control via our consumption can be really empowering versus constrictive. And it doesn’t have to mean, like, never buying another plastic item again.
Erin: For full transparency, I do avoid plastic toys if I can, and this has also been fairly easy for me for a variety of reasons. I’m not bombarded with plastic toys from family or friends, I’ve been able to live in communities where saying no to birthday gifts is easy. That kind of thing. But I also don’t buy bazillion dollars worth of 8,000 different wooden toys that are perfectly curated or whatever. The answer can simply be doing and buying less.
This is sort of off-topic, but I think this anecdote highlights capitalist control over material culture. I remember writing about choosing gender neutral clothing for my first kid, who is now almost nine. And there was so much backlash from people who were like, oh my god, your child will not like recognize her primary colors, why would you deprive your child of color in their life, blah, blah blah.
And now, you can find blush-toned rainbows and gender neutral onesies in Target. Absolutely everything gets co-opted by capitalism. Even Instagram aesthetics are shaped and disseminated by capitalism.
Sara: Can we talk about Marie Kondo talking about investing less time in tidiness because of her kids?
Erin: Ok, this is interesting because she was widely praised for this statement because she couched her reasoning in “spending more quality time with her kids.” This is way more palatable than someone saying, like, I just don't want the Fisher Price toy because it's ugly as fuck and I don't want to hear it binging and beeping. But this reasoning is also valid! Because it’s not rooted in maternal self-sacrifice though, it’s not ok.
Sara: I feel like another reason people love to sort of snark about you know, bespoke beautiful kid stuff is because, often it does seem like momfluencers or whoever are simply swapping out the affordable stuff for the more expensive, less accessible wooden stuff. So then it becomes really easy for people to latch on to this as like this elitist, unattainable thing that's really just about showing off one’s “good” taste.
Erin: Totally. I mean, I get it. Are you familiar with Aja Barber?
Sara: Yes! She writes about fast fashion.
Erin: Right, but I think so many of her points carry over to this discussion. The people doing the most consuming of inexpensive fossil-fuel-made plastic junk for kids in unbelievable volumes are the very people who could most afford not to be doing that.
Sara: I’m gonna share a pretty sobering statistic real quick. According to a UCLA study, “the U.S. has 3.1% of the world’s children, but consumes 40% of the world’s toys.”
Erin: Right, if you have like, multiple trunks full of toys for your kids, and another person has like 10 (total toys) which are more expensive (per item) – we’re not comparing apples to apples. Is it more expensive to buy a hand-crafted set of wooden blocks? Yes. But you do not need multiple sets of blocks or multiple sets of anything. And I think we need to have more open, honest conversations about what we think is necessary for kids.
My friend Rose and I put out a holiday gift guide that comprised of toys you can make for your kids out of cardboard. And a lot of them were actually based on toys that are typically made from wood or like very precious materials that tend to be expensive. The kind of toys that sit on your shelf to communicate your aesthetic. You know?
And again, I understand not everyone wants to cut through corrugated cardboard with scissors, but if you do want to do that, you can make this toy out of material already in your home, and your kid will use it for the same 10 minutes they might’ve used the $60 handcrafted bespoke toy, and they’ll have the same playing experience.
There are all kinds of ways to treat kids to novelty without having to be a very, very wealthy person spending enormous amounts of resources on bespoke toys, or by over-consuming cheaper goods.
I would be the last person to say that children should be deprived of toys if the only kinds of toys their family can afford are plastic toys, and obviously the system is unequal and unfair. But I often think these conversations about cost, whether it’s cost of food, fast fashion, or toys, are led by people who have a disingenuous relationship to it, people for whom the issue is actually not about affordability.
Sara: I also think these conversations become so swiftly perverted into a sort of spitting match. Like, I'm a good mom because I'm relaxed and I let them have the Frozen figurine or whatever. No, I'm a good mom because I did all this research about BPA free whatever and bought them a wooden princess. Because this conversations exists within the realm of institutional motherhood, it’s easy to get distracted from real issues of overconsumption and the destruction of natural resources and the question of who is getting harmed by making these things. And even conversations about how our kids are growing up to view their identities as being intrinsically linked to what they buy. These are serious conversations.
Erin: A thousand million percent. It also really pisses me off when an aesthetic is co-opted. Like, someone buying a gender neutral onesie from Target is supposedly broadcasting something about her conscious consumption when really she’s simply making a color choice.
Sara: Right. Like, you could decide to get everything you need for your new baby from Buy Nothing groups or friends’ hand-me-downs or whatever, and also choose to look for neon purple onesies in those Buy Nothing groups. That would be conscious consumption but might not look like it to a random passerby seeing your kids in the neon purple onesie because we’ve been conditioned to view aesthetics through a moral lens.
