Why Kids Like ‘Parenting’ Their Toys

The enduring appeal of toys that need to be fed, changed, and rocked like human babies may be rooted in children’s desire to act like grown-ups.

A pair of Hatchibabies toys are displayed alongside their many accessories.
Courtesy of Hatchibabies

Two years ago around this time, on Black Friday 2016, the hunt for the Hatchimals was escalating rapidly. Hatchimals, the $60 battery-operated, interactive toys made by Spin Master and introduced in October 2016, had quickly become a craze—the late-2010s iteration of the Cabbage Patch Kid doll or the Tickle-Me Elmo. They went on to dominate that year’s holiday gift-toy market—and this year, Spin Master looks poised to repeat its success with its new product, the Hatchibaby.

Like Hatchimals, Hatchibabies initially come in the form of big plastic eggs, and after the proper amount of care and encouragement in the form of rubbing, rocking, warmth, and movement, a tiny Furby-esque creature grunts and coos its way out of the eggshell packaging. Some prior generations of Hatchimals quickly matured from “baby” to “toddler” to “kid” mode once they’d hatched out of their eggs, but Hatchibabies, once hatched, seem to stay babies permanently. Each one comes with accessories, including a bottle, a high chair, a tiny hairbrush, a rattle, and a “cuddle buddy”—which itself looks like an even more diminutive Hatchibaby, and helps calm the Hatchibaby when its eyes glow white (sleepy) or red (upset). The Hatchibaby invites more looking-after than previous generations of the Hatchimal.

To some kids, a toy like the Hatchibaby might seem like a chore. When I was a kid, toys that needed to be tucked in or rocked or fed or changed didn’t feel like playthings to me so much as obligations. But the arrival of Hatchibabies is great news for kids like my niece, Carlee, who is 6 and has generally found the prehatching phase of her Hatchimals to be the most rewarding part: Once she’s fulfilled the caretaking duties necessary to hatch a Hatchimal out of its egg—rubbing its shell, keeping it warm, waiting for it to glow a different color to indicate it’s ready to break out—she gets pretty bored. Carlee prefers the company of her Baby Alive, which drinks from a bottle, wets itself, and cries. When I interviewed my niece for this story, she told me she enjoys taking on the quasi-parental duties of potty-training her doll and drying her tears. (She also told me she likes to hold the doll over the sink and squeeze its belly to make it pee, which I assume is a different sort of fun than pretending to be a parent.)

Baby Alive has been a best-selling toy ever since it first appeared on the market, in 1973, and it’s sort of like a baby for babies to baby. The NanoPet and Tamagotchi, handheld devices that made a game out of caring for an onscreen pet or baby, were the digital, late-’90s spin on this concept. The Hatchibaby, similarly, is poised to become the latest wildly popular play item that simulates the needs and behaviors of human babies and invites kids to, essentially, parent them.

One reason toys like Hatchibabies are so perennially popular may be that some kids tend to latch on to anything they can show care and compassion for. While Hatchibabies are marketed to children ages 5 and up, many kids develop an interest in caretaking long before reaching their preschool years. “Often, before children are able to communicate verbally or walk, they can begin to develop empathy,” says Ayuko Uezu Boomer, an early-childhood specialist at the University of Minnesota. “This often begins with them showing an interest in a caregiver or a household pet,” she says, and she adds that some kids’ early-childhood interest in caretaking also manifests itself in their relationships with things like houseplants that require easy daily maintenance.

Another reason caregiving toys have remained so popular with preschool- and toddler-age kids is that kids like to pretend to be grown-ups—and one thing they see grown-ups do quite frequently is care for children. “There’s so much [that adults do] that kids aren’t allowed to do. They’re told, ‘You can’t do that,’ or ‘You aren’t old enough yet,’” says Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, who chairs the school of education at the University of Delaware and directs the university’s Child’s Play, Learning, and Development Lab. “But taking care of something tenderly is certainly something a kid can do.”

“You can’t expect them to do ‘make-believe physicist,’” she adds, “or ‘make-believe refrigerator repairman,’ because most kids just don’t see those things enough.” Kids play ‘make-believe parent’ or ‘make-believe babysitter,’ though, because “they are experts on caregiving. They’re always on the receiving end of it.”

In other words, Golinkoff says, kids who display tender, affectionate care for their toys often do so because they’ve witnessed the adults in their lives extending tender, affectionate care to real children. So in the grander scheme of things, perhaps it’s worth remembering this holiday season that a kid who’s begging for a Hatchibaby to nurture and raise may be doing so because he’s been so lovingly looked after in his own home.