Thursday, September 23, 2010

REVIEW: Parenting, Inc.

What is typically your first thought upon walking into a Babies R Us superstore?
a) yippee! Hand me that registry gun!
b) OMG! Who needs all this stuff?
c) [backing up slowly... too overwhelming... maybe I'll try this later...]

Whatever your response, Parenting, Inc.will be of interest to you. This book is an exploration (and to some extent, expose') of the ways industries small and large find ways to exploit the anxiety of new parents. Sometimes, it's about fear ("if I don't buy this, my child won't live up to his full potential"). Other times, it's about status ("all the moms in our neighborhood have the FancyPants G3 stroller!"). Sometimes, it's perceived convenience or safety ("the bargain-brand car seat doesn't have super-new technology head-protection!").

I especially fall for that last one (though even I wouldn't shell out the extra bucks for a Britax). And it's hard not to. If your kids' safety (or academic opportunity or social integration) really were at stake with a potential purchase, of course you would be tempted to shell out the money. And that's what businesses are counting on. According to author Pamela Paul (whose other books include The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony and Pornified: How Pornography Is Damaging Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families) parents seem to have less confidence in their own inate ability to raise a child. Part of it comes from changing cultural norms, where young families are more isolated, living far from their own parents, and fewer adults today were raised in big families where they helped raise their younger siblings, etc. We feel like we don't know how to parent, and we feel like we need products and experts to fill in the gap. (Of course, the makers of those products are more than happy to exacerbate those feelings.)

The chapter that I dog-eared the most was "Trouble in Toyland," all about how toys are getting more fancy, and--so we would think--educational, but all these advancements are robbing our children of imagination and ingenuity. Paul talks about Tickle Me Elmo as a groundbreaking toy, not just for its recordbreaking Christmas sales ($22 million its first season) but for paving the way for the electronic toy revolution. In the late '90s and beyond, toy makers and consumers started thinking every toy needed to "do" something. It had to light up, make noise, move, whatever. The downside to a toy that "does" something is that the child does less. The toy seems to have one purpose, and that's how you play with it. And, because the lights and sounds are more stimulating and attention-grabbing, kids are losing their ability to play with an object in different ways and for long periods of time. Even among non-electronic toys, things tend to come in sets that leave little room for improvisation--for example, art projects that come pre-packaged with instructions for how to complete the project. (That example made me daydream about one day having Kate draw a necklace or decoration or something and then going to Hobby Lobby together to find the supplies to make what she envisions. Wouldn't that be fun?)

Paul supports these assertions with extensive interviews of educators, child development specialists, and various studies. I tend to agree with her conclusions,  and love the slogan on the Parents line of toys, "The less the toy does, the more the child does." Kate has several battery-powered toys that play music and light up, etc., and they are fun. (We especially love the Fisher-Price Laugh & Learn Learning Puppy. We call it "Affirmation Puppy" because in between its cute songs and rhymes, it says things like "You're fun!" and "You're my friend!") But honestly, the toys Kate seems to enjoy most these days are books, puzzles, play-doh, and crayons. Simple things, and I like to encourage that.

Paul points out, however, that simple things are often more expensive these days. She uses the example of nice wood and fabric puppets (probably only available at a swanky children's boutique) selling for $44, while a "battery-powered, blabbing SpongeBob sells for less than $5 at the local drugstore." True enough. We're planning to get Kate a play kitchen for Christmas, and I've been researching various options online. Consider the two that I've got it pretty much narrowed down to:
The red one on the left is made of wood, very simple and classic, with no automated sounds or included accessories. The brown one on the right is made of plastic, makes sizzling sounds when you put something on the burner, the microwave beeps, etc., and comes with an 18-piece set of plastic food and utensils. It also costs $80 less than the red one. Is that for the cost of materials not made from oil and chemicals, or for the swank factor of being hip and retro? I'm not sure.

Paul's other chapters address things like "edutainment" (videos like Baby Einstein), luxury products for babies (think $300 sweaters and $6000 memberships at Manhattan's "Citibabes" clubs), and--what seems to be Paul's most passionate topic--"outsourcing parenthood," in which she talks about all the experts and consultants parents employ to do things like potty-train their children, teach kids to sleep through the night, childproof your house, coach parents on their discipline, etc. She makes the great point in the "outsourcing" chapter that kids need to trust that their parents are in control, and if their parents can't seem to figure things out for themselves, kids will grow to think that they too can't do things without the help of an "expert."

On the one hand, the examples Paul gives can be rather extreme, perhaps too anecdotal to draw a book's worth of conclusions from. I don't know anyone (living here in the "flyover states" as we do) who would buy a $55 rhinestone-encrusted pacifier or pay $3000 for a series of visits and phone calls with a parenting coach.

On the other hand, the lesson for all of us is to RELAX. Trust your instincts (or at least your ability to figure it out in a reasonable amount of time) and remember that the simple things are often the best--and most educational! Not that battery-powered toys or Baby Einstein videos are bad, but we shouldn't assume that they will teach our kids for us. Kids learn more from discovering 100 ways to play with a cardboard box than they do from an electronic laptop, and more from reading a book with a parent than a book that reads itself to them. Human interaction and natural discovery are the best child development tools, and we shouldn't feel guilty if we don't pay a lot to supplement that with classes and videos and toys purporting to make babies into geniouses.

One of the educators Paul quotes seems to sum it up best when she says,
"If your baby is enthralled by laying on the floor, staring at the ceiling fan--walk away! That's important for them. You're not being neglectful."


SpeasHill said...

Great review; I'd love to borrow the book sometime if you loan books out! I do see more of trend among my friends, though, to rock it old school on the toys and even feel judged occasionally when they see all the light-up and noisy toys we have (not by you guys, fyi). Sometimes I feel like I have to remind them that for us, certain toys meet certain therapeutic needs. (Thankfully, we're moving into a developmental stage in which playing outside is the best thing in the world for her!) But I think there's also latent guilt about her prematurity that makes me over-buy for her in general. Maybe this book could help set me back in order!

Jessica Miller Kelley said...

I got the book through Bookswim (like Netflix) so unfortunately I can't loan it to you!

Funny you mention the latent guilt. Something the author said that I didn't even mention is that she thinks a lot of this is guilt from parents who both work and feel guilty for not spending more time with their kids.

Katie Rose said...

Hey...what a great book totally going to read it. I have been looking at kitchens for JD for Christmas too (and that opens a whole other can of worms...buying a little boy a kitchen). Truth be told in our household Andrew does most of the cooking and JD is always right there watching and wanting to "cook" too. FYI...the plastic kitchen you showed is available now at the Franklin Costco, I do like it in person, but I am also a fan of the retro wooden ones too!

Amy said...

The first time my husband ever entered a Babies R Us he said, "Gee, how do people in less affluent countries, places with no stores with 8 bajillion baby items, ever manage to raise their babies?" He immediately knew it was all hooey. I knew it too but that didn't stop me having fun with the registry gun.

(We did buy two Britax car seats and I've never regretted that investment - they are awesome.)

EMU said...

Great review. Lots of the things you mentioned are sentiments I've been reading and hearing lately. I've added it to my book list! :)

Anonymous said...

I remember going to register at Babies R Us when I was pregnant with my first son and being so overwhelmed by all the "stuff". I wondered "Do I really need a diaper genie or a wipe warmer?" I wished that I would have brought a more experienced mom with me to help guide me through the aisles so I would know which things I would actually "need" once the baby arrived. Great review - it sounds like a wonderful book that will be a help to new paretns.


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