Madison Avenue in Toyland

TOYS are not just playthings anymore. ``Listening entertainment centers,'' formerly known as music boxes, develop ``auditory discrimination.'' Rattles, now known as ``sensory awareness stimulators,'' enhance ``clutching and grasping skills'' in addition to teaching cause and effect. You shake; it rattles.

``Tactile affective objects'' - teddy bears and other stuffed creatures - let baby practice ``social interaction.'' Some toys, like mobiles, provide ``visual enjoyment''; i.e., they look nice. One advertisement actually describes a ball as a ``fun learning sphere.''

Not since birth control became ``fertility management'' have so many syllables been used to convey such simple ideas. Baby things look cute, feel good, make pleasant noises, and bounce around some. Any attempt to dress up these functions in sociological jargon is pure Madison Avenue yuppie-pandering. Fortunately, baby goods manufacturers have a sense of humor about it - their internal, catchall phrase for nursery ``necessities,'' especially high-priced clothing, is ``grandma bait.''

Yet the industry does take the work of play seriously. First, the ads warn us that if we don't buy the right items for our kids to look at, poke, snuggle, and stuff into their mouths, we can kiss 90th-percentile IQs and Ivy League acceptances goodbye. Then, having lured us to purchase, the companies thoughtfully instruct us on how to play. Our son's first rattle came with a 16-page booklet describing its optimal usage. Heaven forbid we should just rattle it!

And just as we must be advised about proper use, so must we be admonished against misuse. No doubt prompted by expensive liability lawyers, toymakers have labeled their products with so many consumer warnings you'd think the surgeon general had declared them hazardous. Every swing, infant chair, and crib gym (yes, babies have to work out, too) is emblazoned with the words ``DO NOT LEAVE CHILD UNATTENDED.''

At our baby shower, my husband read aloud a three-paragraph statement that came with a musical mobile. It listed several unlikely events that could happen if we assembled the thing improperly, hung it in the wrong place, or, of course, left our child alone with it - but the line that brought down the house was: ``This is not a toy.'' I'm still waiting for a toy to bear the ultimate product-liability disclaimer: ``Not intended for actual use.''

We've tried to avoid the high-tech, computer-age baby paraphernalia that promise ``infant stim'' and ``developmental skill-building.'' Alas, our son disagrees. He has rejected his low-tech wooden noisemaker and fuzzy bunny, both made by friends of ours, in favor of a large plastic chick with a repertoire of 24 brief melodies rendered in those electronic tones you've heard from tacky musical greeting cards. Wind-up keys are becoming extinct; this ``music'' is activated by a sharp swat - teaching kids, I suppose, that if you hit a bird, it will sing.

This particular victim of toy abuse got left behind after an out-of-town visit, and our hostess was kind enough to mail it back. She realized after boxing and wrapping it that she should have removed the battery; it serenaded her with two tunes on the way to the post office, then sang through the mails all the way home. As I reluctantly opened the package, which was still tweeting, I reflected that at least I had given some civil service employees a chance to practice their ``auditory discrimination.''

Nancy Ross is a free-lance writer living in Manhattan.

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