Everywhere I look, Snake Oil. The products and services being marketed to new parents as the Way to Raise the Next Human Superstar are similar to products and services available to people who want To Lose Weight Fast or Get Rich With These Simple Steps. These con artists prey upon people’s base fears (“What if I screw up my child?”) and desires (“I want my child to be the next Steve Jobs!”) to push out “innovative” products that end up costing new parents money and doing nothing, or even harming, children and families.
Baby Einstein and the Fraud of the Parental Industrial Complex
Remember Baby Einstein? The video series initially promised increased intellectual development in infants and toddlers. A magical video that will divert a child’s attention AND make them smarter! What parent wouldn’t want that? Of course, it should come as no surprise that the video series did absolutely nothing to increase infant intellect. The multi-million dollar franchise was built on a transparent lie (the fraud was so egregious that Disney, the company that bought the Baby Einstein franchise, offered refunds to people who bought the products).
While the Baby Einstein franchise has been debunked, new products and books are coming out every day that promise the Best Way to… Develop Intelligence… Develop Athletic Ability… Raise a Healthy Child… Feed your Child… and on and on.
The Signal and the Noise
There is helpful information out there, but cutting through the noise to get to the stuff that matters is a challenge, and if somebody is selling something that caters to a base philosophical core then people will, at least, look into it. Soon the compelling sales pitch comes down and before you know it the next great Baby Swindle of 2016 has taken hold.
Part of the issue is every parent wants to believe their child is exceptional. If they can just give their baby an extra edge from the beginning they will go on to accomplish great things (this is how we get ridiculous situations like super competitive nursery schools with “preschool admissions coaches” offering services, but that’s another discussion). So if somebody promises the final piece to that particular puzzle people will set their common sense aside and pony up the cash.
Be Naturally Skeptical
So how do you separate the good from the bad? As with any market, you need to start with an age-old principle: If it sounds too good to be true, then it is. This adage applies to almost everything, but it is especially salient in the Easy Swindle Arts of child rearing, finance, and health. I believe the truth lives in the boring information. The common sense stuff that, if you just sit and think about for a minute, is probably correct.
For instance, I recently read a book called How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims that highlights the crazy parenting trends that are destroying people’s lives across the US. None of the information in this book is new, really. It’s more of a common-sense approach to engaging with children to foster a sense of independence, so when they reach adulthood, they’re not paralyzed with fear by adult-sized tasks.
I may be getting ahead of myself in my as-yet-unborn child’s development, but the point is the method to bring a person up in the world is not going change because of some Innovative New System. Our species has been raising the next generation of humans for hundreds of thousands of years. The social values have changed, yes, but that needle is moving regardless of how we provide for our kids.
Want your children to develop better language skills? Talk to them and read to them. Want them to not be picky eaters? Feed them a variety of foods, and often. Want them to develop independence and critical thinking? Encourage them figure out stuff for themselves.
Is there anybody that finds any of this remotely controversial? Not if you have a lick of common sense, you don’t. But these things take effort. Reading to your child every night requires your time and attention. Feeding them a variety of foods means not making them something special because you’re afraid “they won’t eat it” (they’ll eat… when they’re hungry). Allowing them to figure things out for themselves requires you to watch them struggle, inducing a special kind of parental psychic pain that you need to push through. Offering an easy path makes for easy marks.
The problem is, of course, it’s hard to build a multi-million dollar business on the idea that life requires patience and effort. It resonates on an intellectual level but doesn’t appeal to that base human desire to fix, fix, fix, now, now, now. And because each generation experiences the world one time, every time, the same old Snake Oil tactics work again and again. Avoiding them simply requires a raised eyebrow and a thoughtful question or two.