Do you really need to buy your infant that patterned 'burp cloth' or Baby Einstein DVD?
No, says Pamela Paul, whose new book exposes the extraordinary commercialisation of parenting
Saturday May 24, 2008/Guardian
Pamela Paul, a writer and journalist from New York, had her epiphany in Buybuy Baby superstore - a big US chain - in 2004. Pregnant with her first child, she wanted to buy a few essential baby items; Babygros and maybe a simple wooden cot like the one she slept in as a baby in the 70s. But no. When Paul walked into Buybuy Baby, she was so panicked, she nearly ran out again.
"All this merchandise! I was just completely overwhelmed!" she says. The baby-bedding section alone showcased sheets, mattress liners, quilts, blankets, bumpers, dust ruffles and high-quality crib mattresses (filled with "memory foam"). One mattress even included a built-in, battery-operated vibrator to help soothe colicky babies. She decided she didn't need hooded towels, or extra-soft baby washcloths, patterned burp cloths, silky blankets or bibs. To say nothing of a car seat, buggy, bouncy seat, swing, playmat, a selection of rattles and teethers, and a special black-and-white, high-contrast, mobile to hang over the crib in order to stimulate vision. BuyBuy Baby has 20,000 baby products in one store alone.
"I started thinking, 'Why do we think we need all this stuff?'" recalls Paul. "What's changed? Are we better off? Are our children better off, and how has this changed the way in which we're raising our children?"
The result is Parenting, Inc, an absorbing examination of the commercialisation of parenting. Its style is a heady cocktail of statistics, interviews with experts, and product lists designed to make your head spin. From the vogue for early learning and the boom in "smart' toys" and "edutainment" to the power of celebrity - why some people feel a failure as a parent unless they have the Silver Cross Balmoral Carriage Pram (c£900) like Gwyneth Paltrow and Catherine Zeta-Jones - Parenting, Inc catalogues the juggernaut of spending that is behind a vast global industry.
Although she focuses on America, Britain she says, is not immune. "The buggies are different, the words are different, but you launched Supernanny and Gina Ford" - both hits in America, and part of a lucrative "parenting industry" - "and all the messages parents are getting about things to do and buy, are the same."
Parenting, Inc is depressing reading. It reveals the world of suits behind the "mom market" where profits count for more than anything else. And how playgrounds are just as cut-throat as boardrooms. The implicit duty of any parent today is to outstrip competition, and prepare their offspring for the best university, before they've even been born. Which explains such wonders as BabyPlus Prenatal Education Systems, which teach "sound lessons" in utero. To say nothing of all the additional personnel required to help parents these days: massage therapists, Suzuki-style violin teachers, Kumon maths tutors. "We invest in our babies like they're little businesses," says Paul.
Paul, 37, who lives in New York City, with her husband, Michael, is a parent of two young children (Beatrice, three, and Tobias, one) and author of two well-received polemics - The Starter Marriage and Pornified: How Pornography is Damaging Our Lives - but her first job was for a children's publishing company, where she was manager of a book club: "It was a great job, but I was surprised at the way in which the company knew precisely how to capitalise on parents' weaknesses, fears, anxieties, desires and hopes. The onus is put on the parents that you are the holder of your baby's future, and unless you provide your undivided attention, your baby is going to somehow languish and not fulfil their potential. Of course, most parents can't provide undivided time and attention, because they have jobs and lives, so what they then do is spend money on products and services that will somehow make up for that. It's guilt."
Paul is the first to admit that, as a new mother, she too "slipped off the edge of reasonableness": "I had Gina Ford's The Contented Little Baby Book and her scheduling routine, which said that you were supposed to be playing with the baby on its activity mat during its brief 20-minute wakeful period. So I had these toys: a Mr Whoozit, which is this very garish, brightly coloured thing, which I was waving, and then this activity mat with little dangly toys. And my daughter was supposed to be cooing with delight. But of course, a two-month-old couldn't really care less. We don't realise that, for a baby, the world is stimulating enough, after being in the cocoon of the womb, where the most interesting thing that happens is that Mommy eats meatloaf."
