Thursday 30 October 2014

The commodified childhood

‘Business interests have cottoned on to parents’ vulnerabilities, and so our worries are being ruthlessly exploited’
‘Children are given the false idea that they should be offered entertainment, rather than creating their own fun’
‘Babycare is a business that makes parents feel anxious, fearful, flawed . . . and broke

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.


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.

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.


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