By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 22, 2008
So long, Betsy Wetsy. Baby dolls just got a whole lot more real.
Put her on her little pink plastic toilet. Press the purple bracelet on Baby Alive Learns to Potty. "Sniff sniff," she chirps in a singsong voice. "I made a stinky!"
This season's animatronic Baby Alive -- which retails for $59.99 -- comes with special "green beans" and "bananas" that, once fed to the doll, actually, well, come out the other end. "Be careful," reads the doll's promotional literature, "just like real life, sometimes she can hold it until she gets to the 'potty' and sometimes she can't!" (A warning on the back of the box reads: "May stain some surfaces.")
The mess made by the $39.95 Little Mommy Real Loving Baby Gotta Go Doll, ("Over 60 phrases and fun sounds!") is more hypothetical. Once she is placed on her little toilet, a magnet triggers a presto, change-o in the plastic bowl: "The 'water' in the toilet disappears, with the expected 'potty waste' appearing in its place," says manufacturer Mattel. "Your child can then flush the toilet. The 'water' will reappear, while the toilet makes a very realistic flushing sound!" And then comes the applause.
The dolls, which are being heavily advertised on television, are expected to be the season's big sellers. Since the dolls were introduced to stores this fall, managers at Wal-Mart, Target and Toys R Us have reported trouble keeping them in stock. And Baby Alive, listed as one of the Hot Toys of 2008 by Hottoys2008.com, was sold out at Wal-Mart, eToys.com and the AOL shopping site a week before Christmas.
But not everyone thinks dolls need to be this real. Some things, they argue, are better left to the imagination. This battle over whether pooping dolls are an appropriate toy is only the latest skirmish in a long war between child development experts and toymakers. Psychologists say the best toys encourage children to pretend and use make-believe (witness the fact that children often love the boxes their expensive toys come in more than the toy itself). But toymakers want to use the latest technology to make and sell ever-more realistic toys. (Baby Alive's movements are the result of sophisticated robotics controlled by the same kind of microprocessor that navigates satellites and runs nuclear power plants.)
"Retailers have bought heavily into these dolls," said Reyne Rice, trend specialist with the Toy Industry Association. "They feel that these are some of the more popular items for girls this year." Although most baby dolls are sold in the last six weeks of the year and firm sales figures won't be available until early next year, Rice said indicators look good for big Christmas sales.
The buzz is on parent online discussion groups across the country. As with the Tickle Me Elmo and Cabbage Patch Kids crazes of Christmases past, one mother was so distraught that the pooping dolls were sold out online just after Thanksgiving that she prepared to rise at 5 a.m. to scour stores in a 100-mile radius of her house.
At a Toys R Us in Northern Virginia last week, Salma Bangoura filled her shopping cart with stainless steel pots and pans for her 7-year-old daughter's play kitchen. Her daughter desperately wants the Baby Alive, she said, and Bangoura is considering buying it for her for Christmas. "She wants the toilet," she said, shrugging. "It's so interesting. It comes with its own food. It's not gross, as long as it's not real."
But at a Target not far away, Gay Hee Lee, shopping for her 2-year-old niece, picked the Baby Alive box off the shelf only to quickly put it back. "That," she said, "is just so wrong."
Perhaps here is where one needs to ask a question: Does a toilet -- and what one uses it for -- make a good toy?
And, given the boundaries of good taste, is it even a good idea?
Clearly, to toymakers, the answer is yes.
"For us, the peeing and pooping is pretty magical," said Kathleen Harrington, senior brand manager for Hasbro's Baby Alive dolls. "As adults, we might be a little grossed out. But it's so magical and so funny and so silly for these girls. This little doll is coming to life, so the little girl doesn't believe it's just a doll. It's her baby." Harrington calls it part of the doll's "Wow!" factor.
But to some child development experts, the answer is a resounding no.
With 5,000 toys introduced into the market every year, "what happens is that there's huge competition to get noticed. And what that means to toys is that they get more and more and more and more outrageous," said Susan Linn, professor of child psychology at Harvard and director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. "This toy is shocking enough that it's going to be noticed. But at best, this toy is unnecessary. At worst, it's really gross."
But Jim Silver, editor of Time to Play, a Web magazine that reviews toys, says children want reality.
