Toys for Guilty Parents: The Hot Toy for Christmas Is a Fish Tank That Gives Your Kids Self-Esteem-Or So the Marketing Says. Are We Being Duped? Asks Dea Birkett

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It builds a habit of caring, encourages the expression of individuality, promotes social skills and is "a huge step forward in any child's development". What loving parent could possibly deny little Jack or Chloe one of these this Christmas?

So what is this all-round wonder toy? A cuboid of see-through plastic, about the size of two shoeboxes, otherwise known as a fish tank. The new Vivo is no ordinary bowl but a "revolutionary goldfish tank", with a little digital clock that lights up every time Guppy and Goldy need a sprinkle of food. It's also part of a growing trend of toys being marketed as providing far more than fun. This Christmas, manufacturers are keen to impress upon us that toys are no longer a mere end in themselves, a pleasure in which our kids can haphazardly indulge, but a clear-cut path to a greater and worthier pedagogic goal. Encouraging your toddler to muck about joyfully is frowned upon as sloppy, self-indulgent mothering. Only a wayward parent would give their child a gift that didn't aid their development.

"There's a simple problem facing a parent--what do my kids do with their spare time? There's this idea of having to keep children entertained," says Tim Gill, play consultant and former director of the Children's Play Council. "We're too frightened to let them out, so we'll buy them some stuff. It's assuaging guilt. Toy manufacturers feed into that anxiety. They try and persuade parents that you need to help your child develop and [they] can do this for you."

So along comes the Vivo, a toy to fill in all those guilty gaps where your parenting falters and fails. Interpet, the producer of this digital aquarium, has employed a clinical psychologist specialising in young people to exhort its plastic box's parenting skills. Claire Halsey's praise for the Vivo is like a thesaurus entry for positive parenting. She lists confidence, friendship forming and the security of a regular routine as just some of the advantages in owning a Vivo. "A key factor in a child's development is self-esteem; with self-esteem, they achieve better and make more friends. So we want them to have opportunities to do well," says Halsey. "This is a small and simple skill [feeding fish when the digital clock flashes] that they can get right--that's a crucial aspect of it. With Vivo, they can say: 'I've got this thing that I can do.' So the more opportunities that you bring into a child's life to do this, the better. And the more self-esteem they have."

Interpet is not the only toy manufacturer or distributor to realise that parental guilt can be turned into gold. British parents spend more on Christmas presents for their children than any other families in Europe, making the UK toy market worth [pounds sterling]3bn-plus a year. More than 60 per cent of these sales take place in the Christmas season. By the time the average British child reaches 16, he or she will have owned [pounds sterling]11,000 worth of playthings. Britain's toy-boxes are overflowing; each year, 44 million working toys are simply thrown away.


These discarded lumps of plastic are invested with the powers of parenting. Halsey calls the Vivo an "aid to parenting", which is "a tough job", and says how such toys can help us all out. "It's about building up independence and responsibility skills. Our role as parents is to teach them this, and that's a tough job." The Vivo, with its little clock flashing every time the fish need feeding, is particularly good at the parenting role.

Today's toys are supposed to be not only excellent parents, but fine educators as well. Hazel Reynolds, chief toy buyer at John Lewis, describes how her team was "very excited" when they were first shown Paper FX last year--a kit with which you can recycle paper into purses, mats or more paper--now a John Lewis Christmas bestseller and on the influential Toy Retailers Association's list of 12 "dream toys" for 2006. …