Kitschy, Kitschy Coo: The Cost of Coddling Kids

040208 kolhatkar Kitschy, Kitschy Coo: The Cost of Coddling KidsPARENTING, 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
By Pamela Paul
Times Books, 290 pages, $25

During my prenatal tour of Lenox Hill Hospital a few months back, the head labor nurse informed our group of nervous New York City parents-to-be that a private room would cost around an extra $600 a night—which isn’t covered by insurance. Those rooms are in high demand, nurse Terri said of the coveted real estate, “and we can’t promise you one unless your last name is ‘Brinkley’ or ‘Trump.’”

You could immediately detect sparks of anxiety flying among the couples on the tour, everyone performing a silent calculus like bidders at a Christie’s auction. How do we get the private room? Is it worth the money? Is this child going to bankrupt us?

That was only the beginning. Once you bring a squirming newborn home and figure out how to keep it alive, then the real neurosis sets in.

Like everything in New York, having kids has become a status endeavor, defined by an endless series of purchasing decisions. Every aspect of your life needs to be upgraded, and your apartment soon resembles the trash compactor scene from Star Wars, bursting with gadgets and equipment. There are thousand-dollar Norwegian strollers that look like insects and modernist oval cribs to lust after, plus countless plastic items in crayon colors—from swings to baby bathtubs, all made in China—which must be integrated into your living space. Ads for those loathsome Baby Einstein videos suddenly begin catching your eye despite yourself.

In other words, having a kid is all about spending tons of money on stuff. With Parenting, Inc., Pamela Paul has cleverly identified this subset of our consumer culture run wild and given it a catchy name. (Caitlin Flanagan traversed roughly the same territory a few years back during her brief tenure as a New Yorker writer). In her previous book, Pornified (2005), Ms. Paul took a similar approach to smut culture—and baby porn and booby porn have more in common than you might think.

Both of them are huge industries—$1.7 trillion, in the case of the “mom market.” Having a child is now so expensive—a Wall Street Journal estimate puts the cost until age 17 at $800,000 to $1.6 million—that money has become the primary consideration for couples thinking about starting a family. “Often the decision about whether to have one child, or more, pivots on the question: Can we afford it?” Ms. Paul writes, adding that “this just seems wrong.” The author then quotes her friend “Ava,” who wonders, “‘Why can’t we just have a kid the way our parents did in the seventies?’”

 

AHH, THE 70′S. Despite the horrors of modern-day child-rearing, it’s hard to look back on the disco decade with a true sense of nostalgia. After all, those of us who were born then—to mothers who smoked, fed us formula rather than breast milk and left us teetering toward the stairs in the since-banned infant walker—know we’re lucky to have survived. But Ms. Paul has a point.

Parents (a.k.a. “suckers”) are bombarded from the prenatal stage with ads for products and services that didn’t exist in simpler times, at least not in such pricey form. Ms. Paul has endless examples to choose from, each one promising to improve your baby: There are the formula companies insidiously peddling their breast-milk substitute; parent “coaches” and sleep experts charging by the hour; “Prenatal Education Systems” and other ridiculous-sounding thingies designed to transform junior into a genius; classes on baby sign language and elite health clubs for upscale toddlers. The list goes on. And on.

There are so many case studies that it’s overwhelming, almost transforming Ms. Paul’s book into a catalog of every baby product on the market. (My favorite parts were the brief interludes about the author’s own daughter, Beatrice, and her adventures with baby signing or birthday party etiquette.)

But Ms. Paul does perform a useful service, debunking the most absurd of the baby-marketers’ claims—including those behind the infamous Baby Einstein series. The story behind the line of “educational” videos for babies is well known: In 1997, a “mom-preneur” named Julie Aigner-Clark cobbled together homemade videos of her baby daughter’s favorite toys, set to classical music (because we all know Mozart makes you smarter). The videos, which promised to “stimulate your child in a way that even the most caring parent probably cannot duplicate,” became a sensation, eventually selling more than one billion copies. In 2001, the Disney Company bought Baby Einstein for a reported $25 million, and now the brand is ubiquitous. Fortunately we have Pamela Paul to remind us that “the fundamental problem with edutainment is that there is absolutely no proof that it works.”

The line could be applied to almost every gadget mentioned in Parenting, Inc.; repeat it like a mantra the next time you pass a fancy baby store and feel tempted to go in.

 

Sheelah Kolhatkar is a staff writer at Condé Nast Portfolio. She can be reached at books@observer.com.