July 6, 2020 - 11:36am

The worst thing for me about the lockdown was the way it impacted my 3-year-old. As she’s an only child, I’ve always worked to ensure she has plenty of opportunities to develop her peer social skills. Whether in preschool or playdates, she seemed to be developing just fine as a little social creature.

Deprived of the company of other kids by lockdown, she went into a kind of mourning. After a few weeks she said to me sadly one bedtime: ‘preschool and dance class are gone now, so it’s bye-bye friends’. Then she seemed to adjust, which worried me even more.

I was right: when preschool reopened she didn’t want to go. It was too much, too loud, too busy, too many conflicting demands. Watching her on playdates since, I’ve seen her struggle with peer interaction in a way she never did pre-lockdown. She’d become rigid, controlling and anxious. At the slightest sign of pushback she’d implode and come running to me, wanting me to make her friend do what she wanted.

Luckily, a solution is on the market: Moxie the robot. According to the sales website this internet-connected machine “provides play-based learning that is paced to weekly themes and missions with content designed to promote social, emotional, and cognitive learning.” Available to pre-order now, it’s been in development for years but Embodied, the manufacturer, must be eyeing the many one-child middle-class families with worries similar to mine and marvelling at the way lockdown has just mushroomed their market.

I won’t be ordering Moxie. The reason this ‘soft skills’ robot won’t work, and in fact will worsen the alienation and misery of those children on whom it is foisted, is precisely because it’s designed to use machine learning to tailor an educational soft-skills journey for each individual.

In all our negotiations with other humans, we’re forced to confront the agency and otherness of people who aren’t us. A degree of conflict is inescapable as we work out how to plot a path between intersecting and sometimes competing desires. When my daughter comes running over on a playdate asking me to be the policeman in a conflict with her friend, my usual response is to refuse. Learning to do this without top-down intervention is a fundamental skill — or should be, and an acceptance of this ongoing process is core to any willingness to participate in human society.

In playdate conflicts, I try and help my daughter find ways to resolve things on her own, or accept that others won’t always do what she wants. But because Moxie is a thing, a machine; it will never do this. It’ll never disagree in surprising ways, or otherwise ambush a child with its otherness. It’ll never object to playing Lego rather than dressing-up, for wholly arbitrary reasons. It won’t ever be in a bad mood one playdate, or interested in Paw Patrol rather than Cinderella.

Instead, it’ll offer carefully structured ‘learning opportunities’ that never jar the child out of the prison of his or her own reality and desires. It’ll teach the opposite of democratic, mutualistic engagement with a genuinely free other, accustoming a child ever more completely to live in a bubble of content-optimised narcissism. Whatever the answer is to how we socialise children in an increasingly anti-social world of radically atomised individuals, Moxie ain’t it.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.