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September 12, 2014 7:33 PM   Subscribe

A trope in our media and culture is that little girls disport themselves by holding mock tea parties with stuffed animals as the party guests. Two questions: ① Do 21st-century children actually do this? ② If so, how do they get the idea for it? Just from popular culture in which the trope is portrayed, or do some adults not in my social circle still actually hold tea parties which they're imitating,† or is it all via parents and siblings and peers communicating the idea to play this way? Or maybe toy manufacturers and advertising of tea-party-related toys and accessories?

③ Bonus question: I know that anthropologically children often imitate adults at play, so in what other cultures are there cases like this, of children imitating a particular formalized or ritualized adult social event, which has then become a quintissential symbol of children at play in media?

Do they hold tea parties in modern-day Britain? Somehow I've never thought to ask any of the Brits I know, despite having drunk tea with them. Maybe it does happen in my social circle but I'm not invited.
posted by XMLicious to Society & Culture (35 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
My 21st-century daughter has play tea parties, but she's been exposed to them in all the ways you mention: through books in which this kind of play happens (which I think is how she comes to call them "tea parties"), by having been given a tea set as a gift, and by having attended many real-life gatherings in which people consume tea and sweets. The latter wouldn't be called a "tea party" and isn't at all formal but certainly feautres a group of people sitting down together to have tea and maybe some cake or some cookies, which is also the form her play tea parties take.
posted by redfoxtail at 7:43 PM on September 12, 2014 [4 favorites]


My 2yr old niece just lost her damn mind playing tea party with the cat, Kiley Doll, Black Puppy, and Bitey Blue Dragon. They had tea, tiny plastic cup cakes for the dolls, a real cake for the kid, and no cake for the cat who thought it was bullshit and left early. Kiley always has to go to timeout because she can't handle her tea and cupcakes so it kinda always ends up like the aftermath of a Ke$ha themed brunch -- glitter everywhere and everyone is kinda sticky but seems satisfied? Except Kiley.

I am sad to say she learned all this by watching me. I really like tea and cupcakes, and used to host cupcake parties related to steampunk and scifi.
posted by spunweb at 7:44 PM on September 12, 2014 [60 favorites]


Every time I look at the kid/baby stuff in Homegoods, I see multiple tea sets for sale. I don't remember anyone telling me to have a tea party with my stuffed animals when I was a child, but I had a tea set and I remember thinking, more or less, "I'm an only child; if I want to use the whole set I need to pretend I have guests. I know! I will have my stuffed animals sit with me and they can be my guests." It wasn't that much of a leap.
posted by gatorae at 7:56 PM on September 12, 2014 [6 favorites]


Do 21st-century children actually do this?

Holy shit yes. My 6 year old daughter enacts elaborate, weeks long psychodramas with her stuffed animal cohorts. Tiny Mr Thief Fox and Sally-Anne the Unicorn are inviting Piglet for jam scones as I type this.

As far as I know we have never encouraged or suggested this behaviour in the slightest.

As a general thing I'd put it down to emergent behavious arising from a desire to enact observed social rituals in easily controlled forms. As to why it's a little girl behavious; Essentialism (suggesting girls and boys are different in any way apart from external genitalia) is something of a dirty word at the moment, so I guess it can't be anything to do with that?

Or perhaps, it is that existing essential differences are channelled and amplified by the existing culture (so the occasional boy who wants to have rockin' tea parties gets a soft or hard negative response to it and so eschews their delights quicksmart)?
posted by Sebmojo at 8:00 PM on September 12, 2014 [6 favorites]


My 2 year old son learned about tea parties at daycare. He hasn't thrown one at home yet but he does know what they are and is a happy participant at daycare. Of course boys have tea parties.
posted by medusa at 8:03 PM on September 12, 2014 [8 favorites]


emergent behavior arising from a desire to enact observed social rituals in easily controlled forms.

Yeah, pretty much this. Our 2.5 year old daughter likes to have little discussions with her stuffed animals I think because she wants to talk the way mommy and daddy too... she is trying words and ideas out with props. Sometimes a tea set is involved.
posted by selfnoise at 8:25 PM on September 12, 2014 [3 favorites]


In answer to the portion about other formalized social events that are frequently enacted by small children:

I've had several friends/acquaintances confess to their youthful extra-ecclesiastical baptisms of inanimate objects, younger siblings or small pets.

My partner also last month taught his six-year-old niece to perform the fraction (the breaking of the bread at the Eucharist) with a round tortilla chip, which she seemed to enjoy -- however this may not fit your parameters as this was definitely an adult-instigated performance....
posted by tivalasvegas at 8:26 PM on September 12, 2014 [5 favorites]


Oh, on the same day I taught her the dark arts of underwater mime tea parties. We'll see if she remembers how to do that when I see her next.
posted by tivalasvegas at 8:28 PM on September 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


My son hasn't called it "tea parties" that I've heard, but he does serve food to various creatures, and me, and has them feed each other, and slurps noisily at tiny empty cups. He uses some parts from my childhood set but took them down from the bookcase one day and knew exactly what was up with no prompting.

