Should Toys Talk to Kids?

Having a toy that can talk is a persistent childhood fantasy. Adults have been trying to bring that fantasy to life ever since Thomas Edison installed miniature, hand-cranked phonographs in porcelain dolls. Over the years, toy manufacturers have experimented with toys that say prerecorded phrases or tell entire stories when a child pulls a string or presses a button.

More recently, toys have become truly interactive, equipped with software that makes them seem responsive to children. This fall, Mattel announced development of Hello Barbie a new version of the iconic doll that, with the help of a WIFI connection, analyzes what a child says so Barbie can respond with something appropriate. Cognitoys has introduced a talking dinosaur named Dino that answers questions and responds to commands. Both toys are supposed to “learn” as a child uses them, so their responses become tailored to the child.

These toys join a crowd of other talking toys ranging from a baby doll that can “read” 70 words to a “talk back” doll that repeats what a child says in a squeaky voice, from programmable “pets” to radio-controlled robots. Some people think all this responsiveness has educational potential. One intriguing study found that children who played with toys programmed to say their names and other personalized information were more attentive when the toy presented unfamiliar material.

At the same time, many experts continue to feel that young children in particular are better served by toys that allow the child to control the script. Playing is a way for children to work out their own ideas about the world, and it may be better for them to be the ones putting words in the mouths of their favorite stuffed animals, dolls, and action figures. Some toys that seem amusing to adults may actually limit a child’s imagination.

In short, parents will want to think carefully before purchasing the season’s most seductive talking toys. Here are some questions worth asking:

Will the toy work?  Nothing is more frustrating than a new gadget that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. Before choosing a talking toy, be sure your child is developmentally ready to manage the controls. Think about whether the toy will challenge or frustrate your child. Will it be too difficult to use without adult assistance? Consider durability, too. Some talking toys are fragile. A toy that breaks down or has technical glitches will interrupt the flow of play.

Does the toy gather info about child?  Whenever a toy connects to the cloud, parents have to assume that anything a child says in its presence is being recorded. What use will companies make of those recordings? The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood worries that Hello Barbie will “eavesdrop” on children. “It’s creepy,” says Executive Director Dr. Susan Linn, “and it creates a host of dangers for children and families.” Others are concerned that WIFI-dependent toys will become targets for hackers who have already demonstrated that they can manipulate talking dolls, baby monitors, and other household equipment. To minimize security risks, parents should turn off toys when they aren’t in use and take advantage of any safeguards provided by the manufacturer. The makers of Dino, for example, allow parents to set up an account so they can monitor and, if necessary, delete what a child says to the toy.

Is the toy a good role model?  If a toy is going to have regular conversations with your child, you’ll want to be sure that what it says is consistent with what you want your child to hear. Some toys are surprisingly sassy. How will you feel if your child mimics the toy? Other toys embody exaggerated ideas about gender—hypermuscular action figures or heavily made-up dolls. If a toy is going to function as a child’s friend, it should be a positive influence.

Is the toy affordable?  Interactive toys tend to be expensive. Talking Barbie, for example, will cost $75. Think about whether the price matches the play value of the toy. What else could you buy for the same money?

Does the toy stimulate imaginative play?  Talking toys are often one-trick ponies. The toy does the work, so your child becomes a passive consumer of entertainment. Once the novelty wears off, your child is likely to be bored, a sure-fire indication that the toy isn’t giving your child room to think and grow. Many child development experts believe that children benefit most from simple toys that give them open-ended opportunities to experiment and explore. If you decide to invest in interactive toys, be sure young children also have access to basics, like blocks, puppets, puzzles, and art supplies.  School-age children are often inspired by interactive toys, but not necessarily in the way that manufacturer intended. Some kids try to manipulate the toy to see if they can make it do outrageous things. If your child has that kind of inventive spirit, he or she might benefit more from a toy like Ozobot that puts programming power in the child’s hands.

Finally, it’s important to understand the limitations of talking toys. Children need to become skilled with language because it’s the best way to share information, express feelings, and build a sense of closeness with other people. Toys that talk may be clever and amusing, but they cannot help a child develop understanding and empathy. That’s something they can learn only in the company of living, breathing, caring people.

Carolyn Jabs, M.A., raised three computer savvy kids including one with special needs. She has been writing Growing Up Online for ten years and is working on a book about constructive responses to conflict. Visit www.growing-up-online.com to read other columns.  

@ Copyright, 2015, Carolyn Jabs.  All rights reserved.