Fleece the Parents

Manufacturers often exploit parents' guilt to sell them totally superfluous toys and products.

The start of a new school year and the upcoming holidays have ushered in an aggressive marketing attack of superfluous products, games and workshops. Some would say that practically all products and games for babies and children are unnecessary and that all they really need is a doll, a ball and a little fresh air. But there is no need to go that far. Many people like to give and receive gifts, and preaching asceticism may seem a trifle extreme. However, many parents and grandparents are easily lured into buying dubious items that no baby, child or parent really needs, but which are still promoted as indispensable items that prove good parenthood.

The products include perfume for babies by Guerlaine (the company offers two scents), which nearly every parent would shudder at the thought of. But there are also gifts about which the verdict is less clear-cut. It is sufficient to take a close look at the third millennium baby, who is activated, stimulated, developed and enriched (all words from the wonderful world of marketing that may be found on every toy) from all directions by a plethora of mobiles, pop-up books and rattles in the carriage - to understand that someone here is making money.

The average baby moves during his day from staring at a mobile in the back seat of the car to the mobile of his baby seat, from there to the mobile of his stroller, from there to the "university" on his play blanket - until he is laid down in bed, under a sophisticated latticework mobile with a control, three speeds and three compositions by Bach, Beethoven and Schubert, which are played to the infants for three-quarters of an hour (and all this as preparation for the "Baby Mozart" tapes, which assure parents that their child will emerge wise and acculturated, not to mention the Baby and Looli channels on satellite and cable, both of which offer a wide selection of programming for infants, as if they needed all this variety).

`Third-generation protection'

Retail chains assume parents will buy any product meant to save their children's lives. This is how they market a piece of sponge covered in cloth that is supposed to stop the child from turning over during his or her first few months, thereby avoiding possible crib death. The same logic lies behind the assortment of "baby-sense" devices, which are supposed to beep if the child stops breathing in its crib. And now we have "TV monitor," which is described as "third-generation baby protection." It is a "mini-camera for any place in the home, with four broadcast and reception channels, clear photography even in absolute darkness," which facilitates surveillance of the baby and its evil caregiver.

For those who do not rest easy even when their child attends childcare outside the home, some nursery schools have Web sites that enable parents to watch every step their child takes, a la Big Brother. There are also laundry detergents and softeners that are specifically intended for baby clothes, and a set of "developing" toothbrushes that are supposed to serve the youngster from birth to age six.

Caring for a baby is a difficult undertaking, and many devices are available to ostensibly aid in the task, for example a bra with a "bookmark" for the forgetful nursing mother; a hat that is placed on the crying child's head when his hair is shampooed (and who cries even more when this special hat is put on); and the VCR inhibitor, which is meant to prevent the baby from pushing objects through the slot of the device (but has not proved itself effective with babies who understand how it operates).

Sales of "alternative" products have also notched much commercial success. Witness the sales of homeopathic medicines, anthroposophic toys - which are more expensive than any standard toy - and shiatsu classes for babies. The "continuity principle" compels use of carriers and backpacks, which have become the parent's best friend. But what about a backpack suited for a child who weighs 30 kilos (the weight of a tall fourth-grader), a device that looks like a shelf fastened to the parent's hips on which the child can be placed in a sitting position. Is this really such a great idea?

There is also the fashionable baby, who owns status symbols even before he or she has learned to turn over. Take, for instance, the Bugaboo stroller, which goes for NIS 4,500, and for which the only diaper bag that can be properly hung from it costs a princely NIS 600. The parent will not place in this bag clothes that were picked up at some open-air market; only the new seasons of elite fashion, as if baby clothes were meant to be influenced by the dictates of fashion, and the tots in the playgroup might turn a cold shoulder to anyone dressed in light blue, which is so very passe.

`Absent tribalism'

The numerous classes and workshops offered for babies help to compensate for the lack of a communal framework, as they give the mother who feels lonely and bored an opportunity to socialize with other mothers in the same boat. H., a child psychologist by profession, who took part with her baby in "First Step," a movement class for babies, says she enjoyed the workshop, but feels a certain ambivalence about it. "Clearly, he would have developed even without it," she says with a smile, "but he wouldn't have raised his head, or crawled, or sat up as nicely as he does now. The class answers the need for `absent tribalism,' as it is called by the women from La Leche, the international nursing organization. Between you and me, it also fills the time. You go there and you meet other mothers who lack confidence, and there's something soothing about it, because there are professionals there who see the baby, too."

There are two high points of capitulation to the dictates of the market, in which products, devices and workshops play a part, evidently because at these times parents feel their parenthood is being scrutinized. One is when the baby is born, and the other is when the child begins school. Anyone who began the school year without sending their child to a preparatory course for first grade, at which the young participants learn hand-eye coordination, learn to write the letters of the alphabet and other things the child will in fact be learning in first grade, is now being bombarded with offers for after-school enrichment classes and the ancillary products.

For instance, they can buy a special backpack for after-school classes. One might ask what the children will place in said backpack that is so absolutely different from the summer-camp backpack, the kindergarten backpack and the vacation valise that was sold last summer. Is it a compartment for the cell phone, the wallet, the documents? No, those are for the parents to carry. In fact, the after-school enrichment classes backpack has a special place for the snack, that item without which one cannot leave home, as it is altogether possible that between the 4 P.M. snack at home and dinner, the child is liable to starve to death.

A hard battle

Avi Levi, the director of Green Action, an organization for social-environmental change and the single-parent father of a 5-year-old boy, explains that one of the things that products for children do is to pacify pangs of conscience. In a culture that invented the concept of `quality time,' in which you can measure the amount of time you should spend with your child, it is clear parents are fighting a hard battle against their qualms, their character and their lifestyle. Manufacturers and marketers exploit these guilt feelings. Instead of spending an afternoon with a child, they spend the money for a first grade preparatory class.

"The basic idea is that buying comes in place of love," he says. "Even Love Day (celebrated in the Hebrew calendar on the 15th of Av, in the late summer) becomes Purchase Day. You want to prove over and over, through these objects, completely worthless objects for which there is no need whatsoever, that you love the child; proving not only to the child but also to the surrounding environment. It has become an objective yardstick of love."

One might understand the reliance on fashions, the need for a perfect child and the capitulation to marketing assaults, but none of this is compatible with the fundamental principle learned at these very same educational workshops - that the child must not be inundated.