April 3, 2008 / 4:49 PM / 11 years ago

The commercialization of child-rearing

NEW YORK (Reuters) - It may take a whole village to raise a child, but a new book shows that corporate America has gotten in on the act in a big way.

“Parenting, Inc” (Times Books, $25) looks at how parents are sold on everything from pre-preschool classes and educational toys to $800 strollers and $1,500 diaper bags.

Author Pamela Paul, who worked in marketing for seven years before becoming a journalist, says companies know how easily parents can succumb to pitches of costly and sometimes unnecessary goods and services.

“There’s a very basic human instinct to do everything you can for your child ... and that often translates into buying everything you can,” said Paul, whose previous books are “The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony” and “Pornified.”

Marketers told Paul that working parents tend to feel guilty about the time they spend away from their children and try to compensate by spending money on them.

Parents are also keenly aware of the competition that often begins with the preschool admission process, making them especially susceptible to claims that a toy, book or DVD will make their children smarter.

“Ever-present is the disquieting thought that if we don’t buy these toys for our own children, other parents will,” Paul writes. “Their kids will have every opportunity. Our children will fall irredeemably behind.”

But some of these products are unproven. For example, the founder of the BabyPlus Prenatal Education System presents anecdotal evidence of the effectiveness of the “sound lessons” fetuses receive from the device, but Paul says there is no way to demonstrate how intelligent a child would be if he or she were not exposed to it.

For the already-born, there is a plethora of microchip-equipped “smart” toys that are intended to teach certain skills, but these can have unintended consequences.

“Many toys on the market today may as well have a sticker on them that says, “Imagination Not Included,’” Paul writes. “Rather than teach a child how to come up with his own answers, too many of the toys on the shelves dictate a right way to play, one that leads to the correct answer, in the right direction.”

Parents also feel pressure to keep up appearances, and companies that offer designer clothing and accessories for babies and young children have benefited.

All these trends add up to big business. The U.S. “mom market” is estimated at $1.7 trillion a year, with more than $700 million alone coming from toys for children under 2. Spending on infant toiletries runs about $548 million.

But despite her reservations about the parenting industry, Paul emphasizes that her book is not a diatribe. Married and a mother of two, she says she enjoys shopping in children’s stores.

Many items were developed by “mompreneurs” and “papapreneurs” who simply saw a way to make child-raising easier, she said. “Huge numbers of parents are grateful.”

While she doesn’t know whether a U.S. recession would cause parents to rein in spending, she says she hopes they might start asking themselves whether the next big thing is truly a must-have.

“Armed with a healthy dose of skepticism and solid scientific data,” she writes, “we can be better equipped to puncture the parenting industry’s myths, while still benefiting from the services and products that make sense for us.”

Reporting by Lisa Von Ahn; Editing by Eddie Evans

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