Before she was old enough to deftly feed herself, let alone understand the concept of preparing food, friends of my husband sent our daughter a toy kitchen set for Christmas. The set arrived in a self-contained cabinet, which unfolded into a four-burner cooktop adjacent to a faux-porcelain farm-style sink. It was equipped with utensils, pots and pans, place settings for six, and a haul of plastic food that could feed a plastic army. I remember marveling at the tiny garlic press and micro-whisk that fit in the partitioned drawer under the sink and couldn’t wait to see the gourmet meals my daughter would invent. I had visions of her as the next Anthony Bourdain or Padma Lakshmi, tracing her culinary impetus back to this marvelous gift in an interview on the Cooking Channel.
What actually happened looked more like a season of “Bridezillas” than “No Reservations,” but this kitchen – with its extravagant inventory in perfectly-scaled miniature – was so incredible that it took dozens of extended-play tantrums before we could break free of its spell.
A “kitchen disaster,” as we would come to call them, began with my daughter dumping every last toy avocado, eggplant, and rutabaga; every colander, wok, and sauté pan; every fake plantain, plasticized heirloom head of romaine, and halved lemon (seeds intact) into the middle of the living room. Then she would sort flatware for three minutes and fling dishware like Frisbees into piles, with waning accuracy. Atop the piles, she would bulldoze any remaining amenities, becoming more agitated all the while. The encounter finally ended when I snapped out of my kitchen-envy trance and saw my house wrecked and my sweet child, sweaty and frantic.
Looking back, my husband and I should have known better and put the kitchen set away for a few years, at least until our daughter actually knew what root vegetables were, but we didn’t want to seem ungrateful. The couple who sent the gift didn’t have kids of their own and likely weren’t in the habit of assessing age-appropriateness. Plus, they clearly spent a lot of money on it. The last thing we wanted to do was offend them. We told ourselves the kitchen would provide sensory motor stimulation and would occupy our daughter so I could get things done around the house. Right.
The truth was our parental judgement was clouded by what toy companies know so well about their target demographic: parents equate quantity with value and are impressed by realistic replicas. We like toys that mimic items in our adult world, regardless of developmental application. Did my toddler care about higher echelon cooking? Was she particularly drawn to oddball food items we couldn’t buy at the local market? Could she even distinguish between the two types of ladles, gravy versus soup? No. What’s more, the sheer excess of the kitchen set’s components overwhelmed her to the point of breakdown. Her immature nervous system was incapable of processing the overstimulation bombarding her senses. Her behavior was telling us what she couldn’t articulate: kitchen was not fun.
Like many modern parents, I pride myself on understanding the importance of play in childhood development and how it lays the foundation for learning. I believe the best toys spark imagination rather than simply entertain, and kids should have the opportunity to create their own fun without any toys at all. I also consider myself a savvy consumer and know that more stuff isn’t necessarily better, and price doesn’t guarantee quality. So why did all that fly out the window the minute the kitchen set arrived?
The souring ingredient in this recipe for disaster was that the toy kitchen was a gift and we felt socially obligated to love it, or at least tolerate it. Had my husband and I picked the thing out and paid for it, it wouldn’t have lasted a week. The idea that our friends bestowed upon our home the catalyst for entropy was hard to accept, but we thanked them and wrote a note, enclosing snapshots of our girl “cooking.”
I tried every variation I could think of to make it work: time limits, less fruit, no utensils, pared down pantry – but to no avail. The kitchen needed to go. We waited the requisite amount of time in case our friends visited, and then, when the coast was clear, we sealed it up in the box it came in and donated it to my MOPS group’s playroom for the kids to use, supervised, while the moms drank coffee in the next room.
I’d like to say the kitchen set brought joy to boys and girls in its new setting, a setting more structured and less punishing than our living room floor, but after seeing the clammy hair and flushed faces of the children (and their caregivers) leaving the playroom after our meetings, I cannot. Some toys are destined to wreak havoc wherever they go.