Why are so many people talking about a 50-year-old instruction manual for building a dollhouse?
Having written for the internet for over a decade, I’ve seen more than my fair share of weird obsessions and viral moments come and go. Who could have predicted everyone arguing about the color of a dress, freaking out about Tide pods, or dumping ice water on their heads? But even I was surprised by a recent headline I came across on OG blog, Kottke: “Fantastic 1970s Letter from Lego to Parents.”
The internet’s most unexpected obsession yet?
I have an 8-year-old and can confidently say, from experience, that modern Lego instructions are not something I would ever call “awesome.” I’m usually thrilled if they qualify as “helpful.”
So why is the internet suddenly in a tizzy about a pamphlet included in a 1974 dollhouse and shared recently by a Reddit user? Here’s exactly what the instructions said that got people so excited:
The urge to create is equally strong in all children. Boys and girls. It’s imagination that counts. Not skill. You build whatever comes into your head, the way you want it. A bed or a truck. A dolls house or a spaceship. A lot of boys like dolls houses. They’re more human than spaceships. A lot of girls prefer spaceships. They’re more exciting than dolls houses. The most important thing is to put the right material in their hands and let them create whatever appeals to them.
If this seems like a pretty modern sentiment to you, then you are not alone. Plenty of commenters were skeptical of the letter’s authenticity. But Gizmodo did a little sleuthing, and Lego proudly confirmed it.
“Yes, the text is from 1974 and was a part of a pamphlet showing a variety of LEGO doll house products targeted [to]girls aged 4 and up from the 1970’s,” a spokesperson told the website. “The text remains relevant to this day — our focus has always been, and remains to bring creative play experiences to all children in the world, based on the LEGO brick and the LEGO system — ultimately enabling children to build and create whatever they can imagine.”
Lessons in brand building…
This very online incident is yet another reminder that the internet can be a strange place. But the fact that a vintage instruction book can drive so much interest suggests a handful of potential lessons for entrepreneurs as well.
The first, from a marketing perspective, is about the power of authenticity and values. In our day and age, companies can face fierce backlash for weighing in on social issues. Clearly, business owners need to pick their way with care. But the fact that an out-of-date toy instruction manual can drive so much interest in a company underlines the flip side of this reality.
Speaking out about your values as a company can stir up strong negative emotions, but when it’s done in a way that’s aligned with your core business, it can also drive incredible brand loyalty and affection. In our world, where brands are becoming objectively blander and more indistinguishable, having a point of view and a larger mission remains a powerful way to stand out.
… and parenting
But the lessons here extend beyond a timely reminder of the benefits of having and expressing clear, consistent, and meaningful values. It’s also, as many other internet commentators pointed out, spot on as parenting advice.
Kids do best, Lego says, when parents give them the tools to learn and express themselves but leave them to determine who they want to be and what they want to build themselves. This isn’t just the opinion of one beloved Danish toy company. Leading child psychologist Alison Gopnik has written a whole book, The Gardener and The Carpenter, making basically the same point: Parents shouldn’t try to shape their kids like carpenters, but instead provide ideal conditions for them to grow into whoever they naturally are, like gardeners.
Or, if you’re of a more artistic bent, you can take the testimony of artist and educator Ursula Kolbe, who says, “It’s the combination of unhurried and uninterrupted time, inviting spaces, and materials that guides mind and hands, that invites creative thinking” in kids. (This “provide time and materials and leave them alone” approach, fellow artist Austin Kleon, notes on his blog, was used by Billie Eilish’s parents to noted success). Giving kids materials and leaving them to play with them as they see fit is a proven tactic for nurturing creativity.
The internet hasn’t been this interested in random household instructions since Elton John spontaneously composed a song based on the manual for an oven. Initially I thought that just confirmed how weird online life sometimes gets. Perhaps, though, people on the internet are right to be obsessed with this vintage toy pamphlet. It seems to have packed quite a lot of wisdom into a small and unexpected package.
This article first appeared on www.inc.com
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