Hello Barbie is the pretty new face of the hottest trend in toys: “artificial intelligence.” But here’s a rare case in parenting where it’s not the word artificial we should worry about. It’s intelligence.
Our kids’ intelligence.
The more cool things a toy can do, the more it takes away from what’s really important to our kids: pure, glorious play.
Wait! This isn’t another anti-Barbie pile on, I promise!
I happen to love Barbie—artificially big hair, artificially stacked body, and all. As a mom of three girls, I’ve shelled out cheerfully for my share of pepto-pink packages, if less cheerfully vacuumed up way too many tiny plastic stilettos. I still have my own Barbie, one of the only toys I saved, because she was such a star in my own childhood.
But the new Hello Barbie? She may be charming the press—and a lot of kids—but she’s a wolf in pink clothing who should be wearing a sash that says Miss Sad New Era of Play.
Hello Barbie, who’s arriving in toy stores this November, in case you haven’t heard, looks pretty much like regular Barbie, in her new body-pride iteration with sneaker-friendly flat feet—except for slightly wider thighs, each of which conceals a rechargeable battery. They help Hello Barbie talk. Really talk. She can ask your child for advice, give advice, and remember from one conversation to the next that, say, you have two moms, love Taylor Swift, and your favorite color is blue. Using advances in artificial intelligence and speech recognition, she’s more like Siri in your phone than Teen Talk Barbie from the 90s with those lame, pre-recorded messages. (“Math class is tough!”)
What’s not to like?
Alas, just because something’s genius-amazing doesn’t mean it’s better.
“A great toy is 10 percent of what’s going on, and the child is the other 90 percent,” psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek of Temple University, a leading researcher on play and toys, told me. “But what’s happening is that the toys are doing all this stuff, so it’s 90 percent toy and 10 percent child. It’s out of balance.” (You may know her as the author of Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less.)
“I’m not anti-chip,” she’s quick to add. “But we have to be mindful of how we’re using that. When it gets in the way of natural interactions, it’s a problem.”
Here’s what kind of a problem:
Barbie is best as an alter-ego, not a babysitter!
ToyTalk, the company that co-created Hello Barbie with Mattel, wants girls to think of her as “the world’s best babysitter.” Say, what? Never once did I think of my Barbie as a buddy, big sister, or nanny when I was a girl. Barbie was me!
Actually I had two Barbies. One owned a dress shop, ran a ranchful of Breyer horses, and published the TinyTown News. I kept her perpetually engaged, never married, to my sister’s Ken. The other was the mother of all my smaller dolls, like the Liddle Kiddles and trolls. They solved mysteries, a la Nancy Drew. They camped in “Big Tree, Hawaii,” under the Christmas tree. They went to balls, weddings, and fashion shows (putting all those Barbie clothes to use). They ran Tinytown.
Ruth Handler, who invented Barbie for her daughter Barbara, has said her whole philosophy was that “through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”
Chattering about friends and Taylor Swift and the other 8,000 scripts Hello Barbie is programmed to say? To borrow one of her lines, “Really? No way!”
Our kids should infuse the personality, not toymakers!
Part of what builds kids’ creativity and social skills is how they anthropomorphize toys, treating them as if they’re alive to a magical degree. But when the toy is already eerily lifelike without your having to invent its traits and story? That’s not really a toy. For that we have pets.
Being entertained isn’t the same as playing.
Neither is “interacting.”
“Kids learn things through play that they can’t learn in other ways,” developmental psychologist David Elkind (The Hurried Child, The Power of Play) once told me. We were talking about the first round of e-toys five or six years back. Adding flash to toys was initially seen as a way to turn downtime into educational time, and therefore more valuable.
That’s exactly backward, he said. Playing—the pure, unscripted, unstructured, child-initiated, child-directed, no-agenda kind—is one of the most important gifts we can give our kids’ brains. That’s true whether you’re aiming for yours to succeed in business, medicine, the arts, engineering, or basic human niceness. You want your child to have curiosity? Creativity? Compassion? Critical thinking skills? Courage? An overwhelming body of evidence shows that it’s through play that kids develop the emotional, social, and intellectual skills that are a foundation for later learning and thinking.
And no, that’s not an overstatement.
Kids are actually showing up in kindergarten not knowing how to play, teachers report. Maybe not so surprising, when their toys are doing it for them. Take a kid playing with an animatronic singing toy, Hirsh-Pasek says. By the fourth or fifth time watching the performance, the kid is happier with the box.
Super-smart toys make all of us a little dumber.
Today, Hello Barbie. Tomorrow, every stuffed animal a baby or toddler cuddles?
Bells and whistles undercut the power of toys in one other surprising way worth mentioning because it starts really young. Research shows that e-toys interfere with how we parents interact with our kids. Recently Hirsh-Pasek, along with Jennifer Zosh and others, compared mothers and toddlers playing with traditional shape-sorter toys and electronic shape sorters, the kinds designed to teach about geometric shapes. Reporting in the September 2015 issue of Mind, Brain, and Education, they found that while playing with the electronic sorters, the parents used fewer spatial words (such as around, on top of, under, circle, square)—considered, important, ummm, building blocks of future STEM learning in science, technology, education, and math.
“Some electronic toys create situations where parents are less likely to do what the toy does,” Hirsh-Pasek says. Less talking and less showing means less human give-and-take. Yet interacting with other people is one of the foundations of play.
A way to play smarter:
All of which is completely counter to the direction of the toy industry. Take a look at the Toys R Us 2015 Hot Toy List: A smart toy bear. A clever talking bird. An interactive robotic droid. In fact, nearly every toy on its “Fabulous 15” list involves batteries, set-up, activation, or optional power packs.
It’s not that we should shun every toy that moves, lights up, squawks, or gossips with you. The growing brain likes novelty—and fun. We all do!
But how about a better, happier compromise?
- For every flashy gizmo, stock two or three traditional toys: blocks and building sets; art materials; (mute) dolls and stuffed animals; cars; farm sets; theater props (puppets, dress-up clothes, magic tricks); pretend-play props (kitchen sets, tools); cardboard boxes. They’re not “old fashioned.” As far as learning goes, they’re cutting edge.
- Look at toys that mix chips with motor skills. Tech toys that enhance things kids already love doing are a promising area, Hirsh-Pasek says, like some building and craft sets.
- Don’t pack away the toys too early. Many parents dump them after kindergarten as tablets catch hold, but that’s way too early, experts say. Release the inhibitions of kids who think they’re “too big” for pretend games to “play with” a younger child.
Remember what’s at stake: your child’s imagination.
“Toys are supposed to be platforms for play,” Hirsh-Pasek says. Hello Barbie and her noisy, dancing, lit-up cousins? They’re pushing kids right off the platform—and ultimately, their brains are taking a hit. Not very babysitter-like of Barbie, is it?
And hey, you’ll save a ton of money skipping the worst of these e-toys, too. They’re not cheap. Put it in a college-savings account. Or use it to buy a really awesome set of blocks or a do-nothing, say-nothing doll on which your child can program his or her own fantastic storylines.