Etch A Sketch more like Smith-Corona and VHS

One of the most challenging toys of my childhood took center stage yesterday with a gaff by one of Mitt Romney’s advisors.

I used to marvel at my older brother’s ability to really draw things with Etch A Sketch. He  could make those curves work for him. I was pretty good at….boxes.

The New York Times today tried to spin the Etch A Sketch moment in to one of second chances.

Even as someone who played with the Etch A Sketch in the backseat of our car (long before there were Gameboys and DVD players), I can’t see this characterization as anything but a stretch.

The Etch A Sketch is not a toy that has kept up with the times. Over the last two decades of covering toys, I’ve visited the showroom in hopes that there would be some radical new innovation that would give this beloved toy a true second chance.  There have been mini versions, glow-in-the-dark frames (sadly, the actual drawing part never glowed) and glitter versions….but no big breakthrough. My kids were willing to play with the keychain version I carried for years…but with all of the high tech hand held toys to play with, the little red frame just didn’t do it.


In Defense of LEGO

Hilary Stout’s article in The New York Times,  With New Toys, More Assembly Required , correctly points out what we’ve been observing and writing about for years.  You need to be ready to roll up your sleeves, arm yourself with a screwdriver, sometimes a power drill — all to put a toy together.  If you’re not particularly handy, we  recommend that you enlist the assistance of the  store or a relative that doesn’t break out in a cold sweat when confronted with complicated assembly instructions.  And whatever you do, don’t start at midnight on Christmas Eve–it’s almost a surefire recipe for tears and spousal strife.

That said…the article then goes on to talk about LEGO sets with too many pieces.  Here, we have to disagree.  The beauty of LEGO sets is that there are sets for all builders…beginners to the most advanced.  Most hard core LEGO fans will tell you that the company has made it too easy for builders with the new bagging technique.  Rather than open the box and find several hundred pieces — the company now pre-sorts the builds.  For LEGO builders of the past– this new approach has been labeled strictly for whimps!  You can hear many a parent say “in my day, we had to go through each and every piece” after we walked five long miles from school.

One of the big messages we try to get out each year is to start at the beginning.  If you are doing all of the building and your child is just watching you–you’ve brought home the wrong set.  The idea of these sets and why they appeal to kids — is that they build a child’s sense of what they can accomplish.  Learning how to read and follow step-by-step instructions is huge.  Having the patience to stick with a project – that not everything is instantaneous – is an important life lesson.

It is no surprise to us that LEGO has continued to do well in these tough times and has maintained a strong presence in an otherwise  shrinking and battered  toy industry.  They have maintained their core mission by giving kids fun kits to build, they’ve improved their directions and they have stayed current by bring in themes and licenses that are attractive to their target audience. The most sought after LEGO kits from our testers are in fact the smaller sets where kids can build a car or Star Wars vehicle and then play with it.  It is that sense of accomplishment that makes them ask for more. The focus is on building self-esteem and confidence and having fun–not how many pieces you can handle.

We also know that building develops the following skills: visual discrimination,  fine-motor, spatial relations, math, reading, ability to follow directions in sequence and problem solving skills.   We want both our sons and daughters to be competitive in math and engineering – it begins with these hands-on experiences. So start small.  It’s like my grandmother always used to say, don’t worry about the size, buy what fits.

For  reviews of our top-rated construction toys–visit

Diary of a Wimpy Kid Dog Days

417Zb5YN60L._SL160_Diary of a Wimpy Kid Dog Days by Jeff Kinney is ranked # 7 on Amazon this week and the series  now enjoys print runs in the millions. In Dog Days, many kids will relate to Greg’s preference to spend his summer indoors, playing video games…”with the curtains closed and the lights turned off.”  We’ve all been there as parents of school age kids–it’s hard to compete with the mind-sucking video games and 24 hour access to cartoons,  movies and reruns of 80 sitcoms.  (My own current addiction to Bubble Spinner makes me much more empathetic to the whole video game time loss phenomenon.)  I laughed out loud at Greg’s Mom — who is full of “great” suggestions for the summer.  She even starts a reading club…of course that doesn’t go very well.  Her book selections for a bunch of boys are also so clueless (Anne of Green Gables, Little Women), it’s hard not to see Greg’s point of view.

I also get the appeal of the illustrations that have a very current look to them and make the book more accessible to kids that would otherwise shy away from a 200 plus page book.  All good–I get it.

Most of the debate about these books has to do with the less than stellar moral and ethical compass of the main character Greg.  Yes he’s decidedly lazy, anti-reading, anti-doing anything really beyond watching tv and playing video games. Yet, I’m confident that kids can appreciate the exaggerated nature of his character- rather than believing that he is someone to emulate.  In fact, Greg readily gives them someone that they can be better than (it’s not too difficult).   In a recent interview by Tara Parker-Pope in The New York Times,   Jeff Kinney shares that “[i]f there is a lesson in the book, it’s to do the opposite of what Greg does.”  I agree with Mr. Kinney–kids are pretty smart.  They get it,  much the same way we watch Larry David in  Curb Your Enthusiasm…it’s a train wreck at times, utterly painful –  but entertaining (most of the time).

Here’s my problem and perhaps it’s because I am now watching my son Matthew, a high school junior, get ready for the grammar portion of the SATs.

Here are some quotes from the book:

“But I spent the first part of the summer at my friend Rowley’s pool, and that didn’t work out so good.”

“Me and Rowley were better off without a girl hanging around, anyway.”

“I told Mom me and Rowley are just kids and it’s not like we have salaries or careers or whatever.”

I don’t mind that Greg is lazy, has no ethics and no ambition in life–but could we clean up his grammar?    I don’t think it would take away from his persona – and at least on the grammar front, he could do the right thing.


My mother–always the teacher at heart– suggested that kids should “edit” the book and correct Greg’s grammar.  Not a bad idea–certainly sounds more enjoyable than the worksheets we all used to get to learn these rules.