Toy collector Tom Burns breaks down by opening his collectors items and playing with his daughter
When I was a kid, parents did not own “toys.” Maybe they’d have a Sandy Koufax baseball they kept in a glass case or a restored Corvette, but that was about it. They had mementos, knick-knacks, and recreational sports equipment, but definitely not toys, at least, not in the traditional sense. But, just like many other aspects of parenting over the years, this has changed. We are now living in the age of the toy collector parent – the parent who proudly walks out of the toy store with a Lego Millennium Falcon under their arm, daring the world to ask them, “Is that for your kid or for you?”
You all know who I’m talking about. We all have that friend or co-worker with the desk covered with meticulously-posed action figures, a mixture of “classic” figures from their youth and new figures designed specifically with the collector in mind. Everybody has that one cousin with the life-sized Han Solo frozen in carbonite hanging in their rec room or the board-gaming enthusiast with a den covered in Warhammer miniatures. It has never been more socially acceptable for adults to own toys, which is great, because, c’mon, who doesn’t love toys?
And I’m speaking from experience because – I am one of those parents. I am a thoroughly modern, action figure-obsessed daddy. If Don Draper could see how many Batman figures I currently own, he would mutter something nasty about my masculinity, pour himself a scotch, and stare off into the middle distance. I’m a dad who loves toys – a dad who assured himself, that, when his first child was born, she would have HER toys and I would have MY toys. And never the twain shall meet.
However, unlike many of my “collector” dad friends, as soon as my kid was old enough, I found myself overcome by a strange desire. More than ANYTHING, I wanted to rip open that limited-edition packaging, I wanted to pry loose that mint-on-card bubble pack, and let my kid PLAY with those action figures. Even with her dirty, sticky fingers and uncanny ability to crush things in her tiny, mighty fists, I wanted to hand her all the toys I coveted in my youth and watch her gleefully play them into oblivion.
And that’s exactly what I did.
And it was one of the best things I ever did as a parent.
When she was two, my daughter ADORED Fisher Price Little People. She loved making the characters interact, have conversations, go on little adventures. It was the very best kind of imaginative play and, as I sat there watching her one day, I thought to myself, “Man, I wish she had a whole pile of those figures that she could work into her stories.” And then it hit me.
I walked into our basement and opened up two big storage boxes filled with Simpsons action figures. I’d gone through a pretty rampant collector phase when the figures were first released – “How can I NOT own my own Ralph Wiggum figure?” – and had amassed a pretty decent collection, all still in their original packaging. Without a moment’s hesitation, I RIPPED open every figure. Tore the packaging to SHREDS. I took all of my formerly-mint-condition figures, put them in a box, and carried them upstairs to my daughter.
I put down the box in front of her and said, “These were my figures when I was a little boy. (LIE. I bought them when I was in my twenties.) Would you like to play with them?”
She SQUEALED with delight. She pulled out every figure, looked at them lovingly, and began incorporating them into the Fisher Price melodrama she’d been orchestrating on our dining room floor. It was better than Christmas morning. Honestly. Because I got to watch my kid absolutely treasure something I had treasured – this odd collection of action figures that I’d moved from house to house for years, leaving them in their pristine packaging as if they were rare religious icons.
After a while, she picked up a Homer figure and asked, “Who’s him?” And that’s when it got really fun. I said, “Well, his name is Homer and…” and I started trying to explain to her the complex social dynamics of Matt Groening’s Springfield USA. I let her know who Homer’s wife was, who his children were, who his friends were – and, as I got deeper into the weeds, my daughter’s excitement grew. She LOVED learning about all of The Simpsons minutiae that I’d been storing in my brain for decades.
That’s when I learned one of the other grand benefits of parents sharing their toys with their kids – kids really respond when they can tell that their parents are passionate about something. My daughter had seen The Simpsons DVDs on my shelf, she’d seen my Homer bottle opener, she knew that I held The Simpsons in high esteem. So, when I gave her my figures, she really, really wanted to know who everyone was and why Daddy was so excited about this little round guy named Diamond Joe Quimby. Granted, she eventually imposed her own character dynamics onto her residents of Springfield (in her reality, Principal Skinner is Nelson’s dad and Otto is a girl), but she must’ve asked me to repeat to her my “People’s History of Springfield” over twenty times. It was legitimately one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had in my life.
After that incident, the flood gates opened and I started opening up every toy I had. It was fantastic. Whenever my daughter hit a milestone or deserved a reward, I would go into our storage closet in the basement and reward her with a treasure from my youth. When she got into superheroes, I slowly started rewarding her with the Batman: The Animated Series figures I’d so obsessively collected in college – even the Penguin figure with the cloth coat that goes for $50 on eBay. When she bemoaned her lack of “girl figures” around Easter, the Easter Bunny left her a basket filled with an assortment of strong female heroines and villains – Harley Quinn, Kitty Pryde, Supergirl, Talia, Wonder Woman – all “purchased” from our basement storage closet.
Plus my daughter was quickly amassing a small army of toys that none of her other friends had, which made them extra cool in her eyes. While all of her pals had Rapunzel dolls or Lightning McQueen cars, my kid was the only kid in kindergarten with her own Iron Giant, Rusty the Boy Robot, and an original Real Ghostbusters firehouse complete with Ecto-1. And, most importantly, with every toy I passed onto her, she wanted to know the story behind the toy. Who was this robot? What exactly was a Mars Attacks ray gun? And, as she held those toys I once treasured and as I explained to her why I held onto them for so long, we were as close as we’d ever been.
Do I get a vicarious thrill watching my daughter play with my favorite toys? Oh hell yes. Do I cringe every time one of the toys got chipped or broken? Totally, but toys are made to be broken. It’s a risk they have to take and there was no way I was going to get mad at my daughter for doing what a kid does naturally. But I’ll tell you this – my daughter is infinitely more careful with the toys I hand down to her than the junk we buy at Target. The very fact that I once owned the toy has really made her respect those toys more than I’d ever anticipated.
Yes, I realize that most adults who collect toys tell themselves at some point “These are going to be worth a FORTUNE one day” (dreaming The 40-Year-Old Virgin dream) and they probably think I’m an idiot for doing what I did. But, knowing a ton of these collectors myself, I’d argue that only 5% of them are actually savvy and business-minded enough to sell and make a profit off their collections one day. The rest of us are just hoarding our coveted toys, the toys Mom never bought us, like we were Gollum protecting our Precious.
If you honestly think you can send your kid to college with your toy collection, fine, maybe be a little more judicious than I was. But if you’re not in it for profit, I’d really strongly urge you to consider breaking open that blister pack of GI Joes or vintage Barbies and passing them onto your kid. It’s a remarkable bonding experience, it teaches your kids to respect their toys (your awe passes down to them), and it’s legitimately thrilling to watch your kid pick up a toy you once held, either in first grade or in college, and use that toy to turn their imaginations loose.
That’s why Andy left his toys with Bonnie at the end of Toy Story 3 rather than leaving them in the attic. It was the right decision to make. Toys SHOULD be played with. So, if you’re not Seth Green or someone else who’s figured out how to make a living off of old Transformers and Go-Bots, maybe consider taking your action figures off the shelf above your desk and permanently relocating them to your kid’s toy box. It’s almost more fun than playing with them yourself.