Book Review: Parenting, Inc.

Disclaimer: I wrote this book review several years ago on an old blog.  It’s still one of my favorite books and I thought some of my new readers might find the information useful.  Enjoy!

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Parenting, Inc., written by Pamela Paul, goes beyond criticizing the baby product industry for its over-the-top marketing ploys, and analyzes how this exploding industry is impacting parents’ child-rearing abilities.  It is an eye-opening read for any couple thinking of having children, as well as for those parents who know they should trust their instincts but are getting swept away in the tide of marketing and societal pressures.

The book’s first chapter discusses the ridiculous amounts of gear that parents are guilted into purchasing even before the little one is born.  Forget diapers, baby wipes and onesies; parents are now made to feel inadequate if they don’t purchase every available item (including wipe warmers and baby-monitoring cameras) that could potentially minimize their child’s discomfort and maximize his happiness.  Sure, parents want their children to be happy, and there’s nothing wrong with happiness.  But, as Paul wonders: “Does it make sense to have a happy baby all the time?”  And do these items even ensure happiness?

In the book, Jack Shonkoff, chairman of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, reminds us that “babies need to live in a real world, a real environment, where things sometimes go well and sometimes don’t… They need some time to flounder by themselves and figure things out.”  The author then argues that by catering to the whims of children, parents are creating a generation of entitled and attention-seeking human beings, who look to others when problems need to be solved.

Paul reminds us that the worst part of all the paraphernalia peddled to parents is its impact on parental confidence.  The underlying message is that parenting is an overwhelming job that simply cannot be done well without the use of ridiculous amounts of expensive equipment.  And when the perfect family life doesn’t materialize, parents are left to feel that they and their flawed children – not the backed-by-experts products – are to blame.

Further on in the book, Paul contends (and I agree) that all those battery-operated toys children now play with are robbing them of their sense of creativity and empowerment.  She recounts stories of children who look for the batteries in every toy they pick up, or who pick up a stuffed animal and ask: “What does this do?”

Many parents who try to implement Montessori concepts at home wonder why their child doesn’t show much interest or respect for the materials they so lovingly purchase and create.  The answer might lie in this stunning fact: The average child in America gets SEVENTY (70!) new toys each year. According to the book, “the United States, with four percent of the world’s children, consumes 40 percent of the world’s toys.”  If a child is always getting new toys, she’ll come to appreciate them only for their novelty value and won’t bother returning to them for further exploration and imaginative play.

Paul focuses an entire chapter on “edutainment”, a catch phrase for the so-called educational DVDs (led by Baby Einstein) that have come to substitute the babysitter or the helpful relative.  Although the book was written before Disney admitted the products’ shortcomings and offered refunds, it presents a solid case against purchasing the useless – and even harmful – videos.  Why harmful?  Consider this: According to Paul, the A Day In the Farm DVD has six scene changes in a twenty-second segment.

Researchers interviewed for the book confirm that overstimulation “is damaging to the developing mind”.  They explain that “the brain’s orienting reflex is triggered when a baby hears a strange sight or sound: He can’t help but focus.”  When the scene changes rapidly, the new colors, sounds, and movements whiplash a baby’s brain back into the action.

This reminds me of friends with babies, who marveled at the videos’ ability to hold their baby’s interest.  Well, guess what?  They can’t help themselves!  Contrary to the manufacturers’ promises, not only are the babies not learning anything useful (since they are programmed by nature to learn through physical interactions, not passive absorption), but their future ability to concentrate is negatively impacted.

Parenting, Inc. also looks at the mushrooming enrichment class industry.  Parents spend dozens of hours – and hundreds of dollars – each month shuttling their children to classes that provide the same type of stimulation, which previous generations of children got from parents and caregivers, at home, for free.  While there’s nothing wrong with a swimming lesson, ballet class, or piano instruction, many children’s schedules are managed more tightly than a CEO’s, leaving little time for riding bikes, going to the park, and being kids.

What’s shocking is that this frenetic pace starts soon after the baby is born, with more and more classes being targeted towards infants.  One example the book gives is the popular music class for babies.  Proponents argue that exposure to music is essential for a child’s proper development and support their claims with the much-hyped Mozart effect theory.  Not only has the Mozart effect been discredited by well-founded studies, but what’s wrong with exposing your child to music at home while you fold laundry, saving yourself thousands of dollars a year?

Interestingly, the book points out that the only ones who seem to benefit are the mommies, who have a great excuse to get out of the house and meet other new parents.  There’s nothing wrong with meeting people in the same boat as you, but if I remember correctly, my mom used to meet her friends in a place designed to truly satisfy children’s needs – for free.  We called it “the park”.

Read this book if you want to restore a bit of sanity to your life and gain some perspective on the insane baby products industry!

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