Fighting for their affection : CHILDREN

A separated parent may employ a toy as a Trojan horse, to make a surprise attack on the child's home, says Sophie Radice
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The Independent Culture
AS EVERY divorced or separated parent knows, it is almost impossible to control the quantity or type of gifts the ex-partner lavishes upon the children. The less the absent parent sees of the child, the more wildly extravagant the toys will be. "Y ou can't blame me for wanting to give them things," they cry. "After all, I hardly ever see them."

What you are left with is a child disgusted by your penny-pinching and your refusal to buy them everything they demand. It is worse still when they come back with Trojan horse toys. These find their way into your home, make surprise attacks on your routine and lay siege to the stability of your mini-society as thoroughly and ruthlessly as a vengeful Greek army.

It seems as if the classic toy trumpet and drum bought by the disgruntled ex-husband to bring maximum disharmony at Christmas has been replaced by far more sophisticated devices. Sirens, voice-commands, explosions and realistic gun noises are hidden inside each toy. And for girls not into war toys, there is the walkin', talkin', cryin' doll which will do the job almost as well. The older child can be loaded with computer games and Gameboys whose repetitive tunes and simulated cries of agony can pierce the fragile tranquillity of your home.

My own ex-husband brings my son back to the house loaded with enough weaponry to destroy normal adult conversation at one blast. Last time, my three-year-old staggered through the door with a stealth bomber aeroplane (with take-off and bomb audios) whichmatched his height and weight. Another friend has recently had to bear a voice-control fire engine with horn, engine and emergency siren sound which are activated by the child's voice. The strange thing is that each of us remembers our ex as being a gentle, rather quiet man who once professed a loathing of war and loud garish toys. We have both asked as kindly as possible if the toys could be slightly less intrusive, but to no avail. My friend then decided that she could have some mischievous pleasure at the expense of her immaculately dressed architect ex-husband by buying the children finger-paints and chocolate-mud cake-mix.

The Children's Research Unit, which carries out extensive studies into the toy-buying habits of the general public, does not recognise the estranged parent as a category. The research unit felt that they probably flit between the impulse purchaser, the auntie purchaser (this rather insulting term means someone who does not know the child very well but tends to buy big, impressive toys) and the nostalgic purchaser. I would have thought that the separated or divorced father would be worth some extensive t oy- marketing study because, unlike all but the impulse buyer, he does not restrict his toy buying to Christmas or birthdays and goes shopping with his children almost as often as he sees them.

A spokesman from Hamley's, the London toy emporium, which keeps a keen eye on the buying patterns of its customers, said that although the assistants swop stories about divorced fathers spoiling their children with over-the-top gifts, it is impossible tobe sure they are right about the men's marital status without actually asking them. "After all they don't have it on their credit cards, do they?"

Peter Davey is an engineer who split up from his wife two years ago. His two young children live in Southamp-ton and he does not see them as much as he would like. He admits that his toy-buying habits have completely changed since he moved away from his family and that he is prone to buying large and noisy toys. "There is certainly a large element of guilt involved and I suppose if I really analyse it I do want to make my mark on the household. I want the children to think of me when they play with the biggest and best toys. It is rather pathetic really, but the toys I buy are a way of making sure they remember me."

Sebastian Kraemer, a consultant child psychiatrist at the Tavistock Centre, thinks such toy-buying habits may be a sign that "the man feels redundant and confused, even if he was the one who caused the marital break-up. It may be a rather infantile reaction not only to the powerlessness he feels when it comes to his children but to the loss of the caring maternal role of his wife." The displaced father in this situation may be trying to display his earning power to the mother, says Dr Kraemer, while at the same time trying to win the approval of the children. There's the added bonus of annoying the mother, who seems to be coping very well without him.

Dr Kraemer also points out that the father may have a greater idea of what the child wants, particularly if he is a boy.

James, a musician, whose touring work means that he only sees his son every month or so, admits that he buys his seven-year-old toys that he knows the child's mother would not like. "In a way I think I feel that it can't be good for a boy to be brought up on his own with a woman. She was always far more liberal than me and would never buy him guns. Now, I know from my own childhood that boys love guns, tanks and soldiers and no amount of political correctness is going to change that. I think I really dohave a greater understanding of what he likes than she does."

While some mothers may believe that violent toys are at the root of masculine violence, most of us are more ambivalent. War toys certainly don't help a child to become more gentle, but what reassures me is that brothers and cousins who had arsenals of plastic weaponry as children have not turned out violent gun enthusiasts, just as I have not retained my brief childhood passions for ballet, Chinese dolls and ponies.

The situation of confused emotions in which the woman is seen as a woolly liberal Luddite who is against all that is progressive, modern and masculine is complicated when the mother has a new partner who may be living in her home. The toys may then become bigger, brasher and noisier as the biological father attempts to assert himself, his earning power and his understanding of his children. He may take a rather sour enjoyment in imagining the new lovers being woken in the wee hours by the sound of a helicopter taking off in the toddler's room next door and the plastic pilot asking for "Permission to land. Permission to land. Permission to land..."

One mother with a new partner got so desperate about her child's expectation of toy-buying that she decided to try a devious tactic. "Every time he came to pay a visit there would be a couple of weeks' worth of tantrums because my child presumed that I would buy him everything he wanted. Each morning he would ask for a new, expensive toy and have a screaming fit, because if Daddy was there he would have got it. It just seemed so unnecessary and so next time I told my ex-husband how much my new partner was enjoying playing with all the amazing toys and that he couldn't stop playing with the realistic-sound rifle. Next time his gifts became much more restrained and he even began to ask what I thought my child needed in the way of clothes."

Most of us, however, just have to be patient and remember that batteries run down and children soon grow bored with a great useless hulk of plastic. When the big, shiny toy becomes motionless and soundless, it is possible your child will cast it away it favour of smaller, mute, well-worn toys which demand home-made sound effects and manual action. !