The trending topic of Walmart’s recall Tuesday of 174,000 “My Sweet Love/My Sweet Baby Cuddle Care Baby Doll” raises issues of toy dangers beyond a circuit board that can overheat and burn a child’s skin. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission collects information about toy dangers for falling, drowning, choking on swallowed parts, lacerations, strangulation and burns. Walmart received 12 reports of burns and blisters. However, the larger question concerns potential damage done to 169,988 children and their siblings, friends and parents who have played with this doll.
This toy does not leave room for the types of complex imaginative activity where play produces multiple pathways towards emotional and cognitive development. “My Sweet Love” laughs and kicks her legs somewhat hysterically when her motion sensor is activated. YouTube videos show children at Walmart responding to the display of the toys. One waves her hands over shelves and gets a gaggle of dolls to laugh and wiggle. As she does this the spectacle shifts quickly from hysterical “ha-ha” to just hysteria. Another shows a toddler who is not as amused as her father by her response to the doll, saying she does not want it, that it scares her. A reporter shopping for a toy for a friend’s child, was drawn in by the doll speaking up, having a minor tantrum and saying: “I’m engaging. Buy me.” Subsequently, as the toy sat at the house waiting for the birthday party, it became increasingly aggravating for the reporter, her husband and the dog who was scared and ran away whenever the doll went into action.
Many parents shopping with parents will hear “buy me” from the toy and “buy me that” from the child. This “buy-me” manipulation works on the unsuspecting consumer who fails to understand the doll cackling from the shopping cart as a demon about to be brought into the home. This toy, like many other similarly designed and marketed toys, is neither soothing nor productive of creative play. Rather it encourages a kind of teasing acted out on the doll, or using it first to amuse but then to annoy others. A creative child, or one who is interacting with a parent who can join in and direct play, can use this toy well. But the Walmart recall raises many other issues about the danger of toys beyond physical harm.
The founder of the Better Parenting Institute, child psychologist Vicki Panaccione, PhD, refers to limitations of creativity and emotional and cognitive development from play with overly directive toys. According to Panaccione, “Dolls and stuffed animals that talk or sing or direct kids to press certain buttons essentially take charge of the play situation when the child should be the one directing the action.” Toys that sing, talk or tell children to press buttons deprive them of control of the interaction. Panaccione continues, “When a toy is too specific, it’s limiting and it denies the child the ability to use her imagination.”
The shelves at Walmart are full of superficially interactive talking toys. They may discourage the deeper creative and emotionally intimate dynamics with a doll that does not talk back, but with whom a child can have a conversation, perhaps prompted by an insightful adult: “Tell me what your duck wants to do now, let her whisper in your ear.” For those frazzled parents with younger children especially, the temptation may be to find an engaging toy to occupy the child or keep her from fussing.
The Walmart recall raises many issues about design for marketing and sales of toys for younger children. Parents may have the wrong idea of the toys that will absorb the child in more complex processes of cognition and social engagement. Rather than buying blocks and simple toys that encourage manual dexterity and development of spatial relations, parents may simply grab another baby that is cooing for their attention from a shelf at Walmart.
Opinion by Lawrence Shapiro
Consumer Products Safety Commission