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.
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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.”