iPotty to Tech Pet: Do we really need the iParade of kiddy tech?

When your kid needs your iPhone as much as you do – there's some serious soul searching a parent needs to do. App accessories – from iPotty to Tech Pet – make Mommy's iPhone part of their digitally enhanced fun. Is it better than the real thing?

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Bridget, 3, and sister Quinlan, 9, play a game on an iPad.

At some point during my reporting of our magazine cover story this week, Toddlers on touch screens, I stumbled across the iPotty. 

Or, to be honest, someone e-mailed me a link to the iPotty, because, well, I was writing about toddlers and touch screens, and really, what could get at the essence of this topic any more clearly? 

The iPotty – and seriously, saying this out loud only adds to the parental disintegration of verbal dignity that starts with “Preggie Pops” and continues right on through “tummy time” – is a plastic toilet training contraption with a stand to hold a toddler’s iPad while he learns how to poo like a big kid. (Don’t worry – the product description assures that the iPotty “includes a removable touchscreen cover to guard against messy hands and smudges.”) It is brightly colored, child-sized, and like many of the new child iPad and iPhone accessories, a product that brings touch screen technology into some of the most elemental places of young childhood.

Like your bathroom. 

Creepy? Brilliant?  

Your reaction probably depends on how you view the rapidly growing integration of digital technology into the lives of preschool-aged children. And going by the dozens of parents I interviewed for the piece, that probably includes some level – but a level vastly different than your neighbor, since parents are all over the map on this – of unease. With the iPotty: There’s something to be said for keeping your little one on her seat. Those of us struggling with this particular bodily effort are probably not all that inclined to be moralistic about doing whatever it takes to, um, help get things in the right place.

At the same time ... do I really need the legacy of Steve Jobs to get my daughter to poop? And what if the iPad is not available? Are we going to have one of those association problems about which the child rearing books warn? What if I create a bathroom lingerer, ala those parental figures known to escape into the bathroom with the Sunday newspaper – or, well, the iPad?

(If all of this is TMI for you, by the way, you don’t have a toddler.)

But lest one start focusing too much on this particular item, there are various other touch screen accessories to ponder. Like the Tech Pet.

Move over, Rover. Once upon a time you might have taught your preschooler values like empathy, responsibility, and consistency with the family pet. Now you can just buy a white plastic dog and put your iPhone where the face should be. A dog’s image shows up on the screen and will respond to your child’s commands. “Forward!” “Backward” The nurturing lesson comes from the ability to “feed and groom” the Tech Pet, says its description.

Except that it’s, um, plastic. And using my phone. 

But to summon the Cat in the Hat (again, you’ll get this if you have a toddler), that’s not all they can do. Oh no, that’s not all.

There’s the stuffed Fisher Price “Apptivity Monkey,” which “comes to life” when an iPhone is attached to its belly. (Again, my phone.) There is the Barbie augmented reality digital mirror app, that let’s kids try on makeup – “without the mess!” (Groan. I mean, anyone else not want their little girls to see how they look with perfectly applied lipstick and glitter eye shadow?) There’s the “guitar controller” that let’s you attach an iPad to an air guitar – furthering the distance between one’s child and actual music making. (What’s wrong with the good old fashioned Bill and Ted-style air guitar? I know, I know, my toddler will soon enough tell me how old that cultural reference makes me.) Anyhow, the list goes on.

At first glance, these items can strike those of us nondigital natives as absurd. But something happened while I was reporting my story. The more I saw of these products, the more they began to seem normal – or at least as normal as any of the primary colored toys touted to my kids from all directions. That doesn’t mean that I started to want them in my house, mind you. But it meant that they didn't loom any larger because of their technological components. 

And that, perhaps, is what might happen with the iPotty. What started as an item that made me laugh out loud will morph into just another reason for my little family to double down on our goal of avoiding Stuff We Don’t Need, and instead focusing on the Real Lives We Have. 

You know, with dogs that actually need to go for walks. And toddlers who need to learn how to use the toilet – by themselves.

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