Maybe you have a neighbor like this: She made her own baby food from organic produce, then moved on to only feeding her kids organic whatever and no sugar, no preservatives, no processed anything. Forget about fast food. Toys are wooden, classics, mainly European, no plastics, no marketed characters. And her kids’ clothing – it’s from small boutiques, all made from organic cotton and hemp starting with the cloth diapers.
The best part about having her as a neighbor is that there’s always something to make fun of – maybe to ease your guilty conscience? – if conversation flags when you’re sitting around with another mother over the plastic-toy- and wrapper-littered table at your local McDonald’s, looking for a lone remaining French fry while your kids play in the enclosed plastic climbing area.
Sure, who doesn’t want to be careful about what your kids are exposed to, but there’s no need to be excessive about things. An action figure now and then can’t hurt, can it? Except, what if your neighbor’s right? Because mainstream, middle-class, childrearing practices – even getting kids to eat their spinach – have taken quite a few knocks lately, and those alt/eco/crunchy parenting techniques are looking more and more like they’re worth the time and trouble.
Toys, of course, are the big problem lately, with safety problems like lead paint and dangerous magnets meaning that millions of toys now have to get dumped over the side of that slow boat from China they came on. And it’s not just those little junkie dollar-store type toys either, which you buy with your fingers crossed, but stuff you thought you could count on – Fisher-Price and Elmo and Barbie, for god’s sake.
Maybe your neighbor objected to the toy junk before on aesthetic (kids need natural materials, not plastic) or ideological (you’re teaching them to consume too much, or to buy into sexist notions) grounds. But now she’s got safety concerns – harder to ignore – on her side.
Plastic too is looking less and less a healthy material to have near kids. Studies seem to have gotten clear enough to make it reasonable to limit exposure.
And let’s not forget about food additives and colorings, which can increase hyperactive behavior, according to a recently released study that “was the first time researchers conclusively and scientifically confirmed a link that had long been suspected by many parents,” as the New York Times reported.
Your crunchy neighbor’s looking wiser and wiser. If scientists ever find a link between childhood vaccines and autism, something some parents believe but which has never been proven, it’s definitely time to switch to an all-organic lentil diet and homespun shirts. An organic clothing store owner interviewed in a Washington Post article says when she first opened her store “people would come in and make fun of it.” Uh, naturally. Now, we’re all looking for her website. (The Post article by the way gives websites for some of those alternative, wooden, Euro-style, hopefully safe toys, in case you’re looking.)
So, OK, maybe the neighbor’s right. Let’s all live alternative LOHAS, lifestyles of health and sustainability, a trend that my Spot-on colleague Jonathan Ansfield reports, is now starting to pop up in China, world center of cheapo toys.
These days, almost anything you can buy for your kids, or any childrearing practice you follow, has its traditional (mid- to late-twentieth century) solution, or its new-old-style alternative. But the crunchy alternatives usually take more time and/or money than the mass-marketed option. Sure, those European wooden train sets are nice, but there’s a reason Chinese-made toys have conquered world markets – their price. (Have you seen some of the toys that come free with kids fast-food meals lately? Or maybe you’re paying for the toys and the food is free. But in any case, there’s some fancy stuff.) For a good old PB&J sandwich, you can get a jar of peanut butter and a jar of jelly at the local drugstore; it’s the organic almond butter (peanut allergies on the rise!) and sugar-free preserves that take a little more money and effort to find. (Or there’s my favorite time suck: finding and following a non-drug alternative to killing head lice.)
And regulators and lawmakers, as we’ve seen, can’t and/or won’t protect children from everything that’s unhealthy for them (though some try harder than others).
So as middle-class parents can afford to get more cautious about toys and foods and clothes and medicines they give their kids, and as the crunchy alternatives seem to be not just a lifestyle choice but better for kids in some ways, there’s a chance the gap between poor and rich kids’ health and prospects will get even wider. You can see it with breastfeeding, which gives kids a whole range of benefits: there are higher rates of nursing among mothers with higher income and educational levels. Or, in the fact that in poor neighborhoods, there’s less access to fresh food, and more to fast food and junk food.
The toy recall has already hit kids differently. Many middle-class kids are overwhelmed with stuff; taking away some of their toys because they’re dangerous is a shame, but not tragic. But for a child who has just a few toys, that some of those are found to be unsafe – that is a real shame.