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Pamela Paul’s ‘Parenting, Inc.’ finds parents buying into consumer craze


Charity Vogel

The Buffalo News
March 25, 2008


You may remember her controversial first book, “The Starter Marriage,” which outlined a trend among people in their 20s and 30s for short first marriages and quick divorces.

Or maybe her second book, “Pornified,” which looked at the proliferation of pornography in modern American society.

Now, Pamela Paul is once again taking on a taboo topic: how today’s young parents are raising their babies.

In “Parenting, Inc.,” due for release next Tuesday, freelance journalist Paul dissects what she sees as the over-commercialization of parenting and babyhood.

The subtitle of the book conveys her concerns: “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.”

Reached at her home in New York City, where she was catching a break from caring for her two kids under age 3 — Beatrice and Tobias — Paul answered questions about her new book and admitted that she feels as vulnerable as any other parent to the consumer- driven baby marketplace.

“I’m just like any parent,” she admitted. “I’m living in this culture, in this economy. Like any parent, I’m vulnerable. And so yeah, we have an extra MacLaren stroller in our basement.

“But I can’t give it away,” she laughs, “because everybody wants only the latest model.”

But Paul did draw the line at Baby Einstein. Her kids don’t watch it.

With that, here are eight questions for the ever-provocative Paul:

Hollywood has gone baby-crazy. What have celebritiesdone to parenthood?

They’ve done to parenthood what they’ve done to every other sector of American lifestyles and consumer spending: that is, elevate it, amplify it, blow it out of control.

We live in such a celebrity-crazed culture — and not just celebrity-obsessed, but celebrity- consumer-obsessed. We want to buy like them. And now we want our babies to be like theirs, and we want to buy for our babies like they do. Even more so than us wanting to have the same Versace gown, we want Giorgio Armani cardigan sets for our newborns.

And we don’t feel as guilty about it, or as silly — because it’s not for us, it’s for our babies.

You write about how peoplenow spend $800 on upscalestrollers — formerly a$150 item — without blinkingan eye. What spurredthis change?

Bugaboo happened — and they were brilliant. An executive at Bugaboo (an upscale stroller company founded in Holland in 1999) said to me, “Look, women are spending $300 on shoes these days, and they wear them for a year. Why wouldn’t they spend $800 on something their children are going to be sitting in for four years?” And he was right.

It used to be a stroller was just something you had to get, and you shoved it in your hallway, and you didn’t think much about it. People didn’t used to go stroller-shopping. It wasn’t a cause for major research. It’s just amazing the amount of thought that goes into this now.

And, you argue, for simplerbaby products — likediaper bags — the same istrue?

A diaper bag used to be truly utilitarian. You used a grocery bag, or a L.L. Bean tote. Now you need a special bag for the purpose of carrying diapers. You even probably have several diaper bags — one smaller one, one larger one, and so on.

And they’re pricey. In the same way that Coach has convinced women that a handbag is a one-season object, that’s now crossed over to diaper bags. And these bags can cost in the hundreds of dollars.

Babies-R-Us, and storeslike it, are packed floor-to-ceilingwith products of alldescriptions for today’s babies.Do parents need allthis stuff?

Think about it this way: Benjamin Franklin grew up, and he did fine. How much of all that baby gear did his parents have? None. If you look at a history of toys, none of this even existed until recently.

How much do you really need? Not much. How much can you use — as in, find a use for? A lot. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of wanting all this stuff. It’s not evil. It can be great. But how much do you really need?”

So what’s wrong with battery-operated, computer-chip-loaded toys?

Studies show the simplest toys are the best ones. But every toy is electronic now, and it’s hugely depressing. And you can get trapped into buying them. Take activity tables — can you find one nowadays that just has things to manipulate, without noise and flashing lights? Not easily.

And, for kids, this all just ups their expectations of what a toy is supposed to be. If it doesn’t light up and make music, they’re bored.”

You write that many newparents now arrange theirlives around the schedules oftheir babies and toddlers,rather than the reverse.Why? And what’s wrongwith that?

I think we’ve become child-centric in such a way that it may not be in the best interests of our own children, or our own interests, or in the best interests of the family as a whole.

Kids raised like this get used to being in the spotlight, all the time, and they get used to being the center of attention. When they get into school — where they’re not the center of attention — it’s going to be harder for them. Parents are setting them up for problems.

Children have to learn to operate in a real world. Sometimes the grown-ups will have a conversation that they are not a part of, and they will have to sit and be quiet until it’s done. Not learning that skill early in life will be a very bad thing for them.

You analyze the BabyEinstein phenomenon andargue that today’s parentsare suckers for any product— especially DVD or computer-related — that promisesto make their babiessmarter. What’s going onhere?

If Baby Einstein had been named ‘Happy Baby TV Time,’ it would have just basically adequately described what’s going on with Baby Einstein. Which is: this teaches your child to sit still and watch TV.

Do you think our babies actually need to be trained to be couch potatoes?

There is nothing you can show your baby on TV that is going to be more educational than what you can show them in your backyard.

It’s similar with computer games. People say, we live in a computer age, I need to get my kids started with the Web so they can be technology-literate. I mean, what ? The computer for a 1-year-old is one thing only: a video game. So if you’re really excited to get your kid into gaming — then go ahead.

What can parents doabout this over-commercializationof childhood?

Abstain. And constantly remind yourself, every time you’re about to make an expenditure, “Why am I doing this? Is it to make life easier for me?” Pause before you do it. Look in your toy room. Just think, let me look at the toys I have on hand; when is the last time my child played with this toy?

Circulating toys is a great idea. Take some away, put them in the basement and attic, and then wait six months. Bring them out again and they will be like new toys.


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