It Takes a Whole Baby Product and Toy Industry to Raise a Child
Buy a copy of the Prenatal Classroom and learn how to give your fetus a jumpstart on learning. Have a "Babyscapes Video Mobile" installed in your baby's crib to ensure proper infant stimulation during the crucial first year. If baby gets over-stimulated, simply switch on the soothing white noise machine instead. Get your toddler interested in food by serving it in a plate shaped like an airplane (cockpit holds the cheerios; tail holds the drink cup; fork and spoon look like miniature planes), or a musical plastic train that includes teething rings, snack bowls and bottle holder -- all the while playing, "I've been working on the railroad." Feel more in control of your environment and your child's life by purchasing just the right safety devices, such as the specially designed cover for their seat in the grocery cart to shield them from germs. Purchase the best "feeding system," the right education, the most stimulating toys, and organic cotton bed sheets, and your child will be happy, healthy, and brighter than other children.From your first moments as a parent, you will be inundated with the idea that well-being for you and your child can be purchased. Good parenting is a matter of owning the right products. The human act of parenting has been harvested for profit, and the harvest has been bountiful. In the last 30 years, for example, Toys R Us has grown from a 4-store $12 million a year operation to a 540-store $6.7 billion one. (Playthings, September 1993.) Meanwhile, many parents struggle in isolation to do the right thing by their offspring, scrutinizing product catalogs and magazines (essentially ad conduits) for solutions to their parenting dilemmas.Mothers in particular are deluged with advice and product information from the experts about how to properly raise our children. We are saddled with responsibility for every element of their well-being. Shari Thurer, in the Myth of Motherhood, argues that in the last 40 years when more and more (particularly white) women have joined the work force (both out of need and desire), and since feminism has allowed many women to pursue life outside the private sphere, so the demands on mothers have reached an all-time high. The idea that a baby's education begins in the cradle was popularized in the post-WW II baby boom, and provided a huge market for just the right stimulating toy at every stage of development. It also provided experts with ample opportunity to micromanage every element of mother's behavior toward her child. The privatization of child-rearing is reduced not just to families but to the mother-child relationship in particular. Mothers are isolated, then they are hit hard by the marketers for the toy and baby product industry.Just as the marketplace wants you to think sports shoes will make your life more cutting edge, beer will make you younger, and Coke is not just a bubbly brown liquid but "the Real Thing," so the right parenting gadgets -- along with their portable versions -- will make you a good parent. Indeed, many of the gadgets are useful and sensible to own. As a parent I know that much of what is available in the marketplace can facilitate the work of raising children. Products can bring enjoyment, educational value, or ease daily life with kids. In this day and age, while moms and dads largely struggle in isolation from each other and from community support systems that once might have been there to relieve self-doubt and offer guidance, we shop for our parenting supports. In doing so, we pass consumption values onto our children, training them in the ways of a throwaway society and readying them to be little shoppers who believe that products determine our identities and are capable of solving our problems. We also buy into an ideology that at best helps us rationalize a work-a-day world that is extremely unfriendly to children and families, and that at worst steers us away from seeing and protesting structural inequality, including the global impoverishment of children.The Crib As A Form Of Social ControlCribs have not always been considered the most essential piece of baby furniture you could own. Even today, in most countries (particularly in the Third World), babies do not sleep in cribs. Throughout human history, babies have, for the vast majority of the time, slept with their parents. In this current historical-economic juncture, however, sharing sleep goes decidedly against the ideological grain. In the early 20th century, health workers "zealously handed out banana boxes ... to serve as cradles in order to try and stamp out the habit of mothers and babies sleeping together." (The Politics of Breastfeeding.) As babies graduated from the banana box to the crib (mattress sold separately), a whole baby product industry, along with the attendant baby advice industry, was spawned.Think of all the things you did not need to own in the pre-banana box days. First, you wouldn't need the crib -- the stay-at-home version or the portable one. Nor would you need the additional room (or rooms if you have more children) in which to put the crib, along with its matching changing table. You wouldn't need the bassinet that preceded the crib nor the toddler bed that comes after. You wouldn't need the dancing bear mobiles or the little machine that simulates flashing TV images to keep your baby