Joe Pisani (opinion): Before you buy that gift card — here's why kids need toys

Gifts collected in a Toys for Tots program.

Gifts collected in a Toys for Tots program.

Lori Van Buren/Times Union

Before Black Friday became an international celebration of consumption, I had my own annual ritual I observed the Friday after Thanksgiving.

That was the day Bradlees had its annual toy sale. Everything from Tiny Tears to GI Joe, Care Bears, Barbie, Legos and My Little Pony was marked down 30 percent, and with a family of four kids, I couldn’t afford to pass up an opportunity like that.

In the spirit of Woodstock ’69, I’d camp out in the parking lot so I could be the first father through the doors when they opened. Then, I’d grab a carriage and dash to the toy department with the crazed fervor of those shoppers on TV game shows who have only a few minutes to snatch anything and everything off the shelves … which I did.

This was followed by another ritual on Christmas Eve, when my wife and I would sit around a massive pile of toys, wrap them, and divvy them up for each daughter to ensure everyone got the same amount … in number and in dollar value.

This was no easy feat because my oldest daughter, in particular, was notorious for shrieking, “SHE GOT MORE THAN I DID!” However, I was always ready for her complaint, and with an impassioned disputation worthy of F. Lee Bailey, I’d respond, “No way,” and promptly show her the itemized receipts.

Those days are gone. My kids eventually reached the age when all they wanted was “gift cards,” which are an unimaginably sterile present at Christmas. I’d rather get a knitted scarf from Auntie Arlene or a gallon of homemade wine from Grandpa Iosso because those gifts had soul.

Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat, so let me share an eternal truth with you, a truth so eternal it ranks right up there with a motto of the ancient Romans, “Emo ergo sum.” (I buy, therefore I am.) It’s a truth every parent, grandparent and guardian should take to heart: Kids need toys.

I dare say toys are better for kids than contributions to their college fund. Toys help them with motor skills, not to mention cognitive, emotional and social development. Plus, they’re fun, and if there’s anything this sorry world needs it’s fun.       

Whenever I visit my 6-year-old grandson, he always wants to talk about his next toy, and he’ll pull out a catalog that Amazon sent him so he can show me everything he wants — circled in magic marker. For a young man, he has a lot of wants.

His parents insist that he doesn’t need any more toys. We both ignore them, and he’ll quietly sidle up to me when they’re not looking and tell me about toys with names like Bakugan Geogan Brawler. (Huh?)  Then, he’ll explain why he “needs” them. (I hope no child psychologists are reading this. Please don’t email me.)

“He doesn’t need any more toys,” his parents grumble in unison. “Give him money for college.”

That was my mother’s approach. She always gave her grandkids savings bonds instead of toys. But I can tell you unequivocally that if you’re a kid, there’s only one thing worse than finding a savings bond under the Christmas tree. It’s finding underwear — unless you’re a woman and it’s wrapped in a Victoria’s Secret box.

I have wonderful memories of my first toys — more wonderful than my memories of the first girl I kissed, and if I had stuck with toys instead of girls, I might have been a happier teenager.

First, there was my French Foreign Legion toy soldiers based on the popular TV show, “Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion.” The play-set included a fort, tents, legionnaires and palm trees. And I’ll never forget my first Rawlings Willie Mays model baseball glove.

I wish I still had my Mattel Fanner 50 cap pistol with its impala grip and leather holster. They dont make toys like that anymore.

My wife shares some of that sentimentality, and over the years she’s saved many of our daughters’ toys. We have several bins full of Barbies, along with the accessories, Beanie Babies, Smurfs, and Cabbage Patch Kids. If they ever come back in fashion, I’ll make a million and be able to pay for my grandkids’ college education. (Actually, I’ll need $3 million.) But for now, this granddad is buying toys. Let Joe Biden pay for their college education.

I admit there’s one problem, and it’s a metaphysical problem. Toys — any kind of toys — are not the key to happiness, and that’s something kids have to learn. The pursuit of possessions or prestige or popularity or pleasure or power is a dead end. As you probably suspect, that thought is too profound for me, so before you accuse me of plagiarism, let me confess it came from Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle before him.

What kids have to discover — as I wish I could — is that giving toys leads to greater happiness than getting toys. By the end of Christmas day, the grandkids will be bored, but I’ll have memories that will last forever, not to mention a maxed out credit card.

Former Stamford Advocate and Greenwich Time Editor Joe Pisani can be reached at