Stop Scaring Parents

Dan, I agree totally with the madness of buying fad toys. We have a one-toy-out-for-every-one-in policy in this house, and I vow never to wait on line or elbow someone out of the way for a toy.

But another thing pissed me off about the article, which is something you get at in your own post. That was the so-called child development experts saying that realistic toys stifle the imagination. As it happens, I've read a lot of the scholarly literature on children and imagination. Yes, pretend play is good for children. But there has never been a study that examined the long-term effects of realistic toys v. less realistic toys showing that children who play with more realistic toys are permanently disadvantaged in some way. We are not entitled to conclude this, either, from the simple fact that pretend play is helpful to development. So can we please stop with the parenting recommendations based on no evidence? Just because you think something should be a certain way, or is most likely a certain way, doesn't mean that it is!

It is practically impossible to test certain aspects of child rearing in isolation and get really good evidence. We really don't know which of, say, crying it out or attachment parenting is demonstrably better. Yet I will read items that say things like, "Your child will learn to trust you if you respond immediately to his cries." Oh yeah? Did you do a study where you compared the trust levels of children who cried it out v. those whom were immediately tended to? How, exactly, would that be measured? Obviously not, so if you're going to make a statement like that, make it clear that it's just a guess.

Children can most likely still use their imaginations with realistic toys. Kids will probably pretend that their doll is pooping on the moon, or whatever. A realistic toy might well stimulate their imagination about certain facets of an object that would not have occurred to them to dream up. A realistic toy might inspire a mechanically inclined child to think about how things are put together. Who knows? I don't. And neither do they.

With so many strictures given to parents, a certain self-consciousness and nervousness is settled on the parenting process. It makes parents uneasy, and makes them afraid to rely on their instincts (is my guess -- that's my experience, anyway). Such strictures intended to override a parent's instincts (which, when you think about it, is a pretty special thing to interfere with) should be given only when there is evidence.


  1. I think the WP just needed a "respectable" angle to lend authenticity to the doll pooping story, which was going to get a lot of page views no matter what it said. You know, slap a PhD in there somewhere and that makes it all true and noble journalism!

  2. I've got a brand new two-week old, and I've been reading a lot of books about child development lately (both from the interested parent and the former cognitive scientist perspectives). and I think you hit the nail right on the head here.

    I've read descriptions of a lot of studies where doing such-and-such leads to this-or-that effect on their development. but all the studies are over a time range of months or at most a couple of years. there's no supported claim that, for example, that any of the things they discuss have any long-term effect at all.

    though I do have to recommend "the scientist in the crib" as at least interesting to any and all.