entertained while she is alone in her crib down the hall. You wouldn't need the white noise machine, the pacifier, the special blanket and array of blank-faced stuffed animals, or the blanket with the vibrator to soothe your baby (because you're not there, because you've been told that it's best for your baby to soothe herself). You wouldn't need the special feeding system that you keep in the baby's room for convenience. You wouldn't need the bumpers, the sheets, and all the decor to match. And because you wouldn't be accustomed to being separate from your baby, nor would you need the "Good vibrations hammock swing" that can be upright for playtime when it rocks, bounces and vibrates. (Right Start catalog, summer 1997.)The requirements of the crib don't just boost the economy, they also teach certain behaviors that are important in an industrial society dominated by the clock and inane rules that enforce hierarchies. Baby must learn that when he's in his crib, he must sleep or play quietly. If he cries, he will be ignored. If he's hungry, he must wait. Parents must listen to the crying and, even if they find it difficult, must squash any desire to go to their child. How will he learn otherwise? It can be difficult to adjust to rigid sleeping and eating schedules, but it must be done. Why? Because we have internalized the notion that our babies must be independent. That they should squash needs that could be met with human comfort and learn to get needs met by comfort objects. We are not only training them in the rhythms of the workplace, we are teaching them to orient themselves and their needs toward objects. The responsibility for most of this training is placed on Mom's shoulders. She is the target of the more than 1,000 parenting books listed in Books in Print, the countless advice columns, TV and radio shows, and videos -- all dictating the minutia of everyday life with children.The all-time best-selling Baby and Child Care by Dr. Spock, a book that has influenced millions of parents for over 40 years, recommends that if the newborn starts out in her parents' room, it is a good idea to get her out by the time she is six months old. This is the right age to move her because by then, she has "the strength to take care of [herself] pretty well." Perhaps what Dr. Spock has in mind is the fact that a six-month old is strong enough to change position if need be. In other words, she probably won't suffocate because she has the neck strength to lift her head. Other problems -- hunger, loneliness, boredom, insofar as they are not rectified by the pacifier, bottle, mobile, or white noise machine -- will have to be tolerated.Dr. Spock suggests that if children are still in their parents' room by the age of six months, "there is a chance that they may become dependent on this arrangement and be afraid and unwilling to sleep anywhere else." He doesn't say that human children are born dependent on their parents for many things, and that children around the world and across time have slept with their parents with no harm done as far as anyone can tell. He doesn't mention that his advice about where your baby should sleep is historically specific and has more to do with his personal prejudices and cultural roots than anything else."Sometimes a small child is going through a period of waking up frightened at night -- perhaps coming repeatedly into the parents' room, perhaps crying persistently -- and is taken into the parents' bed with them so that they can all get some sleep. This seems like the most practical thing to do at the time, but it usually turns out to be a mistake. Even if the child's anxiety lessens during the following weeks, he is apt to cling to the security of his parents' bed, and there is the devil to pay getting him out again."His main priority seems to be that the child not end up in your room for the night under any circumstances. He does not say why. In the face of some very strong emotions -- fright, persistent crying, anxiety -- a parent may "comfort the child in his own room" or "consult a doctor," but not do the practical thing, and the thing that many parents know instinctively will work the best, which, by the way, may also be the thing the child is actually asking for: physical comfort and company from his parents. Meanwhile, in resisting the urge to do the "practical thing," we are absorbing the lesson that we probably should not trust our own instincts. We set ourselves up to require the aid of experts simply to make it through the night or at least to need more advice books. We are being directed away from the solution that will allow us all to get some sleep.Dr. Spock does allow that a child could share a room with a sibling but believes that "it's fine for children to have a room of their own, especially as they grow older, where they can keep their own possessions under control and have privacy when they want it."Off to the Right StartThe message to children via their parents is: don't look for comfort from us, but here's a room where you can comfort yourself and privately control your possessions. The cycle builds on itself. The more a parent is advised and influenced by our self-reliant consumerist culture, the more he is attracted to the baby and child products that actually serve to distance him from his child. How else could a catalog that promises to "get your child off to The Right Start" feature