The commodified childhood
The kit and contraptions that came with children used to be relatively straightforward, but not any more, says psychotherapist Stella O'Malley. Today's new parents are bombarded with marketing ploys designed to play on their innermost fears and make them feel guilty if they don't splash out on the latest child-rearing gadget and child-safety gizmo
Up until the day that Sheila and her husband, Tom, went shopping for a cot mattress for their first baby, they considered themselves fairly well-integrated members of society. As far as they were concerned, they were active and kind new parents, they held down good jobs, and they considered themselves reasonably kind to their parents.
Then came the day they went shopping for a buggy and a mattress, and they soon discovered that, in fact, everything they knew was wrong.
Sheila and Tom had been given a secondhand cot, and all they needed was a mattress for the cot and a buggy for when the new baby was a bit older. They were lucky as they had been given a whole pile of stuff from Sheila's sister.
Sheila and Tom already had a perfectly good, barely used cot mattress at home, but Sheila felt it was unconscionably dangerous to place her precious baby's body on the secondhand mattress for even an afternoon nap. So, in her bid to become a Good Mother, Sheila insisted on going shopping for the brand new mattress before they dared move the baby into her cot.
They were a bit mad, you see, because they had just entered the peculiar La La Land of the new parent.
"Do you want the standard mattress or the specially designed mattress that is recommended by the experts?" demanded the sales assistant.
"Oh," Sheila replied airily, "I'll take the one that's not as safe." Lack of sleep had rendered Sheila and Tom slightly hysterical, and they started laughing at her limp joke like hyenas on peculiarly powerful crack cocaine. "Two, in fact," shrieked the starey-eyed, sleep-deprived Tom. The sales assistant wasn't amused. She, evidently, thought they were cheapskate misers for even speaking about the cheaper-not-recommended-by-anyone mattress.
"The one recommended by the experts is twice the price. It's up to you, of course," she intoned. Sheila blinked. Wow, that was a seriously big difference in price! Was it not enough that she was buying a new mattress in the first place?
They already had a mattress that was in perfect condition on the cot at home. Dare she defy the experts and choose the cheaper version, even though it wasn't that cheap.
No, of course she didn't dare. Despite her gay laughter, Sheila chose the all-expensive, gold-star "recommended by the experts" mattress, all the while knowing that, really, she had just spent extra cash that they really couldn't afford.
THE CULTURE OF FEAR
Perhaps the most significant change that has occurred to parenting since our own childhood is not that childhood has become unsafe or more difficult, rather, it is that commercial interests have realised that they can make serious money from parents' fears.
Marketing, as we know, sells the sizzle, not the sausage, and parents are now sold the fiendish promise that, if they read all the books, the websites, the blogs, the forums, watch Supernanny, buy the apps, invest in the endless array of educational toys and DVDs, buy all the safety equipment and accessories, the organic brain food and the brain-enhancing multivitamins that their children will be happier, safer, cleverer and more successful. This message is very powerful, but not necessarily true, and it engenders vast levels of worry and guilt among parents.
It's a cliche we've all heard – the babies and toddlers get more entertainment from the box than the game inside. Yet parents continually fall for the sinister advertiser's canny marketing: "Oh, yes, THIS toy is educational and creative, blah, blah, blah."
My children's favourite toys are these bizarre, flat, foamy cushions that we acquired as props from an amateur drama by accident and never got around to dumping because we're pretty useless at decluttering. From these they can make houses, pretend to be in bed, and create fences to jump over.
Yes, this is the best toy; not the child's pink laptop, not the computerised train set, not even the jigsaws or the artist's easel. They prefer to use a table when colouring.
We parents learn this lesson again and again, but the lesson never gets through because the global enterprises are way ahead of us, anticipating and capitalising on our feelings of guilt and anxiety.
PRODUCTS, PRODUCTS AND MORE PRODUCTS
Going into a baby store today, customers are accosted by an enormous array of health and safety products that are "specially recommended" by some organisation or other.
I recently wandered through our local baby store and gazed bewilderedly at the latest gadget that will, apparently, prevent my child from opening the toilet seat and tumbling down the passageway to certain death, like a grotesque version of Alice in Wonderland.
We lucky parents can now buy stuff that supposedly protects our babies from table corners, electric sockets, steps, windows, taps, toilets, doors swinging shut, cupboards swinging open, containers, drawers, and any number of relatively benign commonplace fixtures in our homes.
There are also sun tents, sun shades, sun protectors, rain protectors, wind protectors, glass safety film and elaborate stair gates that no man nor beast can open.
My husband and I, after much consideration, thought and discussion, didn't buy a stair gate for our house when our children began to toddle.
We decided that we would prefer to teach our children to come down the stairs, on their bums, until they were able to walk down the stairs.
Hardly revolutionary, but the look of shock and horror that appeared on parents' faces when they realised There Was No Stair Gate On The Stairs In This House would have been funny, if it wasn't so unsettling. In the end, we were given not one, not two, but three, stair gates by concerned friends and relatives. We didn't use any of them.
You can buy a wide variety of helmets for toddlers to wear when they are learning to walk, which will cost a nervous parent over €20. And, by the way, they aren't suitable for cycling or other pursuits.
These helmets are designed for toddlers to wear as they are learning to walk. And, presumably, when the child is deemed fit to walk without a helmet, the responsible parent should then bring the child around the house pointing out dangerous spots where the child might fall and hurt himself – because, of course, the child won't have figured that out for himself.
The many testimonials for these helmets, from respected professionals, such as psychiatrists and neurophysiologists, urge every parent to get these products before any lasting damage is done to their toddlers' heads.
Indeed, while doing the research for this article, I became so nervous that I almost bought two helmets for my own children, which would have been extremely mad seeing as my children are four and six years of age and learned to walk years ago.
