NPR had a story about how the toy industry plays on parental anxiety by convincing new parents that without expensive and shiny toys and gadgets to stimulate a child's brain, the little squirt will aspire no higher in life than to enter the janitorial service industry (not that janitorial service isn't a highly respected profession in its own right).
The story included an interview with Susan Gregory Thomas, author of Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds. She points out how products are being marketed to stimulate certain sides of the brain and to help them develop certain cognitive skills, and to further explain that there's absolutely no science to back up the claims. She also points out that toy companies are interested in "cradle-to-grave" brand loyalty, which is why you see Dora The Explorer on everything from videos, to underpants, to notebooks, to sneakers, to computer games. I'm sure the marketers behind Dora are working on cell phones, checkbook cases, purple automobiles, and Depend Undergarments in an effort to complete the cradle-to-grave cycle as those Dora fans mature to old age.
We have a basement full of shiny, bleepy crap, most of which was given as gifts, that were supposed to somehow stimulate our childrens' development. And believe me, it's all crap. 90% of the battery-operated toys we own have long since had their batteries die, never to be replaced again. The tried-and-true winner toys are those that have nothing to do with this marketing insanity. They are:
Crayons and paper. Lots and lots of paper
Various little animals in a pretend farm/zoo set
Dress up clothes
Notice a trend here? No batteries. No branding. Total creativity allowed. And most of these items have been around for a hundred years.
There's one exception that I can think of to the flashy bleepy thing, which is the Leapster. My kids love this toy. And it's secretly educational.
My wife and I don't need to read a book to know the other crap will rot our kids' brains.
Now if I could just do something about those Disney Princesses.