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BOOK REVIEW

Mom's in the clear this time

Three authors blame the commercial world, technology and the government for all that ails today's children.

June 04, 2008|Susan Salter Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

Parenting, Inc.

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

Pamela Paul

Times Books/Henry Holt: 308 pp., $25

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Under Pressure

Rescuing Our Children From the Culture of Hyper-Parenting

Carl Honore

HarperOne/HarperCollins: 292 pp., $24.95

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Game On

The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children

Tom Farrey

ESPN Books: 384 pp., $24.95

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EVERY FEW months, a pile of books on parenting forms on my desk. A few titles rise to the surface because they promise new information or a new paradigm. Fingers are pointed, dire predictions made. Someone must be held accountable, locked in the stocks in the figurative town square. Usually it's Mom.

That's why I like this new crop, even though the world they describe is a desperate one: Mom is not to blame for the pressure we put on ourselves and our children, for the anxiety surrounding childhood and parenthood. According to these three books (finally), we are all -- parents and children alike -- victims of the profiteers and marketers and experts who claim to know more about our children than we do.

Someone is making money based on two fundamental principles: (1) Children have become investments, projects -- worse, luxury items; the cost of parenting has increased by 66% in the last 10 years (while the average rise in income has been 24%); and (2) we are afraid, perhaps more than ever, of the future our children must live and increasingly compete in. Social Darwinism + Anxiety = Aggression.

Between the gearheads selling us the latest celebrity stroller and the gurus advertising in catalogs such as One Step Ahead (which Pamela Paul, author of "Parenting, Inc.," refers to as "the Paranoid Parent's Bible"), we spend thousands of dollars per year on classes for 14-month-olds, designed to make them into geniuses and athletes. Paul seems to be advocating resistance: "By catering to every wish and whim, we teach our children that their interests should always be top priority, regardless of effort. We teach them to be less flexible about accommodating other people and we instill a sense of entitlement. We teach them to be rigid about their preferences."

If only this were the worst that could happen. In "Under Pressure," a book written, the author claims, to end the anxiety surrounding children, Carl Honore lists the dangers of overparenting: "Depression, self-harm, and eating disorders are on the rise among children around the world." A recent World Health Organization report predicts that mental illness will be one of the top five causes of death or disability in young people by 2020. In Britain, every 28 minutes, a teenager tries to commit suicide. In Japan, they have a word for teenagers who stay in their rooms -- hikikomori, or full-time hermits. Honore cites a "2006 personality survey" (here in the U.S.) showing "elevated narcissism" in two-thirds of the 16,000 college students interviewed.

Technology isn't helping. Half of all the 12-year-olds in Sweden are myopic, no doubt in part from overexposure to screens. Television's contribution to the rise in ADHD is hotly debated in the pages of the journal Pediatrics and elsewhere. A 2004 paper in that journal found that between the ages of 1 and 3, each additional hour of television per day increased a child's chances of developing attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder by 10%. Not to mention the fact that the digital generation, Honore writes, is the fattest in history.

If it's any consolation, the author himself is flummoxed by the end of a book in which he hoped to provide some sort of solution: "I have a confession to make. At the start of this journey, I hoped to come out at the other end with a step-by-step recipe for raising children in the twenty-first century, a complete antidote to the frenzy of keeping up with the Joneses. But now I realize that would simply mean replacing one dogma with another. What I discovered instead is that there is no single formula for child rearing." The statement seems perilously obvious, but its truth has eluded authors of books like "Mommy Wars" and "The Wall Between Women."

In "Game On," author Tom Farrey bemoans the prevailing notion that it is never too early to train children as competitors. Youth sports are "less and less accessible to the late bloomer, the genetically ordinary, the economically disadvantaged, the child of a one-parent household, and the kid who needs exercise more than any other -- the clinically obese." In the world of amateur sports, the pressure on kids to perform and compete for such scarce resources as college scholarships or a place on a team in any urban public school has killed the fun. "When the president of the AAU looks at kid sports," he writes, referring to the Amateur Athletic Union, "he sees customers, not amateurs."

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