It's all about the money. Yet, for me, perhaps the most annoying gadget for the new parent is the new, extreme baby tracking monitor. Yes, it's not enough to hear the baby crying from down the hallway. Instead, we need to have a fully amplified version right next to our bed, so that we jump up in terror six times nightly every time the baby moans. Not only that, but we now need to be able to view the baby with a video that films the baby as he sleeps.
We also, apparently, need to know how often the baby is moving and how warm the baby is at any given moment. An entire aisle is devoted to child monitors in my local baby store, each more extreme than the last, many enthusiastically declaring their ability to detect every sound and movement.
You can even get monitors that can be strapped to the baby's leg, measuring things like heart rate, blood-oxygen level, skin temperature, sleep quality, body position and ambient conditions of the room. Wow!
The grand promise with these monitors is they are a means to assuage parents' worries; they will give us peace of mind and they'll free us up, but, of course, as we all know, deep down, we still won't have peace of mind.
In truth, many of these gadgets merely serve to up the ante. They give us more to worry about, they create more expectation, and more is then asked of us, which, of course, causes us more pressure and stress.
What are parents to do? Commercial interests design and advertise products which play on parents' fears. Some parents fall for it, and then they talk it up, and the heightened conversation creates a buzz of worry among parents.
If we snigger at these extreme-worst-case-scenario products, we soon feel foolhardy in the face of other parents' disapproval, and so we often simply roll our eyes and join 'em. The more experienced parent may smirk as they read this, smugly satisfied that they no longer fall for marketing ploys directed at nervous parents.
However, it is mostly new parents who are the target market, and they're not smirking. The sharp rise of extreme baby monitoring is currently being exploited by canny businessmen. Some of these baby monitors can cost up to €200.
Considering that the estimated spend of parents on babycare products in the UK before the birth is £1,786 (€2,170); with the average parent spending a further £9,000 (€10,932) in the first 12 months of a baby's life, this is very big business. And it is a business that makes parents feel anxious, fearful, flawed . . . and broke.
WHERE HAS ALL THE FREE FUN GONE?
Because of our current obsession with total safety, we are in danger of creating Frankenstein's monster with our children.
The easy-going nature of spontaneous fun in children's lives is morphing into a structured, supervised and costly exercise that parents have to work extremely hard to provide. This engenders feelings of expectation and entitlement in children. Nice. Organised trips to the local 'fun palace' are generally accepted as the easiest way to persuade children away from the screens. These elaborate, indoor playgrounds look like great crack – for children – but, for the parents, it's a different story.
Adults suffer these dens for one reason only – it provides safe fun for the children. And so the parents sit beside the play area, where the wall of sound would deafen an already deaf post.
They can then partake of the crappy coffee in plastic containers, and plastic muffins encased in plastic wrapping if they so wish. Chicken nuggets, or sausages and chips, with juice or fizzy drinks are available for the children. No wonder we're all fat.
On the other hand, if parents are feeling particularly rich and energetic, they can choose to bring their children to the other great, safe option for the 21st-Century child: the all-day adventure park!
And so we fill up the car and drive the family to expensive adventure centres for a "fun day out". Everyone is hot and bothered by the time you get there, you're cross, the children are cross, the entire setup is heightened and extreme. And it gives children the false idea that they should be offered entertainment, rather than creating their own fun.
THE PROFESSIONAL BIRTHDAY PARTY
I was recently discussing my little boy's upcoming birthday party on a girls' night out – we usually like to discuss Sartre and Proust, but this was a lighter moment – when I realised that I was the only one out of the five women present who held my children's parties at home.
Two of the mothers usually threw professional parties (€16-€20 a head) at the local fun factory, and the other two mothers said that they had "got away with it so far" – as in they hadn't yet thrown a birthday party for their children.
These were four mothers with a total of 11 children, with a range in ages from six months to 13 years old. "Why not?" I wondered. The reasons given were many: "I'd have to clean the house for a week." "It would be so much hassle." "I haven't the time to organise a party." And so on.
And that's precisely the point; the kids are missing out on their little birthday parties because the standard of the parties is much too high. And so, once every few years, the child gets to throw an elaborate, mini-MTV-style "I'm-so-worth-it" party that bankrupts the parents, gives the child a misguided sense of importance and provokes feelings of envy and resentment among their peers. Score!
And yet, if you are building a friendship with someone new, don't you find that you are delighted to receive an invitation to their house? For me, an invitation to the house of an acquaintance is often a sign that our relationship is deepening.
This is exactly how the children feel – they want to go to their friend's house because they want to know their friend on a deeper level. They want to see where their friend eats and sleeps and does her homework.
Just like adults shouldn't feel compelled to book an entertainer if we throw a dinner party (unless you're on Come Dine With Me), parents shouldn't feel the need to book a clown, or a bouncy castle, or a children's entertainer if they throw a children's birthday party. Party games, and jelly and ice cream should do it.
IT'S ALL ABOUT THE MONEY!
In one generation, contemporary culture has changed at lightning speed, so that our own childhood bears little resemblance to our children's experiences.
Parenthood often feels like a chore to experienced parents, and new parents feel terrified that they will fail at this momentous task. Yet, perhaps, it is not parenting that has changed so considerably – perhaps it is because parenting has been hijacked by marketing?
Business interests have cottoned on to parents' vulnerabilities, and so our worries are being ruthlessly exploited.
Cunning plots and clever plans, hatched by marketing maestros, take advantage of our love for our children.
But maybe one day parents will begin to fight back? Perhaps parents will learn to say "No, I won't buy little Johnny that protective defence against lightning. I think I'll live with that risk instead."
Because, at the moment, it's like taking candy from a baby.
Sunday Indo Life Magazine