Food is such a universal human thing, so clearly a thing that grownups engage with all the time, a place where kids discover so many forms of socialization, that it makes sense that sharing a fancy meal would be a common form of learning-through-roleplay.
posted by tchemgrrl at 8:29 PM on September 12, 2014 [3 favorites]


On the gender question: my sense is that in general, domestic make-believe-type stuff — dress-up, playing house, that sort of thing — ends up treated either as gender neutral or as Just For Girls. (That is, I've definitely seen groups of kids where boys are allowed to join in on playing house. But I'd be startled to see a group of kids where boys were the only ones expected to play house, and girls who wanted to join in were rejected or treated as weird. Whereas there are definitely groups of kids where girls are the only ones expected to play house and boys who want to play house are rejected or treated as weird.)

So the gendering of tea parties fits in with that.

I think sometimes this stuff comes explicitly from adults. But it doesn't have to. The thing is, kids at that age are really curious about gender, and also really inclined to round up from "I have observed this pattern among the dozen adults that I know" to "This is How The World Works." And there is a general tendency in our culture to assume that women are going to be more involved in domestic stuff than men. So it's not at all surprising that some kids round up from "I've noticed that some people expect women to do more domestic stuff than men" to "Domestic stuff is Just For Girls, playing house is Just For Girls, playing tea party is Just For Girls, anyone who deviates from this is a weirdo." Not every kid rounds up like that; but many definitely do, and all it takes for the meme to start spreading is one or two kids in a play group or preschool class who decide that they're going to enforce the idea.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:29 PM on September 12, 2014 [4 favorites]


"so in what other cultures are there cases like this, of children imitating a particular formalized or ritualized adult social event, which has then become a quintissential symbol of children at play in media?"

Children imitate their parents' work* and religious rituals, without any prompting and often hilariously filtered through toddler understanding, the work rituals being so widespread that you can buy kids' toys to supplement just about any version of adult work that there is. They also imitate telephone rituals starting very, very early, often before they have the words, exactly mimicking their parents' tone. Kids with toy phones are pretty iconic in lots of cultures.

Cooking, eating, teaching, and purchasing things at a shop are all adult rituals that children naturally imitate without any prompting. They also like to send their stuffed animals to the naughty step and disciplining them the way they're disciplined by their parents.

*my husband and I both had some management responsibility in cases of terminating seriously problematic employees at the same time, and the first time my older son imitated us working, we found him scowling at a piece of paper, a discarded draft of a memo, making grumpy-sounding "hmpfs!" at it. "What've you got there, buddy?" "It is a paper to fire some guy!" he said cheerfully.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:30 PM on September 12, 2014 [46 favorites]


Yeah, my mother grew up in a very Spanish Catholic house and she and her sisters would play "communion" with Necco Wafers. I had a whole platoon of stuffed animals and instead of tea parties, I would create elaborate broadway musicals so I could sing to myself in bed as each animal performed their musical number.
posted by PussKillian at 8:31 PM on September 12, 2014 [6 favorites]


Forgot to add that the child of a friend of mine, whose dad is a chef, definitely served very carefully thought-out food to a pretend restaurant full of his toys. This would have been about 6 years ago.
posted by PussKillian at 8:33 PM on September 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


My kids still play tea party at 9 and 10! They've been playing for most of their lives, I suppose. They like to get fancy, line up some dolls/animals, make menus, invite parents, etc.

We don't have a whole lot of tv/internet use at home, but likely they picked it up because I *loved* playing tea party as a kid and I bought them a tea set.

So, it's a family thing at our house. Not sure for how much longer, but I'm playing as long as invitations are coming my way!
posted by mamabear at 8:34 PM on September 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


I definitely played tea parties (in the 80s) and know that children do nowadays as well. My just-barely-2yo was introduced to the concept last week and got it immediately, though she has yet to initiate it at home. I think to some extent it's an offshoot of very young toddlers pretending to feed their stuffed animals/dolls, which she's been doing (without ever having been encouraged) for months and months now.

