Saturday, May 17, 2008

Book Review: Parenting, Inc., by Pamela Paul

The other night, Jeremy and I were at a social gathering whose guests mainly consisted of students, faculty, and staff of the University of Arizona, specifically in or related to Jeremy’s program. There was one other woman there with a young child (five years old), or at least she was the only one who had brought her child. When we were introduced to each other, the first question she asked me was:

“So, what extracurriculars have you enrolled your daughter in?”

I could tell the question she was trying to ask was something more like “so, do you do stuff with your daughter?” So I told her that we go to Storytime at the library, a church playgroup, and…actually, that’s it, as far as regular, standing activities go.

The funny thing is, I just finished reading Parenting, Inc.: How We Are Sold on $800 Strollers, Fetal Education, Baby Sign Language, Sleeping Coaches, Toddler Couture, and Diaper Wipe Warmers – and What It Means for Our Children, which addresses, in part, this very topic. (It does not, however, get into the titular diaper wipe warmer, which is too bad, because really, what is up with those??)

In many ways, Pamela Paul’s book reminded me of Muffy Mead-Ferro’s Confessions of a Slacker Mom, though it is considerably more scholarly and fleshed out. Don’t let “scholarly” scare you, though. The author does cite a lot of research and statistics, and she conducted extensive interviews with people across the parenting and baby business spectrum, but the book reads more like an interesting article from Time Magazine than one from The Economist.

Parenting, Inc. had the strange effect of making me feel guilty about not enrolling my child in every potential brain- or skills-boosting class out there, and then reminding me of my own reasons why I didn’t do so in the first place. Those reasons (both mine and those she cites) include the potential for overscheduling, cost, unsubstantiated hype about supposed benefits, activities that can be replicated for free at home/church/the park, too-rigid (or not rigid enough) class structure, and the age-inappropriate focus of some classes/activities.

I say I felt guilty at first because I had no idea there was such a thing as Little Maestros until this book told me that moms enrolled their three-month-olds in the program.

And then, of course, I took a step back and realized that I didn’t enroll Miriam in any classes at age 0.25 because…well, pick a reason. I’m sure many of you agree with me that at that age, such an extracurricular activity is just not necessary. If nothing else, there’s the old standby that I often fall back on: I didn’t have [whatever] when I was growing up, and I turned out just fine. Right?

Other topics in Parenting, Inc. include:

Toys. Don’t even get me started here. I am a toy minimalist, to begin with, and even when we buy toys, I try not to get anything over-branded, excessively battery-ified, or something that really only does one thing. There are exceptions, of course – I try not to be a Nazi about it – but good, classic, creativity-building toys like blocks, cars, trains, books, and balls are more my style.

I had to laugh at this particular passage (p85):

“While shopping recently at Planet Kids on New York’s Upper East Side, I observed a sixtyish woman enter the store and hold a toy truck aloft. She inspected it from various angles, poking and prodding its appendages and wheels. ‘What does this do?’ she finally asked a store clerk, a note of confused annoyance slipping into her voice. ‘It’s a truck,’ the clerk replied. The woman humphed and set the toy aside. ‘I don’t want to buy something that doesn’t do anything,’ she replied, as if plastic trucks couldn’t vroom along the way they always have in the hands of an energetic toddler. ‘Where are the toys that do something? I want to give my grandson something that has more value.’”

Also, why do toys today have to be so darn educational? Every toy on the shelves, it seems, is emblazoned with a list of its developmental benefits. Can I not just buy a bin of blocks? Must the blocks proclaim that they help with hand-eye coordination?

TV/Videos/DVDs. You already know my feelings about Baby Einstein. And I couldn’t help but feel justified when the author of the book called Ms. Aigner-Clark on her claim that the videos “expose little ones to the world around them and encourage parent-child interaction.” We put in a DVD for our kid so we don’t have to spend time with them, remember? And in fact, back in 1999, Baby Einstein admitted that, too (p129): the videos will “stimulate your baby in your absence, allowing you time to take a shower, make a phone call or do other brief chores baby-free.” Now that’s more like it.