Erin: Yes! There’s a shit-ton of stuff on this planet. It’s relatively easy to find something (neon purple or neutral) that appeals to your aesthetic sensibility secondhand. Again, it's not possible for everyone, and these are privileged choices. But I do think that we underestimate ourselves and we underestimate power of making choices.
I want to talk about countertops.
Sara: I mean, this is the place to do that.
Erin: I pretty much always have a clean countertop. That’s my personal thing. But that doesn’t mean I don’t understand that constantly seeing someone else's clean countertop can be maddening in all sorts of insidious ways. I bring this up to say that it can be hard to differentiate between personal preference (speaking of aesthetics) and cultural pressure.
Sara: I mean, for me, clean countertops are just a metaphor for a certain type of imagery that quickly communicates something about feminine, maternal, and domestic ideals, right? I want to be clear that I have no beef with people’s preferences regarding clean or cluttered or sticky countertops. [SAID WHILE LAUGHING]
Erin: I fully get how looking at some of my photos of kids with wooden toys would communicate impossible standards. And I get that some people might see my photos and say to themselves, My kid is happy and fine with their plastic toys. And of course they are! The kids are fine. The mothers are fine. We should be able to have a conversation about consumption that doesn’t intrinsically villainize mothers and women. It’s just really fucking hard.
Sara: Definitely. Can we hop in a time machine and talk about the origins of Montessori? (Speaking of wooden toys)
Erin: Ok, I’m definitely no expert, but in the late 19th century, Maria Montessori basically went into the slums of Rome and brought the children there particular toys very much based in practical life. And these toys were really objects most people already had in their homes. It was all about bringing resources to the masses. And of course, because we don’t value women or children in this country, Montessori toys and education are now seen as these elite things available only to the very privileged.
Sara: I’m also thinking about how social media has impacted the aspiration-level of Montessori toys. Like, growing up in the 80s and 90s, if I went to a friend’s house and she had a bunch of wooden toys, I find it really hard to believe that all the moms were abuzz about it. You know? Social media has made toy ownership (like everything else) an exercise in aspiration.
Erin: Totally. I mean, some of these choices were visible, but not nearly on the same scale. Like, when I took my lunch to school, no one was talking about the performative nature of my mom’s choice of wax paper baggies, right?
Sara: Social media has really poured gasoline onto this fire of performative morality via consumption.
Erin: And like, cleanliness is not next to godliness, right? We don’t need to fall prey to these harmful tropes. I can also say that for me, I’d lose my GD mind if my countertops were covered with toys, you know? And you could make the argument that that makes me a “bad” mom, right?
I’m thinking of Virginia's Sole-Smith’s work and how it’s made me reconsider my own preferences and ask myself, like, Is paring down toys and only allowing certain things in my home diet culture? Maybe?
But as humans we see and find value in things. Material culture is human culture. And we’re in a climate crisis! I mean, we just have to have these conversations. And what I would really love is to have a conversation with dads who are talking about their philosophies on children's toys because that will be the motherfucking day.
Sara: So fucking true. Can we dig back into individual activism vs. larger scale change? It’s not either/or, right?
Erin: Right. You deciding to no longer use plastic bags will not save the planet. But that is not the same as believing that your choice to not use plastic bags doesn’t matter. Individual consumer choices do impact systems. These choices inform our economies. The more people who say no to the systems of capitalism, the more change takes place on a systemic level.
Sara: Plus, individuals participate in and wield control over systems.
Erin: Exactly. It’s both/and.
Since wooden toys have become super trendy, I've noticed that a lot of wooden toys are garbage quality. I've bought wooden puzzles and other toys that when I open them up, it's obvious the won't make it through one or two kids before they end up in the trash. On the flip side of that, my kids have plastic toys that are from the 80s that are still going strong.
Overall though, I hate having to defend my toy choices. Or rather, I hate feeling like I need to defend (or even choosing not to defend feels like a choice).
“what I would really love is to have a conversation with dads who are talking about their philosophies on children's toys because that will be the motherfucking day.” BRAVA! As I recapped for my husband everyone’s schedule for today and who has school and work and has an early release and who’s using what car and going to which friend’s house and when and where and everything for next week ....... this stuff is taking up immense amounts of space in the brains of mothers, at much cost. Just reading this made me fairly anxious and so grateful my kids are 17, 16, and 11 and that no one will be judging me for my choice in toys. Social media has changed so much of motherhood and I’m eternally grateful my kids were little before the pressure was on in that space, or at least before I chose to participate in that space. Thank you for this work!