Peer Review, Summer 2000

Vol. 2, 
No. 4
Peer Review

Reality Check: Cradle to College

My wife and I have never considered ourselves to be particularly greedy for status or luxury. Sure, we own plenty of nice things. We've got a house, decent furniture, and sturdy luggage. We've got wool jackets and warm mittens, air conditioning and ice cube trays. But we've always tried to keep a lid on our consumer cravings. For instance, we own a toaster oven but not a microwave. We get CNN but not HBO. In short, we've aimed to lead a contented life of modest needs and simple pleasures.

At least that's how we lived until April, when our son was born. Since then, the old logic of our lives has turned itself inside out. Suddenly, we must buy the best and most expensive products in order to feel good about ourselves. After all, what sort of parents would purchase last year's crib instead of the 2000 model? The old design left the hinges exposed, for God's sake, and there's some risk of mangled fingers. It's a small risk, perhaps, but are we supposed to endanger our little boy just to preserve some vain, misguided sense of modesty?

Not that we were surprised by the intense pressure to consume baby merchandise. Friends had warned us about the insidious sales pitch at the shopping mall, the lurid hints as to the unspeakable suffering that befalls children whose parents fail to choose the safest stroller, the driest diapers, or the most delicate detergent. We knew full well that affection and guilt would drive us to buy all sorts of stuff that we don't really need, from the bottle warmer to the baby sneakers to the chrome-plated car seat.

But we had no idea how much of this marketing would target our son's education. Nobody told us that we'd be inundated with catalogues, commercials, and billboards urging us to begin investing in our kid's intellectual development. It's never too early to start, we keep hearing, not if we want him to get into a good college someday. Actually, we might already be too late, since we never did order those Mozart-for-the-Womb cassettes. But we have purchased a series of pre-verbal language-enrichment tapes (featuring Jeremy Irons reciting sonnets in fifty-seven tongues), and we're hoping that the linguistic boost will compensate for any deficits in our son's fetal instruction. As for toys, we've chosen a brand affiliated with the Royal Danish Pediatric Society, which has done groundbreaking work on attachment theory. Also, we're planning to get the entire Disney series of interactive CDs (Mickey Mouse's Calculus House, Philosophy from Plato to Pluto, Quantum Pocahontas, and so on).

We were going to send our kid to a regular daycare center, but we heard that the neighbors have enrolled their toddler in something called The Infinite Horizons Learning Space, which offers A.P. credit as well as the International Baccalaureate program. The application process is highly competitive, but our boy is already testing in the 90th percentile, and he aced his interview. I have no idea how we'll afford the tuition, much less the private tutoring, the SAT prep class, or the college essay consultant. As long as the economy stays healthy, though, we should be able to manage.

Every once in a while, I find myself wondering whether all this is really necessary. Would it be so terrible if our son doesn't get algebra in the sixth grade? Does he absolutely have to stay above grade level? What if we let him play outside, make friends, watch TV, read comic books, and goof off after school? (This is what I did back in the '70s, my parents tell me, and I've turned out okay. I've even chosen a career in academe.)

But when I look at this beautiful, bald little boy in his bouncy seat, blowing bubbles and staring up at the ceiling fan, my chest swells with emotion, and I have the strongest urge to go out and buy him that new instructional software, the one that features Goofy lecturing on constitutional law. If there's a case to be made for childhood, I'd love to hear it. In the meantime, though, you can find us at the mall.

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