LAST SUNDAY it rained from morning to night, my wife was incapacitated by a slipped disc,and the boys were beginning to get cabin fever. I knew I should have bullied them into coats and wellies for a sprint round the park, but I just couldn't be bothered. Instead, we dropped in on some old friends we hadn't seen for a while and their two small daughters.

Normally such a visit would not work. Within 10 minutes of arriving our eight-year-old son Darcy would be champing at the bit and demanding to go, which is why we don't see as much of friends-with-daughters as we used to. But in a recent development, alongside football, collecting football stickers, fishing and warring with his Digimon computerised game, Darcy is now hooked on Beanie Babies, the first hobby he and his mates must have picked up from the girls in their class.

Beanie Babies are a range of infuriatingly cute soft toys in the shape of animals, small and cheap enough to be collectable and addictive. At our friends' house, Darcy duly disappeared to discuss the relative merits of Tracker the basset-hound, Nut the squirrel and Crunch the shark with Lily and her friend.

The four parents, meanwhile, cringed at the cutesy voices our children adopt when dealing with their Beanies, and tut-tutted at the way our offsprings' worst acquisitive traits had been exploited yet again by a marketing campaign designed to part them from their pocket money. Darcy must now weigh the merits of one new Beanie Baby against 12 packets of stickers - a task that would surely stretch Gordon Brown.

But given Darcy's taste for rough sports (which I approve) and violent computer games (which I don't), my own feeling was that Beanie Babies were a good thing, even at the risk of turning him into a Graham Le Saux- type footballer - one who collects antiques, visits art galleries and, heaven forbid, reads The Guardian. For the first time, Darcy has a peaceful hobby he can share with girls.

Or so I thought. A circular was sent from school alerting us to a spate of bullying in the playground. I opened my interrogation, but Darcy pleaded ignorance. There must, I insisted, have been some incident to have sparked this letter. "Well," he said, "we were playing football the other day, and suddenly the girls attacked us with their Beanie Babies. Someone threw Nut in my face."

So much for the gentle influence of soft toys. What these girls clearly need is a sprint around the park to work off that latent aggression.