Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Buy, Buy Baby Flies High But Misses the Mark

I picked up the book Buy, Buy Baby by Susan Gregory Thomas at the library. That’s nothing special, because I read a lot (i.e. incessantly) and if something catches my eye I’ll check it out. The subtitle reads How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds. So far, so intriguing. Unfortunately, what could have been a powerful read reveals itself as a liberal cry for yet more government intervention in the private lives of U.S. citizens.

The knowledge that young children, even babies, are spending substantial amounts of time in front of the television disturbs me. This book points out that 30% of American homes with small children own a Baby Einstein video, a video series directly marketed as “educational” for babies. Yet the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children under the age of two not watch any television. So, is it harmless or harmful? The evidence seems to suggest that, by the age of three or five, children can learn certain lessons via television. However, “The only verifiable learning that very young children get from repeated television viewing is recognition of characters or puppets that have become ‘familiar’” (p. 105). So, parents today are literally buying into a concept that, at the very least, does nothing but familiarize their children with an opportunity to buy more stuff and, at the worst, could actually be harming their cognitive development.

Most parents today belong to the so-called “Generation-X,” comprised of persons born from 1965-1978 (some experts set the end date at 1981). Two-thirds of mothers with children under the age of twelve hale from this generation. What are some characteristics of this group?

  • They are the first group to be raised in daycare in large numbers.

  • 40% were latch-key children.

  • Up to one-half of parents with Gen-X children divorced.

  • They spent more time with TV than with their parents.

  • They are less likely than any other generation to rely on their own parents for parenting advice.

  • Many embrace the concept of attachment parenting.

So, a group of people described in a 2004 study as “...the least parented, least nurtured generation[s] in U.S. history...” (p. 54) are now parenting. This disparate generation has very little in common except the prevalence of TV in their lives and their love of shopping. They see TV as comforting, the characters as familiar friends and their purchase of advertised items as fulfilling.

One survey of Generation-X moms found that 87% with children under the age of twelve would stay at home with their children “if they could.” This differs from how the preceding Boomer generation answered the same question, yet more women are working today than ever before. The book’s introduction notes that more children are spending time in daycare or preschool than ever before either because the parents wish to socialize an only child or because they both have jobs. And these daycares and preschools increasingly use materials provided by Disney, Nickelodeon, and the Cartoon Network through Scholastic to fulfill “educational” goals, especially the nebulous “character development,” aptly named as the only thing these toddlers are really learning is how to recognize Dora the Explorer or Clifford the Big Red Dog.

It seems obvious that the best thing for babies and toddlers is to be home with their mothers. Here they ought to get the individualized attention that the “experts” are always pushing. Here they are supposed to have time to just do “nothing.” Unfortunately, Generation-X parents are reluctant to allow this to happen. As Thomas points out in her conclusion, “Gen-Xers overstimulate, overschedule, overshop for, and overobsess about their own children” (p. 225). We (I include myself in this group) as a generation need to wake up and understand that what our children need is not more stuff, activities or even more of “us” but more time to do the kinds of things that children are supposed to do. They don’t need to be “enriched.”

So, I obviously agreed with many points that Thomas made. I expected to agree with much of the premise. While we do own a very nice television set, my husband and I don’t allow our children to watch TV. We don’t have the TV on as background noise during the day. We allow one video a day for our oldest child (which she watches when the younger girls are asleep). We occasionally watch a “family movie,” exciting because of its rarity. I do not park my infant in front of a Baby Einstein video when I need to do something without her (full disclosure: we don’t even own any Baby Einstein videos).

Because of my agreement in so many pertinent facts I was dismayed to read Ms. Thomas’ conclusion:

"All the early childhood experts I spoke with said that spending time hanging out together is the best possible thing parents can do for their young children’s development – and it’s the one thing the American government will not let them do" (p. 228).

Did I miss something? The American government won’t let parents spend time with their children? I must have slept through that session of Congress. Thomas complains that women with children earn less than anyone else in the U.S. and that “If you stay home to raise your children, you forgo Social Security, paid vacation time, and company contributions to health insurance...” (p. 228).

Is that supposed to be some kind of dreadful choice? “Hmm, paid vacation or time with Baby...” She sums up with this screed:

"[Doing] Nothing isn’t free. But it should be. Earning it will involve lobbying for paid family leave; flexible work hours; universal, standards-based child care; health insurance for all children; and fair wages for all working families, especially single mothers" (p. 229).

Silly me. I thought the solution might be to encourage my generation to be a bit less materialistic. Would so many women “need” to work if they clearly evaluated why they were working? I’m not saying women should never work outside the home, only that they should have the tools to accurately measure the cost of working versus not working. In this book the author clearly describes Generation-X as searching for fulfillment in stuff. Yet, she fails to make the logical progression that this very search may artificially keep these mothers from their children.

In the end, Thomas absolves parents from having to make hard choices. She describes women deciding to have children “with or without a man” and then cries that being a single mother is so difficult. If such a difference exists in the lifestyles of two-parent families versus single-parent families, perhaps these women ought not be so selfish? Oops, my political incorrectness is showing again.

If we ignore the hard choices, it comes down to good ol’ Uncle Sam. We have problems and “the government” should bail us out. After all, paid family leave, flexible work hours and the rest should be free, right? Except, they aren’t. It will cost someone something (employers, tax payers...) I feel like I’m banging my head against a wall but here goes anyway: “the government” doesn’t have any money. It’s my money, and it’s your money. The point is the government only has what we allow it to have.

Maybe Generation-X, as a group, was neglected. Maybe our parents bought a bill of goods from the liberals way back before we were born that turned out to be bogus. If we are so concerned about raising our children differently, protesting for “standards-based childcare”, more Head Start, more controls on advertising, etc. is not the answer.

I know us. We’re better than this. We can do a better job than the Boomers (no offense, Dad & Mom!). Maybe it’s time to stop looking for a grown-up (in this case the government) to bail us out. Maybe it’s time to stop applying Sesame Street band-aids to gaping wounds. Maybe it’s time to really examine our own materialistic and selfish desires and actually do what is right. Maybe it’s time to be the adults. We should at least give it a try before we throw ourselves down on our luxury couches, in front of our luxury televisions, in the “right” neighborhoods and declare that raising the children we have been blessed with is the government’s responsibility.