I know that anthropologically children often imitate adults at play, so in what other cultures are there cases like this, of children imitating a particular formalized or ritualized adult social event, which has then become a quintissential symbo

My daughter has imitated computer usage, talking and typing on a cell phone, and video games as well. She has been two for less than 12 hours, and it just blows my mind how fast she picked up the technology aspect of what we adults use for entertainment. Luckily she is more frequently imitating me writing with a pencil or cooking or reading a book, so I think I'm doing something right.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 8:36 PM on September 12, 2014


If my late 20th century recollections are relevant, the "tea party" acting out is mostly based on grownups' interactions around dinner parties, restaurants, etc. While my play dishes included a "tea set", I don't remember there being any special relevance to the tea angle of the party. It's really just Ersatz Adult Gathering. It was enacted in approximately the same spirit as Pretend School, Pretend Doctor's Office, Pretend Nuclear Family Domestic Scene, Pretend Driving A Car, etc.
posted by Sara C. at 8:51 PM on September 12, 2014 [3 favorites]


My 2 year old son loves his tea set. It's a great introduction to pretend play - everything else he plays with is very literal (trucks, trains, puzzles, etc.) This is the first thing he really understands to be a pretend gesture/activity.
posted by judith at 8:59 PM on September 12, 2014


Also, my various forms of pretend play in the manner of a tea party were always co-ed. In fact, the boys would be really mad if we didn't invite them. I think it's a media trope that this is what little girls do while little boys are horsing around and making toy guns out of legos due to a biological desire to enact masculinity, but real talk, the boys were always around.
posted by Sara C. at 9:04 PM on September 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


My daughter was 3 when she came home from kindy, went to her bookcase and pulled out an old magazine then flicked through it to a page about volcanoes then informed me we had to take it to kindy the next day so she could show the teacher. I'm a librarian and I was ridiculously pleased with her research skills. When she plays on the phone she mimics my intonations (I'm horrible to talk to I think). She mimics her father when she sits down to play games. Playing shops is another childhood ritual play zone I think.

Her tea parties tend to be similar to my own gatherings - "how do you take your tea?" and "would you like a bikkie?" then a lot of chatting. And then tidying, most gratifyingly.

BUT, we've sat down and played tea with her since she was a little one (and cooking, and building, and she loves playing Godzilla). I rarely see the parents of boys doing that - they'll sit down and pretend fight with action figures, build things, but not tea parties and dress ups. The little boys who come play with my daughter will often play tea parties, or ponies, or whatever the game is, but for most of them that's not even an option at home. They don't have tea sets, or ponies, or dolls with clothes, and their stuffed toys have been put away (and the cups belong in the kitchen, and so on). So there's a lot of nurture going into the 'boys don't play tea parties' idea. Not to mention the rules of tea partying tend to preclude iron man destroying the tea set and if he does he comes in for a very lengthy time out. Which rather negates the purpose sometimes.
posted by geek anachronism at 9:36 PM on September 12, 2014 [5 favorites]


That's interesting! So parents, do some of you perhaps introduce the tea party as a particularly apt vehicle for teaching etiquette and manners versus other sorts of play? Or to reinforce the practical steps surrounding eating a meal? That hadn't occurred to me before but it seems obvious.
posted by XMLicious at 10:00 PM on September 12, 2014


What's great about a tea party is the script is so simple. The gestures are so easy to mime and read, you don't even need real food, real cups or even real guests! You can imagine your guests, put a pinky in the air to sip your imaginary tea ("Ooh! Too hot! Better blow on it...."), and have the most delicious tower of imaginary sweets. It's good all-ages and all-gender play (really) and does "practice" polite social norms.
posted by amanda at 10:26 PM on September 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


I would like to see she's learned how to share, but frankly the only thing I've observed is that she's learned...

1. How to drink from a tea cup vs a bottle or sippy cup without banging her teeth

2. If she has the party, she can put people into timeout because when you host you are the boss of the party

3. The cat is interesting but confusing, and doesn't like tea
posted by spunweb at 10:47 PM on September 12, 2014 [5 favorites]


I had real tea parties with my kid, pouring tea into cups and eating biscuits from a fancy plate, and when she got a tiny basket with tin tea cups and the like, she was in heaven. She makes playdough cakes and fills up the pot with water and serves everyone. If people are not around to participate, then dolls and toys take part. Right now, she is re-enacting Baba Yaga who will cook and eat the other participants at her tea party, but usually it's a cheerful cakes and tea thing.

There's incidental modelling of manners, but it's not frequent enough to replace normal manners teaching at the dinner table. It's just fun.

Note: do not drink actually the tea that is presented to you. Ever. Even if it looks like water. You will then discover the child refilled the teapot from the toilet.
posted by viggorlijah at 10:48 PM on September 12, 2014 [13 favorites]


My nearly 3 year old daughter definitely has held tea parties for her stuffed toys. I suspect she learned the behaviour from my mother; some of my most vivid memories of childhood games are with my mother and my stuffed animals, with tiny marmite sandwiches...

