Before one buys that Disney play set, or that Sesame Street book, or—heck, before the child is even born, this book needs to be read. Bringing up a child in a world of a consumer culture and corporate-controlled world has never been trickier. Before children are branded for life by McDonalds, Disney, Nickelodeon, or any other profit-driven group, parents need to know the facts, the issues, and the gray areas that Susan Gregory Thomas illuminates in Buy, Buy Baby.
We all want our children to grow up to be their greatest potential. The culture of “parenthood” that has dominated American culture as far back as Dr. Spock is constantly finding ways to optimize children, whether it is “pre-preschool,” language lessons at age two, or any number of educational programs, materials, and toys to encourage growth. But is there any truth to the claims of the many different products marketed toward that goal of improving the overall education and potential of children, or is it just a means of selling more (often unnecessary and occasionally overpriced) goods to parents concerned for their child’s well-being?
Gregory has done her homework—her nearly twenty pages of notes and ten-page bibliography speak to that. She has looked into the wide range of both market-driven and independent research, and the results are disconcerting. Those educational and learning toys that imply they can turn children into baby geniuses do nothing of the sort. What’s more disturbing is how the use of children’s icons (Barney, Spongebob Squarepants, Big Bird, etc.) are so widely distributed among an array of merchandise. While corporations deny their intent to create baby consumers, their actions leave much to be desired. Thomas captures it best when she states
“First, infants and toddlers clearly form attachments to characters designed to appeal to them... Second, the main thing that infants and toddlers learn from such characters, whether on television, juice boxes, or bed sheets, is the ability to recognize them – which should not be confused with actually learning anything ‘educational.’ Third, infants’ and toddlers’ attachment to characters deepens the more often they encounter them, no matter what the medium. Finally, the presence of such characters on a wide variety of merchandise seems to be toddlers’ first experience of developing loyalty to an early concept of a brand.”
Thomas uses her words wisely and does not necessarily directly attack the marketers, but she certainly does identify gaps in their arguments and research. Her details and deliberations prove accessible and easy to follow. Each chapter acts as an essay unto itself while also fitting into a larger paradigm of identifying the mechanisms at work with children’s toys.
Anyone who deals with children in any capacity should be reading this book. Thomas’s keen insights can enable adults to be much more mindful about what material to use in engaging children. She doesn’t have all the answers, but she certainly does make some important points.