Parents an easy target

By Nicola Shepheard

Educational toys, organic baby food, $100 baby shoes ... marketers and merchandisers are getting better at exploiting the uniquely vulnerable creature that is the new parent.

Comedian Jesse Mulligan has realised there are no right answers in parenting. Photo / Getty Images
Comedian Jesse Mulligan has realised there are no right answers in parenting. Photo / Getty Images

You have no idea until you've had kids yourself - the knee-weakening magnitude of it. No, this isn't the smug utterance of a born-again parent, who acts as if breeding confers wisdom about everything from human nature to Maisy's menagerie (don't ask).

This is the squeaking of a generation of parents crushed in the guilt sandwich of baby-and-kids-stuff marketing.

On one side: the normal desire to be a good, competent parent, to give your child the best start in life. On the other: sophisticated marketing that stokes anxieties about inexperience and time spent apart from your child, while offering you the perfect solution.

Whether it's "educational" toys, organic baby food or $100 sneakers for toddlers, the message is the same: buy this and your child will thrive. Buy this and you are a Good Parent. The unspoken warning: don't buy this and you fail your child.

Never mind that you have to earn six figures to afford it all, once you buy the Ellah Touchwood cot ($1099), the Mountain Buggy Urban Jungle pushchair with pram ($978), the adjustable beechwood highchair ($425), the Early Learning Centre play-gym ($75), Sophie the teething giraffe ($40), and the rest of the middle-class parenting "must-haves".

Marketers know they have a uniquely pliable consumer group in parents. Powerful emotional drives for status, safety and nurturing, ratcheted up by sleep-deprivation, hormones and the shock of being a "beginner" - especially for those used to mid-career achievement - make many parents sitting ducks (renewable natural rubber ones with non-toxic paint).

This weekend, up to 14,000 parents and parents-to-be and about 200 exhibitors are expected at Auckland's Baby Show. The show's pitch to exhibitors says it all: "Pregnant couples, new parents, and parents of young children are time-poor, stressed, and desperate for the products, services, and good advice they need to do their very best for their growing families."

Even those who pride themselves on their consumer-savvy can get caught up in the spin, says Geoff Simmons, an economist for the Morgan Foundation.

"Marketing preys on insecurity about lack of parenting ability, particularly the lack of time spent with children," he says. "There's an inherent guilt that it's working on. The biggest measure of this is in the global recession there are two retail markets that have held up: kids and pets - an indication that those are the areas where people have been emotionally manipulated to the point where they're prepared to compromise the rest of their lifestyle to buy these things."

On the NZ Herald Facebook page, readers asked about "ludicrously overpriced, over-specced, or just completely unnecessary" items they've bought their children own up to a mini quadbike, an iPad for a 2-year-old and Nike, Adidas, and Converse branded shoes for a 6-month-old.

And how often do they over-spend? "All the time, and he never plays with the pricey stuff," says Broady-Anne Fairbrother. "He is happy with a cardboard box, or just running around outside. Not making the same mistake with baby number two."

"All the time, especially at Christmas," says Sheena Hollands-Mear. "I feel bad every year and think that I should've bought a goat or a chicken for a starving village."

Common marketing strategies include making educational claims, and tapping into environmental and ethical values - and conceits. Once upon a time, toys were simply toys; today they're "educational" aids.

Baby Show founder Dona White says educational toys have always topped surveys of what parents want to see: puzzles, Lego, tinker toys, building blocks and books.

"That's a key buzzword now," she says. "Retail and online sector advertising use it because it resonates with parents, who see it as something that will give their child a really good start and set them on a right path."

White sees it as part of a wider shift towards academic-oriented education at ever-younger ages. "It's not just toys but it's tuition of under-5s. Even before kids start kindy, parents are trying to stimulate them and make their brain centres fire so they're prepared when they get to preschool."

Some parents are also drawn to ethical products. "The biggest trend we see right now is the organic/natural trend: natural materials, a concern with where it came from, integrity, quality of design," says White.

Think organic baby food, organic cotton clothes and bedding, plant-based cosmetics, natural rubber and wood. Again, this sits within a wider environmental consumer movement now slickly packaged and priced for the middle classes.

The anxieties exploited by marketers are a particularly middle-class affliction. White likens it to the "worried well" - "worrying about tiny little things and completely missing the big picture".

Auckland-based 7 Days comedian Jesse Mulligan, 37, concocted a Comedy Festival show on the foibles of middle-class parenting after he and partner Victoria, 32, experienced them with baby Hazel, now 22 months.

"Having a baby is like, 'Welcome to the neurotic club,"' he says. "There's this intense pressure to make the perfect choice in every situation. You can expend a lot of energy looking for the right answers, and after a while you realise there are no right answers - there are just opinions.

"That's what makes it hard. The internet has helped with research but it's also meant there's an endless supply of information," he says.

"My partner and I spent insane amounts of time talking about which cot, which buggy, which high-chair. I've bought a flat-screen TV in my lunch break before, yet the car seat was researched over a nine-month pregnancy. We used to go to Herne Bay for wine and tapas, and then we found ourselves going to a baby store there to discuss with the woman whether we'd made the right choice."

