Pamela Paul on Buying vs. Parenting

The author of 'Parenting Inc.' thinks that marketing to Mom and Dad goes way too far.


Pamela Paul worked in marketing for seven years before becoming an author and penning books on starter marriages and porn. But it wasn't until she had her daughter (she's now the mom of two, 3 years old and 17 months) that she realized how marketing has hijacked parenthood. She writes about the mysterious lure of $800 Bugaboo strollers, wipe warmers, and baby sign-language classes in her new book Parenting Inc. I got the scoop from Pamela in a phone conversation from her home office in Manhattan. This is a lightly edited version of our conversation.

When did you first realize that becoming a parent now seems to require buying mounds of stuff?

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I was told: "You have to register." So I went online with Target, and I was just, what is this? What's this bouncy seat; what's this swing? I had no idea what I was doing. It really felt like I was not only new to parenting but to the whole parenting-consumer culture, which is its own separate thing. I remember very well that moment of panic when I was handed the must-haves list at Buy Buy Baby, and it was about 100 items long. How did you decide to handle this?

Because I had worked in marketing and had edited books for a parents' book club at Scholastic, I knew the ways in which my buttons were being pushed. You can take any baby product, and it can seem logical at some moment of parental distress and concern. Take the Infant Stim-Mobile. When my daughter was 4 months old, someone got me an Infant Stim-Mobile. It's black and white and supposedly stimulates visual activity, because babies don't see colors. You're scared out of getting anything cute. Then you think, Ben Franklin didn't have one. Marie Curie didn't have one. But then all the other babies are getting their Stim-Mobile; if I don't do it, will my baby's vision be ever so slightly fuzzier? There's the anxiety of underspending. If you don't spend, you don't care.

What's the most useless baby product out there?

Baby Einstein videos I think are beyond ludicrous, but that's been a punching bag for a while. My new favorite is the Time Out/Time's Up Teddy Bear. This is a teddy bear that has a little timer on it, so when the kids are in time out, they have a nice little cozy teddy bear to show them that tick tick tick, there are only a few minutes left. It sounds like a good idea when your child is in time out, and they're screaming their head off and making you miserable. But then you think, wait a minute, time out is supposed to suck. We as parents want our children to be happy, but that becomes twisted by these products to they should be happy all the time. No one is supposed to be happy all the time. Part of our job as parents is to teach our children how to be unhappy. You sound like someone who thinks that kids today should do more chores.

Today's children and young adults are very entitled, very narcissistic; their interests have been catered to to such an extent. It's an unintended consequence of trying to make things nice for our kids. In the end, we've deprived them of skills like resourcefulness, like responsibility. Having chores and having responsibilities are so important. I work full time, and I have a nanny. I tell her I want the children doing the laundry with her. They don't need to be catered to at every moment. What's the best way to go about choosing kids' toys?

The more boring the toy looks, the better it is. Take Kinder Blocks: It's an incredibly boring-looking toy, plain wooden blocks with a triangle and a rectangle. You give that to a 2-month-old and they chew on it. When they're 6 months old, they bang it together, and oh, I can make noise. At 1, they're throwing it, and oh, it doesn't bounce. At 18 months, they're learning to stack it. At 3 years, they're building castles. That's a toy that lasts for years. The best toy is 90 percent child, 10 percent toy. I'm also huge fan of recycling toys. You leave them out there for a couple of months, then put them away for five months. Take them out again, and they seem totally new. The toy's the same, but the child has changed.

What's your thinking on classes for babies?

When my daughter was 2, we enrolled her in a gym class; there are months in New York when the weather's just so awful we couldn't take her outside. But a class for a baby is not a class for a baby—it's a class for a parent. If you don't know any other moms with kids your age, and you're climbing the walls with boredom, absolutely get out of the house. But don't think they're teaching your kids any great things. You can put Dan Zanes on at home and dance around and get exactly the same thing. How do we parents keep ourselves from trying to buy a happy childhood?

Focus on where your children are and not where they're going. We're so focused on getting things that are focused on making my child smarter, more successful. Whenever you have that feeling when making a purchase decision, it's important to stop. I have to constantly stop myself from buying clothes for my daughter. I love fashion, but that's not really the lesson I want to teach my 3-year-old. I go through all the catalogs and mark the pages with clothes that I think are really, really cute, then I just put them aside. I can get the shopping fun by folding the corner of the page. You let the moment pass.