a "playful little timer [that] lets you record a personal and positive time-out message. Clock face starts out frowning, and at the end of time-out turns into a smile as your personal message plays. Batteries included." So now we not only send them to their rooms for soothing comfort from machines and objects, we also send them there to be disciplined by toy clocks that play back what could only be some trivial sound bite of parental guidance. For only $19.95, you can remove yourself another step from your child's life.Our children are good consumers in the making. Toymakers have long been aware that successful toys imitate adult activities. (Playthings, September 1993.) Shopping is an essential American skill. "Melanie's Mall is a center for more than just shopping. Take the escalator to Beauty World, then head to the food court, or head out through the revolving door!" Or you can purchase for your child a "Supermarket Check-Out with electronic scanner that beeps, a play credit card, and pretend food." ("Boys Have Better Toys" by Lydia Sargent, Z Magazine, November 1996.) The Boston Children's Museum features as one of its permanent exhibits a make believe grocery store where children can wander down the aisles, loading their baskets with plastic grocery replicas, and then purchasing them at the pretend check-out counter.Toys also privatize the relationship between parent and child. Parents think they can buy their child the tools to make them smart, happy, and well adjusted, and so their attention is directed away from the larger social forces that might be affecting them. There's a new toy on the market called Sticky Situations. It allows parents and children to work together placing stickers on design boards to help them sort through difficult life experiences, such as "Mommy's having a baby," or "When will you be home?" There is also a version that helps you explain to your child what he or she will be doing the next day -- "think of it as a sort of Franklin Planner or Day Runner for kids who can't read yet." (Nation's Business, January 1997.) Rather than look to your community, extended family, or social benefits package for help getting through sticky situations, you can purchase a toy instead. As the entrepreneurs have figured it, "There's been a ton of stuff with stickers out there -- jobs charts and calendars and more stuff than you can imagine -- but nobody has picked up on the emotional side yet." Although the folks in the sticker business are just getting around to using their product to meet emotional needs, Hallmark has not been so slow on the uptake. A new line of their cards is designed for absent parents who want to brightly remind their child to have a good day or be good at school.The Boston Globe's "Child Caring" column advises us in an "afterthought" to improve our children's self-esteem by saying something positive to them at least five times a day. These quantified and purchased moments with our children give us false comfort, even as the social supports that might truly guide them as they grow up dwindle. They do not encourage us to challenge our workplaces for more leave so that we don't need Hallmark to communicate with our children. They don't lead us to question whether self-esteem-building comments can be squeezed into five minutes of quality time or whether we will be capable of keeping track of the count when we are run ragged by the demands of home and work life. They don't get us to think about some of the stickier situations kids find themselves in -- poverty, bad schools, a toxic environment, and unsupported families.It Takes A Whole Baby Product And Advice Industry To Raise A ChildHow we parent, and what is considered good parenting is historically specific. Practices that are considered detrimental today were endorsed in our parents' or grandparents' day. The marketplace is one of the forces that shapes our opinion of good parenting. Obviously, as parents, we don't see our job as a mandate to train little workers/shoppers, but the subtle and not-so-subtle messages from baby books, magazines, and advertising greatly affect our decisions about how to raise children. The result is parents are made complicit in society's need for a population trained in the whys and wherefores of a throwaway consumer culture, dependent on gratifying needs through objects, able to accept and even thrive on rigid schedules, and satisfied with -- even embracing -- a work culture and a set of social services that make it virtually impossible for families to choose an attachment style of parenting that eschews the objectification of the parent/child relationship and that recognizes larger social forces (beyond the narrow confines of the family) that influence a child's well-being.Hillary Clinton says it takes a village to raise a child. But in late 20th century North America, there are few villages -- unless you count the shopping mall or the mail order catalog that just dropped through your mail slot. To resist the commodification of parenting, we have to reverse the isolation that most U.S. families experience today. We have to give our children the stimulating enriching experience of the presence and support of their families and their communities, not the presents brought to you by Mattel and licensed by Disney.Cynthia Peters was a member of South End Press for over ten years, and editor of Collateral Damage.