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  • Paula Tiberius

Are Shopkins bad for your kids?

Have you ever seen a Shopkin?

I hadn’t when Violet first started talking about them a few months ago. She held up a hideous piece of plastic and told me its name: Penny Pencil. It had a hole in the bottom to mount it onto a pencil, so I wrote it off as a pencil topper with a weird name.

Then she came home with a second Shopkin that was not a pencil topper. At this point I had to ask, “Why are they called Shopkins?” Violet replied that they were little toys that you shop for – thus the name. Hmm. Someone created a line of tiny plastic toys, then named them after the act of shopping for them? I truly didn’t get it.

My ignorance went on like this for a remarkably long time, considering I could have Googled Shopkins at any time. Then Violet turned seven, and at her birthday party, one of her friends bought her a big 20-pack of Shopkins. This is where my learning curve took a steep climb. Let me enlighten you.

Shopkins 3

Violet’s growing Shopkin collection. As she points out, it is her allowance and she can spend it however she likes.

Shopkins are little plastic toys that come in several different categories of – wait for it – shopping. You’ve got Stationery Shopkins which include characters like Rita Ruler, Kelly Calculator, Stella Stapler and yes – Penny Pencil. Then you’ve got Fruit & Veg Shopkins which include Aspara-Gus, Peachy, Cherie Tomatoe (note the ‘e’ on the end) and many more. There are nine categories in all, and they are rated with color coded dots as ‘common,’ ‘rare,’ ‘ultra rare,’ ‘special edition,’ and ‘limited edition.’ Needless to say, you can collect them all.

Shopkins 1

A close up of the Shopkins Collector’s Guide

So you shop for Shopkins, which themselves are items that you shop for, and you can buy shopping accessory environments to go with them in order to play ‘shopping,’ like a grocery store complete with cash register and conveyer belt, or a vending machine. Are you dizzy yet? Perhaps a little nauseas at the blatant consumer-zombie message here? Or maybe in awe of the sheer genius of it all? I was all three.

I comforted myself with the knowledge that little plastic toys are not that disturbing, really. After all, she was playing with them in unconventional ways – not necessarily shopping related – and began to recreate some of them in clay, which was at least creative. But then thanks to our Smart TV, she discovered Shopkins on YouTube.

I’m not sure if you’ve heard of ‘unboxing’ videos before, but basically what happens is someone gets a new product and opens it on camera. These videos are crazy popular, and have unleashed a disturbing societal fetish, in my opinion. Violet will watch Shopkins unboxing videos for hours if we let her. We do NOT let her. In particular, she loves the ‘blind bags,’ which are what they sound like, bags with unknown Shopkins inside. You might get an ‘ultra rare!’

Here is one in action, for your viewing pleasure, or horror, or both!

You might be shocked to learn that this video has over 7 million hits.

Richard and I have limited Violet to fifteen minutes of Shopkins unboxing videos per day. If the disembodied hands open an ‘ultra rare,’ Violet usually comes running into the kitchen to tell me what it was. Molly Moccasin! Cheese Louise! I have to act excited for her sake, and sometimes when I see her poring over her collection, I genuinely feel happy for her, that she’s so fulfilled for the moment. Parents live to see their kids smiling ear to ear with shining eyes.

But she also looks like that when she nails a piano part, or gets her little frame fully around the uneven bars in gymnastics. She’s learning how to dive and can do a perfect cannonball – these things light her up too. She’s discovered graphic novels and is always searching for something new to put under the microscope auntie Valerie bought her for her birthday. These things are much more important for her personal growth than Shopkins, yet I want her to have frivolous fun too, and not make these little plastic characters too ‘verboten,’ lest they become an obsession.

But there is something so inherently disturbing about the ‘meta’ nature of this phenomenon. Once again, Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase is true: the medium is the message. We’re shopping…for shopping. At least with the transparent consumerism of Hello Kitty there was a veil of human intention – you buy something as a gift to bring happiness…

Shopkins are bad for my child because they glorify shopping as an important pastime. But then shopping is the pastime of choice for many Americans disconnected with culture and environment. Why go to an art gallery or take the kids hiking when you can pretend a trip to Target is an afternoon of entertainment?

Ultimately, I know Violet won’t be playing with Shopkins in college. But I want to get to the core truth here – shopping is not creating, and watching a box get opened on camera is not going to make a kid think.

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