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Store-Bought Sitters : For years, parents have been 'dumping' their kids at movies, libraries and restaurants. Now it's the mall's turn to watch the little ones for a few hours.


During a shopping trip to the Warner Bros. retail store, my children were playing in Marvin's rocket--a mock-up of the cartoon character's rocket with colorful buttons and gizmos, plus enough nonstop cartoons to keep a kid mesmerized for hours. I was done shopping, but my sons begged for five more minutes. After all, they'd made friends with a little girl, who was playing with them in the rocket.

It wasn't long before the girl's mother showed up in a flurry.

"Is everything OK?" she asked the child, who looked to be about 6 years old.

"Yeah, Mom, I'm fine," the youngster replied.

As quickly as she appeared the mom was gone.

It was then that I realized the mother worked at a kiosk adjacent to the store's entrance and this Warner Bros. retail store had become one of her baby-sitting options. The clerk shrugged her shoulders and told me it happened all the time.

Kid dumping is nothing new. Pioneered in movie theaters, libraries, museums and restaurants, this shady practice is breaking new ground in retail stores that specialize in hands-on displays of electronic gadgets, computer games, and toys for children and adults.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 20, 1996 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 2 View Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Child care--In a story headlined "Store Bought Sitters" in the Sept. 15 Life & Style, Los Angeles clinical psychologist Robert R. Butterworth's name was given incorrectly.

Karine Joret, vice president of marketing and public relations for Warner Bros. retail stores, was surprised and appalled when she heard the episode from my shopping trip.

"Our attractions are to entertain people, not to be used as a baby-sitting facility," she said. "We've heard of people doing this but we don't encourage it. If a child is left alone in the store, our staff will try to track the parents down. If we cannot find the parents we bring in mall security."

Joret is one of the few on the corporate end willing to discuss this type of covert child care as an issue for retailers. But store managers and clerks on the front line willingly acknowledged that somehow parents feel encouraged to leave children in kid-friendly stores while they run errands elsewhere.

At the Great Train Store, a California-based chain that caters to railroad aficionados, a clerk told of the mother who brought in her 4-year-old to play at one of the preschool train tables while she went down the mall to get her hair cut. Even though the clerk explained she could not baby-sit, the mother left.

"It happens all the time and we try to head it off at the pass," said Crystal Wood, manager of Imaginarium at the Sherman Oaks Fashion Square. "We don't allow children to be unattended in our store. We always look to see if a child has a parent nearby. We tell parents who try to leave kids it's for their child's own safety."

Statistically speaking, kids are pretty safe in malls, said Kenneth Wooden, a nationally known child safety expert. "Most people are good and caring people. I think it's pretty rare that a child is taken at the mall." The safety issue aside, dumping kids is convenient--and bad manners--on the parents' part, he said.

Some retailers are apprehensive about reporting children left on their own for fear of scaring off potential customers.

"The issue of parents leaving smaller children has not come up for us," said Scott Laslow, general manager for the South Bay Galleria. "Yet, what it says to me is this is an extension to those parents who leave their teens and preteens at the mall. Even though we become the baby sitters, 10- and 12-year-olds are big shoppers and you don't want to alienate them."

"Our company believes [children] are our future customers," said Rex Barry, manager for Brookstone in the Glendale Galleria. "Many parents do turn their kids loose in our store. Things do get borrowed or broken quite frequently. But the only time I escort a child to the door is when they get out of hand."

Robert Butterfield, a Los Angeles clinical psychologist who admitted to letting his 11-year-old son go his own way at the mall, said parents leave their children at stores for many reasons.

"There's a sense that the mall has become our little village. It's covered and enclosed and in a psychological sense people feel safer."

Butterfield also said today's parents are more permissive than in the past. "They don't want to put their own children through the things they hated to do as kids. So instead of dragging a child to a department store while Mom tries on clothes, the parents try to make everyone happy by sending the kids off to a store that interests them."

Butterfield said he understood how leaving a child in a store could become a liability issue. Still, he thinks stores are asking for it when they send the message, "We have stuff to entertain your child."

Attempting to remedy the situation, some retailers use the store's design to send subliminal suggestions that discourage kiddie camp-outs.

At the Store of Knowledge in Glendale, computer terminals don't have chairs. Products must be demonstrated standing up. The store's preschool area is set up at the back of the store where parents are encouraged to try out products with their children.

Some stores are willing baby sitters. At the Incredible Universe, a multimedia / appliance store in San Diego, parents can shop in peace by dropping children off in Kid's View, a supervised multimedia kids' room with a one-hour time limit. IKEA furniture stores offer a similar situation with their ball-filled playrooms with a 30-minute time limit.

Some retailers post a placard by the front door, like Sharper Image, that lets kids know they'll have to step aside and let the adults have a chance to play too.

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