Some of the guilt on this subject remains, though, since I often get my dictionary work done while Miriam is occupied watching Sesame Street. I know there are worse things out there, and the girl has probably never seen a commercial advertisement in her life, but still.

So obviously, I’m OK with my daughter watching “TV” (the author gives up – for good reason – trying to distinguish between TV, DVDs, etc., because the companies who produce programming blur the lines), as long as I’m not kidding myself that she’s going to become fluent in Chinese by doing so.

Baby Hud. OK, OK, the author doesn’t call it that in her book, but what other word for it is there when we’re talking about LED diaper-wetness monitors? Yes, babies and kids do require a lot of gear, more than our parents got by with, for sure. But we have to draw the line somewhere. I won’t say too much more on this topic because I know that if I make fun of [item] too much, I’ll get comments from people telling me how indispensable [item] was for them.

Well, maybe just one soapbox: snap-out infant carseats, complete with travel system monster strollers. And I’d better stop there.

This review is getting too long, so if you’ve found it interesting, go and read the book. Even if you don’t agree with everything the author says (I certainly didn’t, though it might sound like I did), it is a fascinating look into the world of modern parenting.

In fact, the only people who probably won’t enjoy this book are those who did buy an $800 stroller. Attention these people: this book makes fun of you.

Now I can happily return to my life of not buying hud toys or high-fashion clothing for my daughter – guilt-free.


Liz Johnson said...

I want to read this. And I'm more grateful every day that I didn't get a Chariot (or else I would have been made fun of, ha), since the only real difference I could find was a reclining seat. Not worth $600. Sorry.

Nancy Heiss said...

So, we got a travel system. But only because the travel system was $80, while a lone car seat was about $60.

Can I just say that I hate it. It's big, it's bulky, it doesn't fold down well, it doesn't steer well, and I rarely snapped the car seat into it anyway.

I hate our car seat, too. You can't use it without the base. We didn't notice that before we bought it. How lame is that?

Next baby we'll, unfortunately, still be using it...but maybe the next, or the next, we'll have something more useful.

PS. I hate car seat laws, too. Come have to be in seats until they're like 8 years old or something. Lame-o. Egypt, we welcome your lax car seat laws.

Pamela Paul said...

Hi Bridget, Pamela Paul here, author of Parenting, Inc. I just wanted to thank you for the in-depth post and all the thought you gave to my book. You clearly got it! It was a bit funny to me to read the "reads like Time rather than The Economist" bit b/c I used to write for The Economist and now I write for Time! I guess my style has shifted. Anyway, always a pleasure to read a smart post on the book. Thanks again!

Bridget said...

I hope you didn't take the Time vs. Economist comment the wrong way - I meant it to help people get the jist of the tone of the book, not a complete evaluation of its register.

Thanks for commenting! I'm really, really glad I liked your book so I don't have to worry that I hurt anyone's feelings (except perhaps those people who spent $800 on a stroller...).

Aimee & Fam said...

I don't understand why the "luxury" strollers are $800 in the USA, anyway. In Austria we bought a very nice stroller w/bassinet, and regular old reclining chair with a huge shopping basket underneath as well as inclement weather garb. It can be steered one-handed, goes up and down curbs, folds flat, etc etc etc for no where near the price it would cost in the USA. Vienna is a an urban walking culture and a good stroller is a necessity. Is that the difference, or do Austrians realize the ridiculousness of the statement: price automatically equals quality?

This looks like a book I would enjoy. I hate toys that sing, talk, beep, and move. When I babysat for different kids(up until last summer), I have noticed a serious loss of imagination over the past 16 years. Kids need to be allowed to dream up their own scenarios, not be told that this toy is supposed to do this and ONLY this. How is that educational? I like toys by "Melissa & Doug." Cardboard boxes and pots go a long way in the "fun toy" department.

I agree with your soapbox of the "travel system" strollers. I bought one carseat, nb-45 lbs, and the looks and comments I have received when I reveal that I don't have a "carrier" carseat for my toddler-sized newborn. You would think I was doing irreparable harm to my son. I hated those carseat/carriers when I was a nanny, why would I want a completely useless item and pay twice the money and have one more thing to store in my already overfilled garage?? The only advantage is having a place to store said nb when we (rarely) make it out to dinner.

