Bringing up baby in a bubble
Marketers tap into American parents' anxiety about child safety with a plethora of products that promise to protect children from a variety of 'dangers.'
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Ironically, this anxiety comes at a time when almost every aspect of child health and well-being is improving. "Contemporary parents feel it's harder and harder to raise children, and the world is more and more dangerous," Anderegg says. "But that is objectively not true," at least for middle-class and upper-middle-class children.Skip to next paragraph
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Even a useful product, such as a bicycle helmet, can make people more anxious, Anderegg adds, by focusing attention on the fact that something bad might happen.
Chris Falk recalls his carefree childhood in the 1960s: "My parents were quite concerned about my safety and well-being, but they followed the accepted parenting practices of the 1960s." He and his brother rarely wore car seat belts. They played with toys now considered "choke hazards," and they rode in the bed of their grandfather's pickup truck. By contrast, his sons, ages 2 and 5, ride in car seats, wear bicycle helmets, and sleep in flame- retardant pajamas.
"It makes me a bit sad to think that my sons won't enjoy the freedom from anxiety I enjoyed," says Mr. Falk, media director at the American Association of Poison Control Centers in Washington. "But I'm glad to have them protected by modern science and research."
Michael Shmarak of Chicago, whose first child is due next week, received his introduction to the world of parental safety when he and his wife walked through Babies R Us recently. "All I could do was think we were playing a game of 'Baby Fear Factor,' " he says. "Nearly everything for children is being marketed with 'security' in mind."
Even so, he sees beneficial effects. "What all these products have done is raise the level of awareness as to what the responsibilities of a parent really are. There is no price you can put on a child's life. So every parent can choose whether a product is worth it to them."
Not all parental fear focuses on children's physical safety. As the mother of two teenagers, Mimi Doe of Concord, Mass., sees parents making purchases to assuage fears about their children's future success.
"Parents are buying software and tutoring services to give their kids a leg up," Mrs. Doe says. "That's the toxic fear we're imposing on our children. Parents are taking out second mortgages on their homes just so they can hire college consultants to get [their children] into what they hope is a better school."
At the same time, Doe, author of "Nurturing Your Teenager's Soul," finds a silver lining. This anxiety is leading some parents to a spiritual approach, she says. "Spirituality is the antidote for the ticker tape of messages that come across their consciousness every day: 'Give your kids a leg up, watch out for terrorists, don't travel.' [Spirituality is] a little bit of a last laugh on the toxic marketing machine that says, 'Find their fear, develop a product to address it, and make millions.' "
Still, back at the baby superstore, Gordon finds many parents confused about what they should and shouldn't buy. "Especially if your friends have it, you feel you need it. As you get more experienced, you have a filter that says, 'I don't need that.' "
As the author of "Consumer Reports Best Baby Products," she offers recommendations: Buy a new crib that meets current safety standards. Buy a new car seat and be sure it is installed correctly. Use safety gates for stairs and windows, and padded corners for coffee tables. A toy chest should have air holes or a lid that doesn't close all the way.
Her don't-buy list includes crib bumpers and crib positioners, which can pose suffocation hazards. A baby bathtub thermometer is unnecessary. "You can gauge the temperature yourself," Gordon says, "and also turn down the water heater to 120 degrees."
Families living in small houses don't need a baby monitor, she adds. She also draws the line at monitors to take in the shower.
Whatever a child's age, Gordon says, parents must pay attention to possible dangers, but also trust their instincts. "A lot of it is your actions. It's good to be aware, but you don't necessarily need a product to protect you. You can't expect yourself to monitor [your children] all the time. That's too much."
For Troy Scheer, keeping children safe comes down to a balancing act, combining wisdom with common sense.
"It can't get to the point where we're so afraid to do every little thing with our children that we isolate them in this bubble," says Mr. Scheer, a father in Carrollton, Texas. "It falls back on parents to make decisions, and not get caught up into thinking that they have to have every device that's out there or their child is not going to be safe."