Start ’Em Young

Pamela Paul, Parenting, Inc. (Times Books, 2008)

Okay, who would win a fight between Mickey Mouse and Baby Elmo? Or, better yet, imagine a drunken brawl between all the residents of Sesame Street and the original Disney characters: Big Bird’s got Donald Duck in a headlock. Daffy takes off with Cookie Monster’s stash of oatmeal raisins. Oscar the Grouch whacks Pluto over the head with a garbage can lid….

It might seem a farfetched bit of fantasy, but check out the baby-supply aisle of any American superstore (it may help if you’re a deliriously sleep-deprived new parent) and you’ll see that these teams exist, and they’ve got corporate sponsors. It’s nearly impossible to find a diaper (much less a pacifier, milk bottle, sippy cup, pair of PJs, or burp cloth) that doesn’t sport the furry face of some iconic creature from your childhood, vying for a moment of nostalgia and a trip to the cash register.

Think for a minute, and you’ll realize that the spokespersons of the baby aisle aren’t intended to appeal to their products’ end-users, who are likely still fuzzy on the difference between a Snuffleupagus and a flying elephant. They’re aimed at an older target—yes, you! The one with the wallet!

The American parenting industry, with all its gimmickery and manipulation, is the subject of Pamela Paul’s most recent book, Parenting, Inc.: How We Are Sold on $800 Strollers, Fetal Education, Baby Sign Language, Sleeping Coaches, Toddler Couture, and Diaper Wipe Warmersand What It Means for Our Children.

The book delivers exactly what its title promises. Based on an extensive series of interviews and studies, Paul systematically debunks the claims of the modern “mom market,” a $1.7 trillion industry that inundates parents with the message that raising children requires an enormous, ever-growing amount of stuff.

Our own moms and dads wouldn’t have dreamed that they needed a whale-singing stuffed companion to lull their babies to sleep (The Sleep Sheep, $19.70), or a patented rubber band to keep toddlers out of the toilet paper (TP Saver, $6.99). So how have today’s parents been turned into such suckers? Paul argues that baby-gear companies have become experts at playing on our anxieties. “The marketing pitch is usually predicated on fear,” she says, “and it starts right away and relentlessly.”

From the moment a mom-to-be walks into her local baby store, she comes face-to-face with what’s alternately known to marketers as the “Wall of Fear” or the “Wall of Death”—row after row of products designed to rescue children from all the terrible fates you never imagined could befall them. There are locks for drawers, gates for stairways, pads for every conceivable nook and corner—and that’s just the low-tech end of the market. Parents are exhorted to spend hundreds of dollars on hidden cameras for their nannies, movement sensors to track babies’ breathing, and car-seat video monitors that ensure they’ll never have to take their eyes off their infants—not even in the middle of traffic.

Once the little one has been inured against disaster, parents are free to peruse the world of baby entertainment. Infant toys are no longer mere baubles. Electronic “learning pads” promote babies’ understanding of causal relationships. “Discovery” flash cards enhance tiny powers of recall. “Edutainment” DVDs teach everything from basic math to art history. Study after study finds that these products fail to live up to their hype—it turns out that kids still learn best the old-fashioned way, from books made of paper and communication with real, three-dimensional adults—but parents are terrified of denying their children advantages that will be afforded to their little peers. Faced with an educational climate of competition that begins with the nursery school application, parents are vulnerable to the message, as Paul puts it, “that it’s their duty to get their children Ivy League-ready before they’ve left the crib.”

There’s nothing new about the argument that members of so-called Generation X (who make up two-thirds of people parenting children under age 12) are especially susceptible to advertising. X-ers were the first generation of kids to be raised by the electronic babysitter and sung to sleep by their licensed-character friends. But there’s something particularly creepy about the idea of marketers so thoroughly inveigling their way into our relationships with our children. Surely, if anything is inviolable in a market-capital economy, shouldn’t it be the natural trepidation we bring to the task of nurturing another human being?

Apparently not. The most revealing parts of Paul’s book come when she convinces marketing executives to tip their grubby hands, explaining how they manipulate parents’ most tender insecurities. The founder of a high-end baby catalogue explains his success as follows: “The real reason people would buy things is because they wanted the best for their kids and they felt extraordinary levels of guilt because they were working.” From a marketing report that encourages baby-gear manufacturers to update the safety features on their products: “…the constantly improving technology will motivate many parents to go out and buy such products new, as opposed to picking up outdated versions second-hand, or accepting them from a neighbor.” As Paul says, “Don’t say you haven’t been warned.”

The challenge of making an argument like Paul’s is to effectively set the stakes—to convince readers that they should be concerned, if not alarmed, by toys and gadgets that have become the ordinary paraphernalia of childhood. Paul succeeds because she is relentless in her marshaling of evidence. She supports her claims with dozens of expert interviews and an impressive mass of data, and she writes buoyantly enough to keep a reader afloat through all the numbers. The result is a thorough and convincing attack against our culture of consumer parenting. Paul deserves credit for taking on a giant.

Contributor

Abigail Kramer

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