"By the time they're 5 or 6, they don't want a play cellphone, they want a real cellphone," Silver said. "A baby doll is all about nurturing. So what Mom went through with them, they want to go through with their dolls. And how do you do real potty training without pooping?" Silver said he laughed when he first saw the pooping dolls and wondered if they were necessary. Although he said he has been sworn to secrecy about next year's new toys, an early peek shows reality is only going to get more real. "You're going to see the envelope pushed to make baby dolls as real as possible without being offensive in any way.
And, he said, it's not as if the toymakers don't know what they're doing. Mattel's Little Mommy dolls, he said, are the biggest-selling baby dolls on the market, with annual sales upwards of $50 million. Baby Alive dolls, which debuted in 1973 and were retooled and reintroduced to the market a couple of years ago after a decade-long hiatus, are the No. 2 seller.
It's the kind of trend that makes Linn angry enough to write books, such as her recent "The Case for Make Believe."
"This is part of a greater trend to create toys that do everything," she said. "And in the process of marketing those toys to children and flooding the market with those toys, what we're doing is depriving children of opportunities for creative play. And that's the foundation of learning, of critical thinking, of creativity, of developing the capacity to wrestle with life, to make meaning of it. It's essential to their human development. What's happening is that toymakers are designing these toys that look great in ads but in fact really add nothing to children's inner life or their creative play."
High on Linn's Christmas toy shopping list: crayons, paper, blocks, stuffed animals and dolls that don't talk or move, much less say "Hurry, hurry" when they're about to mess their pants. "A really, really good toy is 90 percent child and 10 percent toy," she said. "But those are not the bestsellers."
What both sides of the play wars agree on is that children at the age of playing with baby dolls, generally ages 3 or 4 to 7, are endlessly fascinated by bodily functions, thus the popularity of such books as "Walter the Farting Dog," booger-green slime and squishy, squeezable, see-through toys that allow children to feel animals' guts, on shelves now. And potty training -- either because children are going through it or because they remember what it was like -- is a big, big deal.
That, manufacturers say, is why they're creating realistic dolls.
"Potty training is an important developmental milestone for nearly every child," Michael Shore, vice president of World Wide Consumer Insights for Mattel, wrote in an e-mail. "At around the age of two, many kids are demonstrating signs of readiness which include key motor skills, language skills, the ability to follow directions, etc. At this age, research has proven that dolls serve as effective tools to teach by imitation rather than relying entirely on a potty training child's limited language skills."
Shore goes on to explain that the Little Mommy Gotta Go Doll was "uniquely designed with innovative features to model both types of potty training behaviors: 'poop and pee' " and that these "unique actions" help encourage "successful potty training."
Indeed, potty training dolls have become all the rage since 2006, when writer Teri Crane (the self-proclaimed "Potty Pro") published her book "Potty Train Your Child in Just One Day," and her doll-using method was endorsed by TV's Dr. Phil McGraw. Now, the market is saturated with dolls like Potty Patty, Potty Scotty and anatomically correct, vanilla-scented Emma and Paul dolls.
Child development experts, not surprisingly, are again on the opposite side of market forces in the potty wars. Claire Lerner is director of parenting resources at Zero to Three, a nonprofit organization that promotes the health and development of infants and toddlers. She said that such claims of instant potty training are "unfair and exploitive" and that whether a child uses a doll, potty training, as it has for centuries, takes the time that it takes.
"Toilet training in this country has taken on a life of its own and become so much more complex than it really needs to be," she said. "And parent anxiety about it has just, unfortunately for everybody, often made it much more stressful. Toymakers are clever. They tune into what's on the minds of parents." In her view, children don't need a doll to learn how to use a toilet. And they don't need a doll that poops to have fun. "You just don't need to go that far," she said.
That's something Alexandria mom Nancy Vigna, a military planner, thinks. But the pooping Baby Alive is the only thing her 4-year-old daughter, Corinne, really wants for Christmas, Vigna said. (That and a Barbie cash register.) "The last thing she needs is another doll," Vigna said. Her daughter is so enamored with diapering that she pines to change her younger brother and plasters her baby dolls' behinds so thoroughly that they look like they're wearing cocoons. "This is the baby doll she's been waiting for. It makes a real mess," Vigna said, sighing. "I'm not looking forward to it."
Then Vigna had to excuse herself. Her 21-month-old son, like Baby Alive, had just made a stinky in the bathtub, and she had to go.