Thursday, July 31, 2008

Grown-ups, Not Grown-Downs

Emily and I flew to the western part of the state for a baby shower in Oklachusetts City (see photographs in "Trip to Oklachusetts City," pts. 1 and 2). Despite the triple-digit heat, despite the donuts, despite the adamantine cast iron of claw-foot bathtubs, a lovely time was had by all. Thank you to the nine (yes, 9!) hostesses of our lovely fete. We look forward to entering a grateful, gushing note about the occasion in the baby book we received on Saturday.

Until then, a few observations about baby product names.

As Emily and I "feather" our "nest," we've been amused and disturbed by the phenomenon whereby companies give their baby products ridiculous, silly, cutesy-pie names. Parents need certain items to raise a kid: bibs, diapers, bottles, cribs, small clothes, pacifiers, etc. It's also nice to have a horseshoe-shaped pillow in which an infant can nestle. But why name this pillow Boppy? Why call anything Boppy, Bumbo, Schoon, Boon, Robeez, Snappi, or Snoodle? Don't such names force parents to regress into a kind of adult babyhood? Walk into a store like Magic Beans in Coolidge Corner and listen to the sound of grown-ups turning into grown-downs.

There seems to be an unwritten rule that all new products for infants must have infantile names. On one hand, branding products with playful, memorable names is a smart marketing strategy that sells units by creating a buzz. Who wouldn't want to buy three packs of Snappis with such a snappy name?! On the other hand, it is a cynical move that subtly reinforces several dangerous, spurious notions: that childhood is all fun and games, all the time; that children are the new "hip" accessories; that children must be pampered; that parents must have the latest brand-name product to be effective parents.

Just give a kid a stick and some dirt and watch magic happen. My grandfather Paul C. likes to say that when he was a kid, he'd spend hours with a shovel constructing roads in the mud for his homemade toy cars. My father spent his formative years wondering unsupervised around the streets and fields of Waleetka, playing games like "Kick the Can." Kids were kids in those days. And adults were adults. Nowadays, it seems kids grow up faster and adults try to stay young longer. Perhaps giving baby products childish names is an act of nostalgia. Perhaps we all mourn for a cultural innocence that's forever lost.

Then again, maybe I'm the cynical one. After all, what about words like like baba, binky, woobie, and even snuggle? Consider pet names. Consider Edward Lear's nonsense verse, the macabre humor in Edward Gorey's cartoons, or Lewis Carroll. My point? Adults excel at silly talk. We love to have fun with words. I myself am fluent in gibberish. My favorite musician is Shooby Taylor.

All this has me thinking about how previous generations raised their children. It wasn't always pretty. Puritans viewed childhood as a vice, a crime against humanity. They dressed their little ones like adults, expected them to grow up quickly, punished them for childish behavior. Children in the early days of the Industrial Revolution earned their keep in factories or begged on the streets. In Renaissance Europe and early America, the apprenticeship system took children as young as seven out of their homes and into the hands of a master who worked their fingers to the bone in exchange for a vocational training. It wasn't until the Victorian era in England that parents, fueled by Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, began to see childhood as a special time in a young person's life and the child as a special, privileged class of human being. In a way, the Victorians invented childhood.

I don't know if anyone has ever written a history of baby products and baby product names, but for a fascinating account of the causes and consequences of the cultural shift in attitudes toward children, check out Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood by Stephen Mintz or The Disappearance of Childhood by Neil Postman.

No comments: