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Where Have All the Real Toys Gone?

Screen toys are not real toys. In fact, they are not toys at all.

The decision to remove video games and smartphones years ago for anyone under the age of 18 in our home, transformed our lives in so many ways. Our kids love books and school, play music, love sports and nature, and actually like spending time with real people—including us. We have been surprised and thrilled with those benefits. But the most unexpected gift arrives every Christmas: a peaceful, happier holiday. 

When we removed the toxic screens—video games and smartphones—family bonding made a comeback and so did the Christmas list. We had forgotten how fun it was for everyone to have real gifts to open Christmas morning. Excitement returned and gone are the years when we spend Christmas Day watching our kids enter the screen comas caused by playing video games and drooling over social media.  

Remember real toys? 

When all a child gets for Christmas is a new screen—or something related to it—that child has been robbed of an important rite of childhood: to dream about the surprise of real toys on Christmas morning. This truth was made clear to me back when my sons’ ten-year-old friend, Ryan, came to our house to play the day after one Christmas. 

When Ryan walked in, Christmas gifts were still scattered all around, just the walk through the den was messy and exciting. It was a big year for our boys that year. Santa left a Star Wars Lego set, a guitar, an archery set, a kick ball, a Nerf gun, and a football jersey from our favorite team. The closest thing to a screen was the Etch-a-Sketch. I could hear the boys all talking at once, excited about their show and tell. 

Ryan—an avid video gamer—suddenly stood up and made a loud announcement, “WOW! You guys got real toys for Christmas. All I got were dumb video games.” He dove back in again to play his heart out. It was like Christmas Day all over again. He had never seen Silly Putty and started asking questions about the tickets in the stockings (we like to give tickets to a big ball game for the whole family). He had no idea what to do with the Etch-a-Sketch, but fell in love with the red rubber kickball—every age boy needs a ball for Christmas—he wouldn’t put it down. After sufficient time to play with and discuss each toy, they grabbed the archery set—and the ball—and headed out to the backyard. No video games to trip ‘em up and hold them hostage inside the house.

The current screen-driven generation will miss the joy of real toys. They will never experience the ritual of looking through the Toy-R-Us catalog at all the cool new scooters, dolls, or model airplanes. These store catalogs don’t exist anymore. These youngsters just want more time on their screens. 

Imagine Christmas where you don’t want anything anymore.

If you ask most kids today what they want for Christmas that doesn’t involve a screen they don’t even know. Outside of a credit card loaded with virtual currency—Fortnite’s V-bucks or Roblox’s robux—for new virtual skins, a new handheld console, or the latest version of the iPhone because they don’t want to feel left out, the list is as blank as the look on their face. The years of wishing for a toy that you could enjoy in the backyard with your friends for hours have faded away along with our children’s imaginations. 

The critical developmental task of experiencing the joy of being a kid has been lost when they quit wanting non-tech toys. As we continue to rush our kids through these important stages, and prematurely push them into a stressful adult digital world, we will continue to see the signs of long-term loss: anxiety and depression. Our children will feel the void, they will be unhappy and lonely when adult screens are the only thing they desire and the only gifts they receive.

Your child’s Christmas list can be a test of their mental health. When the only gifts on your child’s list are screen related, your child is not balanced. There are long-term consequences when your child no longer wants or wishes for activities that stimulate their imagination and creativity in real life. Without hobbies that open the door for meaningful gifts—a new baseball glove, a mountain bike, ballet leotard, or a fishing rod—that is a sign of trouble that every parent should act on. 

How did our parents know what to get us?

Anticipating getting gifts that we didn’t even know we wanted is something none of us can forget. It had nothing to do with the monetary value of the gift, but was more about realizing that our parents knew us well enough to get us something we loved. This gift tradition is a love language. Christmas revealed the love and attention of our parents when they gave us gifts that fed our creativity and sparked new interests and hobbies. Our parents knew what to get us because they knew us. 

Giving gifts also helps develop the roots of empathy in our children. As they grow up feeling and seeing our example, they will reciprocate the act of giving with others in the future. Gifts come in all shapes, it is not just about spending money—it is about spending time too. Holiday memories are like the glue that helps hold a family together. The memories that are created over family traditions and rituals—two critical ingredients for healthy childhood—become critical coping tools later in life as we leave home. 

Where have the bikes and Barbies gone? 

Toys-R-Us has gone bankrupt along with childhood and the practice of enjoying real childhood toys. A virtual bow and arrow in Fortnite has replaced the real thing in our backyards. Dolls are for babies according to most ten-year-old girls, and who cares about getting a new bike or building an erector-set tower. What is cool instead of a model airplane is the latest model smartphone for more posting, and TikTok dancing as kids zoom right past childhood and enter the adult world prematurely. 

Our culture has deliberately exchanged one of the most magical stages of life for access to digital trash that we now call a “gift.” This new gift comes with toxic ideas, danger, pain, and a huge price tag: childhood innocence. 

The perfect gift that will change your child’s life.

Instead of another quiet screen-centric Christmas Day, try something different this year. Return the screen gifts and think vintage.

Think back to the fun toys that shaped your childhood and pick a few to introduce to your kids. Expect the eye rolls and groans about how lame these toys are from the good ’ol days. Then secretly enjoy the moment when they begin to play with them and discover the magic that no screen can hold. Your kids are desperate for you to slow down the pace, play a round of Twister, and try to beat them at Monopoly. Those are the memories they crave.

If you think that a Christmas free of video games and smartphones is impossible for your family, you are not alone. Many families who have made the lifestyle decision to remove toxic screens thought that too. But they went against the cultural norm and took a different path and quickly realized that it was the best lifestyle decision they ever made. 

If your kids need a screen detox, the holidays are the perfect time for that. Gather a few like-minded friends together and boldly decide to make real play, real hobbies, and real toys a priority again during this short season. The gift of a rich childhood free from the weight of the adult screen distractions can become the best gift you ever give your child. It will open opportunities and change their lives forever. 

My hope for you this season is that you and all the children in your life can experience the real joy of a family-focused, low-tech Christmas. When Santa is out toy shopping this season for that new bike, Silly Putty, street hockey sticks, and red rubber kickball tell him to take a moment to grab one of your childhood favorites too. Who knows, a real toy may just be exactly what your child really wanted after all.

For more gift ideas, check out ScreenStrong’s “Non-Tech Gift Guide.