The Parent Trap

Reviewed by Emily Bazelon
Sunday, June 22, 2008


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. 307 pp. $25


Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting

By Carl Honoré | HarperOne. 291 pp. $24.95

Parenting books tend to fall into two categories. There are the advice books that play on readers' anxieties, urging parents to scale ever greater heights on behalf of their kids. (Try harder! Move faster! Buy more!) And then there are the anti-advice books that promise to deflect all of this anxiety-mongering by helping parents ward off the latest sales pitch.

Pamela Paul and Carl Honoré seek to fit into this second category. And yet their books are as anxious about staving off anxiety as any advice book is about stoking it. The effect is a bit like being told to calm down by someone whose neck veins are bulging.

Paul's focus is on the money that parents spend, and her premise is pretty unassailable: It's hard not to buy things for your kid, especially if you can afford it. Paul calls this "the anxiety of underspending." Baring her own wallet, she writes, "No matter what I do, someone else seems to be doing enviably more or improbably less, and either way, their child and family seem all the better for it."

This is today's version of keeping up with the Joneses, keyed to a fever pitch by the marketing geniuses who created superstores like "buybuy BABY" ("the store name, sadly, says it all," Paul laments), the $800 Bugaboo stroller, and software that purports to teach 6-month-olds how to read. Paul's insight is that the advertising tricks that have become familiar for the elementary school crowd are now being deployed on babies and toddlers -- which is to say, on their parents.

Many of those parents are Generation Xers, whose competitive instincts were finely honed by their childhood experiences of high inflation and recession, according to the advertising executives Paul quotes. "Having grown up with less, this crop of parents is inclined to give more to their own children," she writes. The book is full of such blithe characterizations. Paul may feel tempted to buy that set of feather-thin paint brushes for her kids, but she herself paints with broad strokes.

Still, even if you're the kind of parent who has figured out that you only need a few of the gadgets being pressed upon you -- yes to Robeez, no to the diaper-wipe warmer -- you've probably had moments of weakness and heedless, needless expense. Paul cites statistics showing that the baby registry business is booming, the average amount spent on gifts is growing, and the advertising budget alone for toys aimed at kids under 4 is rising to $221 million a year. And she is surely right that much of this is for naught -- not just the extravagant presents like a $40 Christian Dior pacifier, but also the earnest investments parents make in too-early education, like music classes that overwhelm babies with their cranked-up volume, or art classes that over-direct toddlers.

Yes, good, take us off those hooks. But do the consequences of a fussy art class or an electronic toy have to seem so dire? Paul quotes one breathless expert who connects such toys to "the death of creativity" and then to "the death of democracy." Another claims that kids today are so coddled that they'll break when they grow up, because "they feel down and depressed when they get older and confront failure." Enough. How can Paul tame the fears that lead us to buy too much when she is so intent on stoking other fears?

"There are certainly dangers in writing a book like this," Carl Honoré remarks in his introduction. "One is that any plea to be less anxious about children can end up making everyone feel even more anxious." He promises to take readers on a worldwide tour of the schools, programs and people "engaged most deeply in this battle to redefine childhood for the twenty-first century: parents and children themselves."

Honoré delivers on the tour, but his chapters quickly start to feel predictable. First, there is a modern-day excess to be rued. Of kids on their way to evening tutoring in Taiwan, he writes, "Like prisoners walking to the gallows, the children bowed their heads and shuffled single file into the crammer." A light sampling of the relevant research follows, invariably weighing in on the side of old-fashioned childrearing.

Finally, Honoré takes us to see a better practice. And better, for him, always means slower: His previous book is In Praise of Slowness, and he's sticking with a good thing. In a creative, unpretentious, sensible Italian or Scottish or Swiss or Midwestern setting, the children walk with their heads up and the parents learn a central lesson. "I want Beatrice to live her life for her, not for me," says one father at an alternative preschool in Hong Kong.

There's nothing wrong with any of this, just as there's nothing wrong with Paul's indictment of over-buying for babies. It's just not particularly edifying. Parents undoubtedly need to remind themselves of basic precepts -- there's nothing like parenthood for making the same mistakes again and again. But these books are at once too overheated and too pat to ease any parent's anxieties. ·

Emily Bazelon is a senior editor at Slate.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company