Even knowing that there's no "right choice", they can't help angsting. "It's easy to be reckless about yourself, but when you're suddenly responsible for someone else no amount of care and attention is enough."

Monique Hunter, 43 and a mother of three, has managed to tune out the moral messages and focus on functionality.

"You get marketed at: 'You do this because it's good for your baby, you don't do that because it makes you a bad mother'. I was never hung up on that stuff. I had a caesar birth; I bottle-fed my baby because I had to, so I wasn't too hard on myself."

But the Auckland mum still bought things she didn't end up using, like molded foam seats for her twins Riley and Flynn, now aged 2. "They hated them, so I sold them on pretty quickly. I probably bought too many strollers - about six in our time and we could have bought three."

She's concluded that a lot of it comes down to trial and error, especially when what works for one baby might not work for the next.

And though the twins and sister Paige, 5, have always had plenty of books in the house, Hunter is wary of obsessing about educational play. "For us it's always been more about what's fun for them because they've all gone to daycare part-time, and at daycare nowadays they hammer the educational side of it. At home it's all about doing what's fun for them."

So what is worth spending on, and worrying about? Won't your baby miss out on critical stimulation if you don't get him/her that play-gym/activity box/flashing-singing-keyboard?

Actually, no. What really makes a toy "educational" is that it allows room for the child's imagination, says Auckland paediatrician Simon Rowley. "There are tonnes of things you can do without all the gadgets and wizardry. Building blocks are great, balls, stuffed animals, figures, dolls, tea sets - props for imitating life. They're relatively easy and cheap.

"A pot with a wooden spoon is just as good as a bought toy: it's what children want to pick up and play with and make a game out of, safe stuff in the house. And older children should be encouraged to play outside."

Some toys sold with the "educational" claim are wasted on babies, or even impair development. Elaborate play-gyms (arcs with dangling toys and/or musical buttons that you lay a baby under) can overstimulate very young babies to the point where they zone out or fall asleep to escape.

Rowley: "I think play-gyms are more attractive to the parents than the child. Babies are much more interested in playing with a person, touching a face, smelling, licking. Human interaction is a fantastic toy."

Parents who buy baby DVDs probably believe they'll help make their children smarter, but there's no good evidence that any screen-based media is educational for under-2s.

In fact, landmark research led by American psychologist Dimitri Christakis found that for every hour babies aged 8 to 16 months watched baby DVDs, their vocabulary decreased compared with other babies; for toddlers aged 17 to 24 months, watching baby DVDs made no difference to their eloquence. Based largely on such findings, Disney has stopped making educational claims about its Baby Einstein series.

Hearing speech on television doesn't help grow babies' vocabulary because babies need interaction with real-life adults to learn language, ideally a responsive parent figure who pitches their conversation at the child's level. Also, because babies probably don't understand much of what they hear on TV, they may tune out, learning to listen less in real life, too.

Want to make your baby smarter? Talk, read and sing to them. A lot. Triple P Parenting psychologist Jackie Riach explains: "Having conversations with children is an incredibly strong predictor of their future intelligence, and the greatest predictor of their language development itself."

She adds: "There'll be research for many of the toy companies to show that their toys will support learning, but the studies aren't saying that if you don't have these toys your child won't develop those skills."

If parents figure out what a toy marketed as educational is teaching their baby - spatial manipulation, turn-taking, cause-and-effect - they can easily improvise with materials in the home and backyard.

One mother she met devised a game that involved her kids filling icecream boxes with 10 things from the garden, which they'd bring inside and group into categories together.

Educational aspirations are also behind the so-called "overscheduled child" phenomenon: children whose days are stuffed with organised and "enrichment" activities - swimming, gym, structured play at daycare, preschool tuition. This is one of the trends behind the decline of free play that some experts link with a rising incidence of childhood anxiety and depression. The other force at play is time spent in front of a screen.

In a recent journal article, American psychologist Peter Grey wrote that the amount of time children spend in self-directed, free play - play that children undertake themselves - has declined since 1955. Grey and others consider free play an invaluable testing ground for life where children confront their fears, overcome challenges, discover their passions and hone their creativity, all of which helps build resilience to stress.

Paediatrician Kenneth Ginsburg, co-author of A Parent's Guide to Building Resilience, has argued that the American schooling emphasis on early literacy and numeracy is squeezing time for unstructured play out of even preschool life, and the developmental cost of this hasn't been acknowledged.

As for the green-ethical trend, Simon Rowley says organic cotton may be better for the planet but there's no evidence it's better for babies' skin.

And organic baby food? "We might all think it's a good idea but the evidence is not there that organic food has greater nutritional value," Rowley says.

Of course, even the soundest advice can't penetrate all the neuroses of new parenthood. Mulligan hesitates to give advice to new parents: "No one can talk you out of that nagging voice in your head." He thinks a moment.

"Pick your most paranoid friend and your most laid-back friend, and make sure you're in between them."

- Herald on Sunday

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