Do stuffed animals have souls? Snort, and then consider how much energy is spent prompting children to look deeply into the glass eyes of the curly haired dog or bunny that will forever sit on its haunches before them. As the Skin Horse instructs in The Velveteen Rabbit, the promise made to stuffed animals, urged on by the adults who give them as presents, is, "When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
Right. And so when the old bunny in the story becomes "a mass of scarlet fever germs" threatening the health of a sick and actually real little boy, the lesson is that his bunny should not be safely replaced by a nice, clean, new bunny. Oh, no. This would be an act of betrayal, because as every good child knows, you are supposed to love your stuffed animal no matter how worn and dirty, and reject any shiny cheap-date substitute. This story doesn't grow old. Check out The Jamie and Angus Stories, an updated (and, admittedly, quite lovely) rendering of the classic stuffed animal/child coupling.
All this anthropomorphizing is harmless, isn't it? Or even sweetly helpful, because it prods kids to form attachments and play make-believe? Stuffed animals do have that effect. My son Eli collected a soccer team's worth of them last night and propped them against each other at the head of his bed for a group photo, with Leo the small lion atop Gerry the large giraffe. Yes, cute. But also the prelude to rivers of tears. Because when stuffed animals get lost or destroyed, they are damningly hard to replace. Kids don't buy that they're fungible, just like a green Lego, because we've taught them that devotion to an artfully covered hunk of sawdust is a test of character and loyalty. Until now, when we will be delivered from all of this, by the genius of Webkinz.
Products like Webkinz are not, generally, my thing. The plush animals—OK, OK, here's the link—would seem, at first glance, to be a cunning and ever more commercial version of the old-fashioned variety. Each bear or tiger comes with its own code, which its kid companion/caretaker enters into the Web site. Next, the kid decorates his pet's house by earning points in inane game-playing followed by even more inane shopping. And voilà, there you are, fighting with your 8-year-old or even your 6-year-old about screen time. Or, worse, taking advantage of their preoccupation to make dinner, only to find that they've turned into bad-tempered, Web-addled mush.
Don't try to console yourself with the mantra that they're learning skills that will later serve them well in our technology-driven world. Using a mouse isn't like learning to ski. If you ask me, there's no need to do it from birth or even elementary school. I agree with Emily Yoffe: Watching kids go online for more than five minutes makes me want to shoo them outside. (Even if I admit Michael Agger is right that they're just prepping for the real computer indulgences of the adult office.)
In any case, there have been no Webkinz at our house. Eli has a group of friends who trot out their animals with the special "W" symbol at recess, but since he'd rather play football, he hasn't much seemed to care. Until this week, when he flung himself at me and muttered two syllables over and over into my ear, which, upon repeated requests for translation, turned out to be the W-word. It was time for reconnaissance. I checked in with a few friends, who said they'd decided that Webkinz wasn't worth saying no to. The computer-based quizzes and shopping were silly and a time waster, but the whole thing seemed mostly harmless and not worth taking a stand on, given that everyone else around them was caving in.
This didn't seem likely to convince my husband, who is more of a screen-time stickler than I am. But then I called my friend Rachel. She has two daughters, Eva, who is 7, and Charlotte, who is 5. They saved up their money and bought a couple of Webkinz. Charlotte's was a white bunny named Easter—perfect, for a Jewish kid. The girls were happily playing with their new self-selected purchases as the family whizzed down East River Drive on a visit to Manhattan, and in a moment of breathtaking yet inevitable folly, Charlotte dangled Easter out the window. Then let go. Tears. Pandemonium. No way in hell to mount a rescue mission.
This is precisely the stuffed animal death that parents fear. Except that Eva made Charlotte see that it wasn't in fact a death—thanks, let me say it again, to the genius of Webkinz. The real Easter, she convinced her weeping sister by the time the car had reached Connecticut, was not the lost bunny who was already road soup. The real Easter was in the computer. The run-over toy didn't matter, really, because it was just that, a toy, "like there could be a toy of you and me, but that wouldn't be the real you and me," as Rachel, with Eva's words, explained it.
I like this definition of real a lot more than the Skin Horse's. So did Charlotte. Without a fuss, she ordered up another toy Easter. The box arrived yesterday and was opened with no hint of grief. The new Easter had its own soul, I mean code, so the girls decided to hand off the numbers for the road-soup incarnation to one of their friends. Now she is the keeper of the first Easter's soul.
The immortality of Webkinz may not make up for the incessant demands of your kid's bunny. "A 6-year-old turned my 4-year-old onto it, and now I spend MY time earning money for her online Tamagochi-like alley cat to buy it food, etc., and keep it from DYING!" my colleague Vivian Selbo laments. It's a trade-off: the beauty of instant replacement for the demands of online upkeep. I'm not sure where I come out. But I love the idea that even as Webkinz wreaks new havoc, the latest naked marketing ploy can at least kill off the false appeal of other stuffed animals. Sorry, Velveteen Rabbit, but that kid was better off with you in the trash heap.