Three years later, Paul has changed. Her house is no longer crammed with baby gear and oversized plastic toys. Getting back to good old common sense is the great theme of Parenting, Inc. And this includes ignoring the wall of death section at her local baby store, with its rows of gadgets to secure every door and drawer, and pad each corner and unpleasant surface, designed to terrify people into a buying frenzy. "We have baby gates, and that's it," she says. "We don't even do the corner pads because, frankly, I think that kids need to learn that corners are sharp."
But the subject guaranteed to provoke groans of exasperation from Paul is the boom in "smart" toys, which claim to boost children's brainpower. "Five years ago, around 10% of Fisher Price toys had some kind of 'smart chip' in that made it move, talk, shake, make music. As of two years ago, it was 75%."
"Children don't need all this stuff," insists Paul, of her daughter's jabbering battery-powered Learn 'n' Play Puppy (it sang Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes when one foot was pressed). Neither do they need "lapware" - software for six-month-olds to use while sitting on their parents' laps.
"There is a huge fear that because we live in a technological age, children need to be comfortable with technology from an early age, which is just nonsense. I didn't start using a mouse until my mid-20s. Now, I bet you couldn't find a better person on the mouse. It's not brain surgery. Before the age of 15, you're basically playing video games, or surfing the net, and let's face it, that doesn't do much for you emotionally or developmentally."
Since researching the book, Paul has also thrown out her TV and is particularly critical of "edutainment" such as Baby Einstein, a multimedia concept of books, toys, DVDs and videos offering "a wealth of brain food for your little genius". She questions the educational value of these kinds of programme:
"Baby Couch Potato would be a more accurate description."
So, what toys does she have? Lego, wooden blocks and little figures. But not Disney, as they have a dictated storyline: "It's all about imaginative play."
It all began, says Paul, not in the hot houses of NYC or London, but with the Romanian orphan crisis of the late 80s, early 90s. "These orphans were discovered languishing in these bare cribs and nobody had uttered a word to them for months and months and the children grew up with all kinds of development delays and cognitive problems. And so, the conclusion was that babies needed stimulation and there was this window that was very important for a baby to be stimulated. That information was misinterpreted to mean: you can stimulate your baby to ever greater heights of achievements, which isn't true."
But what has changed is the sense that the world has become more competitive. Not just for school places, but also for jobs. "If parents are struggling, there's a real desire to provide their child with every opportunity, so their children won't have to struggle in the same way. While for parents who have made it, there is still the stress that the world has got a lot tougher and perhaps their children won't be able to achieve in the way they did."
The other factor is that women's life trajectories no longer run on the same path. You can be a first-time mum at 22 or 42. Friends aren't having babies at the same time. And grandparents are likely to be too distant to help. So, without a built-in support network, mothers turn to a growing number of professionals instead: lactation consultants, postpartum doulas, toilet trainers. Many, says Paul, are charlatans, but actually this was one area where Paul was surprised. "Halfway through writing the book, I gave birth to my second child, Tobey. Everything was a challenge. He screamed and cried inexplicably for hours on end. So as I was interviewing various parenting 'experts', I tested out their approach. And I have to say, they helped."
But she is very disparaging about Baby Deluxe - the rise in luxury parenting products - which she links with the celebrity baby boom and endless magazine pictures of their babies. "Before Demi Moore posed pregnant on the front of Vanity Fair, in 1991, motherhood was considered the least sexy, least exciting thing in terms of Hollywood and celebrity," says Paul. "The entire category of children's goods is influenced by a small number of luxury consumers."
But does this snowball of spending really do any damage, other than to our wallets? Paul groans. Because appetites have reached such a pitch - the average child in America gets 70 new toys a year - children develop low boredom thresholds. The knock-on effect, she says, can be seen in college students. "These people are so passive. Professors at university are saying a straight lecture doesn't engage students any more. They have to show videos."
What is more, so-called smart toys "diminish resourcefulness and inhibit creativity" because they are hostile to improvisation, and so children don't learn to use their imagination when they play.
So, what can parents do? Embrace the concept of benign neglect, she replies. "Often it's just enough to be in the same room with your child and engage with them when they want to be engaged with." Also, she urges parents to "pause and question your motivations before you buy something". A lot of products, she says, are about avoiding discomfort or unhappiness, eg baby wipe warmers. "Everyone wants a happy child, but I think we confuse that with being happy all the time."
· Parenting, Inc by Pamela Paul is published by Times Books