Ruth Marcus
Columnist July 21, 2011

Back in the day when we were trying to decide what kind of swings to install in the back yard for our toddlers, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about over-the-top playgrounds.

“Children soar on a yellow-domed swing set called the ‘Atom Splitter,’ their shrieks mingling with those of the seagulls,” the story began. “A merry-go-round shaped like a giant ladybug spins in a sandy enclosure near ‘Tarzan’s Place,’ a jungle-like structure with 20-foot ropes.

Ruth Marcus is a columnist and editorial writer for The Post, specializing in American politics and domestic policy. View Archive

“Is this a new theme park? No, it’s 11-year-old Wyatt Koch’s backyard.”

And then, one of my favorite, parents-say-the-dumbest-things quotes of all time: “‘I wanted to attract other kids so my son could learn to socialize,’ says Bill Koch, the former America’s Cup skipper and owner of a Florida energy business, who spent roughly $250,000 on the attractions when Wyatt was 2.”

Sigh. It seems to have worked out well for Wyatt — Google shows him attending opera openings and charity balls — but might I suggest that the best way to teach your child to socialize is not positioning him as Richie Rich with his own private sports camp?

Our run-of-the-mill swingset is forlorn and, truth be told, kind of moldy in the back yard these days, but I was reminded of that story by an even more disturbing piece in the New York Times, this one about over-the-top playhouses.

How over the top? They come with features such as vaulted ceilings, faux fireplaces, sponge-painted walls and, of course, central air. They can cost as much as actual houses, if not more. For $52,000, you can have “Red Beard’s Revenge . . . a playhouse in the shape of a 12-foot-tall, 18-foot-long pirate ship, complete with a crow’s nest, upper and lower decks made of mahogany and leather benches in the captain’s quarters that double as beds.”

Dan Burnham, the former chairman of defense contractor Raytheon, anted up $248,000 for a two-structure installation, complete with extension bridge and hand-carved beams, designed to lure the grandkids to his vacation compound. “It’s adorable and worth every penny,” he said, with no evident sheepishness about the extravagant cost.

There are two intertwined problems with the mind-set exposed by this story. The first is the disconnect between the faltering economy and the spare-no-expense attitude of the luxury playhouse crowd. It was one thing to install mini-amusement parks in the back yard during the boom years of the late 1990s. Then it was gross. Now it’s grosser. The conspicuousness of the consumption rises exponentially with the unemployment rate. When people are losing real houses, you ought to feel a little queasy about spending thousands on play ones. When so many real houses are underwater, the $52,000 price tag for the pirate ship playhouse seems especially egregious.

The second problem is the fallacy of the Koch equation: that spending money equals good parenting. As in this quote from playhouse builder Barbara Butler: “Childhood is a precious and finite thing. And a special playhouse is not the sort of thing you can put off until the economy gets better.” The message to vulnerable parents is: Dig deep, before it’s too late to tap into the little ones’ imaginations or save them from a future of morbid obesity.

I do not pretend to have done a great job of putting this into practice with my own children, but sometimes the best parenting is saying no to the latest shiny bauble or lavish playhouse. You can spring for the miniature medieval castle with turrets and a secret passage, or the Victorian playhouse with wraparound porch and stained glass window. Or you can keep an eye open for the appliance delivery truck and ask for a leftover refrigerator box or two. Invest in a set of markers and a roll of duct tape. Send the kids out to design their own magical cottage. After it rains, throw away and repeat. They will, I’m confident, have learned to socialize just fine.

ruthmarcus@washpost.com