Bridget said...

The book gives the story of the Bugaboo's arrival in the US and briefly addresses your question, Aimee. High-end strollers like that cost as much as they do in America because people will pay it. There's one part in the book where she interviews a high-end children's furniture manufacturer who flat-out admits that he charges as much as he can for cribs, etc., while still being able to look people in the eye.

That kind of disgusts me. But then again, if people will pay it, who am I to tell him how to run his business?

Mikael said...

I agree with everything you just said. I am a "2nd hand" mom. I go on craigslist and get items from those dumb moms that did spend hundreds on strollers, but I get them for under $100! Pretty good deal :)
I also scored some barely used Nike shoes and reeboks for little baby boys (who actually buys these things? they can't even walk! Luckily I got them free)

Nattie said...

Let's see, love Baby Einstein. It's what kept me sane when Sam was a baby and I was pregnant with Charly. They were the only movies she would watch from 6 months on.

I have a travel snap-in system, love it. It is big, but what double stroller isn't? I can use the car seat without the base. I personally have never seen one that you couldn't...I have a hard time believing they would even make one that you couldn't, such as Nancy's.

I agree with everything else, though.

Bridget said...

I didn't necessarily say that I didn't like Baby Einstein. I just disagree with their claims and also with the use to which a lot of parents put it. I just don't think it's any more "educational" than just about any other DVD you put in, but if it's the only thing your kid will watch, go for it. Just don't assume they'll be learning foreign languages while you shower :).

"Like," "don't like" - we're talking about a children's DVD. I don't think those terms apply for us parents.

Shannan said...

Bridget, just read this post during my coffee break.

Let me tell you a brief story. I used to live in Seattle - well actually different parts of affluent Seattle suburbs (aka Microsoft money town). I was a teacher in the local community college's parent education program which was frequented by all the affluent families of the "eastside". During our weekly parenting discussions that I led, I heard many upon many a story about all the essential equipment and trendy baby type programs and classes that people's children had and were partcipating in. Since I was young and poor, my kid never got expensive stuff and we had to settle for daily walks to the park and library instead of Gymboree classes and infant sign language. Shoot, we never even got hooked on Baby Einstein because I couldn't afford it. My kid got the basic stuff. As an educator, I knew the value, but I still kind of felt I was not giving him the all.

Well, 9 years later, we do have a bit more money and we have the ability to partcipate in the type of parenting your book describes. However, I just don't want to. I loved the pared down and simple life I had with the first two. I figure I'll keep on going since I have two smart, funny, and engaging boys who never got fancy stuff and who never watched TV until they were 18 months old.

This is the part. I had to buy all new equipment for my latest babe and I knew that i needed a really good stroller. So I asked two of my SEattle friends and they said that I must get the MacClaren stroller. So out I went to Babies R Us to figure out which stroller to buy. Graco has this IPO stroller which is kind of a knock off of the MacClaren and I found it to be much easier to use and lighter and had a bit more features. It was $80 vs. $250 for the MacClaren. I tossed and turned about it because even though we could afford the MacClaren, is it really a better stroller? Am I just buying the status symbol of the more expensive stroller? So I opted for the Graco and you know what? I love it a lot more and I got a cleaning lady for two weeks with the money I saved. Sounds good to me!!

Looking forward to seeing that book.

Jennifer said...

I just finished reading this book. Thanks for the recommendation! I admit, I took a two week break in the middle of the was almost more than I could handle to read about all these ridiculous things parents buy into and think they need to be good parents. (I think it was the chapters on toys and classes that did me in. My favorite chapters were the ones about baby gear and outsourcing parenting). She makes some excellent points and there were a whole lot of things I didn't know existed before either.

However, I'm kind of curious how the downturn in the economy has affected all these things. Granted, there are still plenty of wealthy people in this country who are willing to pay top dollar for stuff, but certainly there are plenty of people who would have been willing to pay $1000 for a nursery in 2006, but wouldn't now.


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