MY SON DIDN'T become a parent until his last day in fourth grade. That was the day his aunt sent him a Tamagotchi, said to be Japanese for "lovable egg." It's the hottest toy among pre-teens and young adults in their early 20s. It's an import from Asia, where it has been pilloried from Thailand to Taiwan for its obsessive hold on the young.
Tamagotchis, and copycat models, are palm-sized, plastic orbs with a liquid-crystal screen that displays a digitized happy face. The owner is supposed to press a button when the "virtual pet" beeps that it is "hungry" or needs to be "changed." Push buttons to feed, entertain and clean Tamagotchi and its image grows more defined. Neglect it and it "dies" (though it can come back to life, my son explains).
Not that his will soon meet that fate, since he has tended to it zealously these past two weeks. I am not surprised that Alexander has been so devoted to his "pet" (although a few tropical fish looking down from that Aquarium in the Sky might have had doubts).
This craze washed up on American soil blessedly late in the school year. Teachers were already sensing trouble, however.
The principal at my son's elementary dispatched a memo banning them because some pupils got so despondent after their Tamagotchis died that they needed consoling, even care from the school nurse. Students in Connecticut reportedly stopped working on timed, standardized tests to dote on their beeping pets.
Tamagotchi's manufacturer intends to launch a national TV campaign in September for anyone still blissfully unaware.
It plans a new model that can be "paused," so young people can still attend class. Competitors are concocting their own versions, drawing on movie characters, such as dinosaurs and dalmatians.
The chain stores have not been able to keep up with the Elmo-like demand for this roughly $15 item, but because Christmas is far off, no national panic has ensued.
Ban Dai, the Japanese firm behind Tamagotchi, earlier made the Power Rangers toys that fueled fears about kids mimicking violence. Now, it has kids obsessed with nurturing -- re-affirming that manufacturers don't care what emotions they tap, so long as folks buy.
Manipulating kids and adults
Modern marketing has not merely manipulated kids, but grown-ups, too. Just as kids need Tamagotchis, their folks need the latest, pricey sport utility vehicle to brave the wilderness en route to the supermarket; the latest in cell phones to order pizza on the way home, and ever-larger McMansions for smaller households. Warehouse stores and credit-card companies thrive in this climate.
There must be a connection between parents working so long and hard to support all this stuff, and kids getting so off-track, in the minds of educators and others who work with children.
The conflict has become a frequent topic, from Newsweek's recent cover about "The Myth of Quality Time" to a best-selling book about "The Time Bind" between home and work.
Baby-boomers themselves seem self-conscious about the lost world they've made for kids -- especially considering how syrupy nostalgic they are about their own childhoods. The current class of parents wanted a world with greater opportunities than their fathers and especially their mothers enjoyed. That they achieved.
But they also unwittingly discarded a lot of the values and intangibles that enriched their families when they were growing up.
The kids playing with Tamagotchis will raise their own true offspring -- not their digital ones -- differently than their parents. It will be interesting to see, a generation hence, whether they try to swing the pendulum back a bit.
Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Sun.
Pub Date: 6/21/97