As far as grown-ups in Britain go, I can confirm that, among my friends and family, tea parties are definitely A Thing - most family outings seem to end with an event involving tea and cakes that, while not a formal thing, is very definitely more than just being offered some cake with your tea, and several of my friends have had formal tea parties for their birthdays or whatever in the last few years.
posted by kumonoi at 12:46 AM on September 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


We don't have a play tea set, but the first time my daughter encountered one, at playgroup at two and a bit, she started pouring and asked "do you take sugar, madam?". I have no idea where this came from, but it was entirely natural. They pick things up by osmosis.
posted by goo at 1:12 AM on September 13, 2014


I babysit a three-year-old boy frequently. He definitely does tea-parties, and they are the norm for social events in his family (rather than dinner or lunch), so that isn't strange at all.
posted by mumimor at 1:32 AM on September 13, 2014


I wonder if Alice in Wonderland has something to do with introducing little girls to the idea. Kids still grow up with the story, and the Mad Tea Party is an unforgettable scene. I don't think a lot of kids are pretending to be Mad Hatters and March Hares, but the book may put the idea of a tea party in their heads.

So it's not at all surprising that some kids round up from "I've noticed that some people expect women to do more domestic stuff than men" to "Domestic stuff is Just For Girls, playing house is Just For Girls, playing tea party is Just For Girls, anyone who deviates from this is a weirdo."

Kids sure aren't the only ones who do that, sadly.

My daughter has imitated computer usage.

My cat used to imitate my computer usage. No shit. He would watch me tapping away at the laptop for hours on end and every now and then he would get curious and come over and tap his paw on it, looking at the keyboard very intently. He figured out how to hop up on the top of the couch and open up the door to the back of the house too, working the door handle with his clumsy little paws. He was smarter than a lot of folks I've met.

I suspect he would have been down for a tea party, as long as there were butter cookies.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:27 AM on September 13, 2014 [5 favorites]


Doing what the adults do is a really important developmental step for the primates, too. When you live in a complex world with complicated social rules and expectations,
posted by ChuraChura at 2:59 AM on September 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


Most of the answers above are consistent with my experience. I'll just add that formal tea parties are available in the U.S. My daughter's grandmother brings my daughter to a tea house every year and they dress up and have tea with sandwiches and cakes. But this is someone who adores her only granddaughter, wants her to have a somewhat idealized experience and has always showered her with somewhat old-fashioned toys and books.

Both kids (I also have a son) played with plastic and china tea sets well before the trips to the tea houses began (at around age four, when table etiquette and patience were developed enough for the rituals of the tea house). But my guess is that those tea house trips influence my daughter in playing tea with little ones while babysitting, etc. so the tradition is carried on.
posted by Sukey Says at 3:28 AM on September 13, 2014


Kids see adults socialise with food and beverages all the time, it may not be with tea and scones in your part of the world but coffee and donuts, coffee and biscotti, tea and biscuits etc etc. It's pretty universal and important social activity. Gathering imaginary friends around and practicing skills in a fun manner is a lot of what play is about.
posted by wwax at 5:39 AM on September 13, 2014


Kids want to do what they see grownups do, and most of the adult socialising done by parents while looking after little kids involves tea and cake; having a toddler with you limits your social options.
posted by emilyw at 7:35 AM on September 13, 2014


My four-year-old daughter and two-year-old son both love tea parties. Before I bought them an actual plastic tea set my daughter would always ask for some tea whenever I would make a mug, and I would give her a tiny bit of decaf with lots of milk and she would feel special and grown-up. N'thing that children love to mimic adult behavior.
posted by celtalitha at 11:07 AM on September 13, 2014


My daughter does tea parties and will inherit all my tea equipment. She is seven and has a reluctant brother for tea service and a herd of compliant dolls.
posted by jadepearl at 7:34 PM on September 13, 2014


Oh I just remembered the most amazing "child plays by mimicking adult" video:

A still-crawling baby does a VERY CREDITABLE attempt at CPR on a Red Cross teaching dummy. I mean, lock your elbows, baby, but that's a kid who's definitely watched a parent teach that class several times and she wants to play too!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:02 PM on September 13, 2014 [4 favorites]


Oh, whoops. I thought I closed this window without posting. What I mean to post was that, living in a complex world with lots of social and foraging skills you need to know, means you have to spend some time as a child developing and practicing those skills. So you see things like "aunting," where juvenile female primates will snag their younger siblings from their mother and carry them around on their bellies, or trying to keep them from misbehaving. And you see a lot of time where babies are observing what their mothers are doing very closely, especially when you have a complicated behavior to pick up. My two favorite examples of this are baby capuchins learning how to use a hammer stone to break open palm nuts, and baby chimpanzees doing something similar (sorry, ignore the stupid narration).
posted by ChuraChura at 7:03 AM on September 14, 2014


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