I love vintage things. I have a serious thrifting habit and will have an intense physical reaction if I pass a sign that says “Estate Sale” when driving around town. Since I almost always have my two young kids in tow, this means that the junior members of my family spend a lot of time at thrift stores, garage sales, and flea markets as well. While the thought of combing through stacks of vintage magazines and searching for the last piece of Pyrex to complete a set makes my heart beat a little faster, my five-year-old can take about five minutes of it before she starts chiming “Mommy, I’m booooored.” To appease them, I usually allow them to choose a toy to bring home.
As a result, in addition to a killer salt and pepper shaker collection and scores of vintage coffee mugs, our house is full of ugly teddy bears, broken “˜80s action figures, and My Little Pony dolls that never seem to come clean. We also have some pretty sweet vintage children’s items that I’ve selected myself: a fully operational Fisher Price turntable (along with a big pile of vintage kids’ records), a couple of old Little People sets, a “˜70s wardrobe for Barbie and, my personal passion, stacks of vintage children’s books. My initial reaction to all of this is to say, “Awesome! My kids are being exposed to the kindler, gentler good old days!” but it’s easy to forget that the good old days weren’t necessarily that great.
There’s the obvious: lead paint and choking hazards took a lot of my generation’s childhood favorites off the market and, after seeing my two-year-old nearly swallow the Mr. Hooper from his Sesame Street Little People set, it’s clear that some of the golden oldies probably should stay out of commission. But beyond the physical dangers that some vintage toys present, there are social and political factors that may make you think twice before handing thrift finds over to your kids.
Anyone who has ever rented or bought an older Disney Princess movie knows that the “classics” don’t always present the kinds of lessons about gender roles that most of us want to teach to our kids. The debate over whether the princesses are damaging to young girls’ sense of self is well-tread territory and I don’t want to step into that debate just now, but if you think racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia are a problem with the Disney classics that are still being re-released, try taking a look at the items that went out of print decades ago. I’m not going to repeat the offensive things that I’ve seen and heard – most of them simply don’t deserve repeating. But I beg of you, please take a look through your vintage items before handing them off to your children. It’s up to you to decide how you want to handle things if you do find material that you deem questionable. In some cases, you may want to read or listen to the item with your kid and let the offensive bits spur a conversation about the way people treat each other. In other cases, you may want to simply toss it in the trash. It really depends on what the material contains, what your child is able to handle, and what your own comfort level is.
A few years ago when early episodes of Sesame Street were released on DVD there was quite a fuss over a disclaimer that appeared at the beginning of the disc, warning parents that the old version of the show may not be suitable for modern children. The irony is, of course, Sesame Street was one of the few examples of children’s programming that did make a point of being diverse and inclusive, making it more suitable than a lot of the stuff that I have found thrifting over the years. Thrifting with children can be rewarding and you will find a lot of awesome stuff that will make your kids’ childhood memories all the richer. Just remember to be vigilant and while it’s fun to romanticize the past, in some ways, modern progress isn’t always bad.