Of Children’s Pencil Boxes And Ersatz Smartphones

It’s a simple enough object: a pencil box that looks like a smartphone. The box’s lid looks like a smartphone screen decked out with app icons, the ones that all of us smartphone users are used to: the phone, the messages, the various entertainments, the calculator, and so on. Pencil boxes have been decorated and adorned in many ways over the years; this happens to be the latest one that our civilization has devised for it. (My school days pencil box was covered with various geometrical shapes; presumably the manufacturers assumed that I would be spending my class days constructing the figures that lay within the box: a pencil, ruler, compass, divider, and a protractor.) But it is not just the decoration of the pencil box that approximates the smartphone’s look and feel; it is also sized similarly, thus rendering the simulation ever more realistic. Especially if you are only a child, who has not used a real smartphone but has merely seen others using them around it. Of course, the more you play with this ersatz phone the more you realize just how removed its functionality is from the real thing; it makes you want the real thing even more. Which is what it is supposed to do; to the children who play with it.

My daughter is the proud owner of once such pencil box. I’m her disgruntled father. A year or so ago, she, by exerting that unique species of emotional pressure that only a four-year old can, managed to convince her mother to buy the smartphone-pencil box for her. But she had been relentlessly enticed herself: over the course of a few mornings, by a glittering array of such temptations placed directly in her path when she walked into her pre-school’s lobby. A vendor of these ‘toys’ had struck a deal with the pre-school; presumably they would sell their goods to the children, relying on them to badger their parents; proceeds would be shared with the school. My daughter had, of course, seen both my wife and I using our smartphones; she had often reached out to them and we had, with varying measures of success, resisted her advances. But not on this occasion; my wife succumbed, and my daughter had her way.

I’ve been a parent for some five years now, and so I’ve become accustomed to the scale and reach of the child-industrial complex, that giant consumer good industry dedicated to selling you stuff for your children. Still, something about the utter cynicism of this particular maneuver, the unholy alliance struck between the vendor and the school (a private one with a few seats reserved for children in New York City’s free pre-K program), stood out for me. Addiction to smartphones and social media is not a minor problem for today’s children, and one of the hardest decisions a (privileged) parent has to make these day is to decide when to let their child have access to these. To see a school allow a vendor to sell such products was astonishing to say the very least. But the commodified logic of this world will brook no interference with its plans to sell to all and sundry.

I’m sad to say that I did not do too much beyond my initial reaction of irritation (I could have, for instance, had a word with the school’s principal); I was worn out by too many parenting discussions and besides, some other childcare crisis had already presented itself for resolution. So I moved on. My daughter still has the pencil box and I’m still holding out the hope that she will grow tired of it in the right way: by finding something literary or artistic or musical that will hold her attention in more fulfilling ways.

The Baby Industrial Complex

When you bring home a baby, you bring home something else as well: a subscription, a ticket to a strange new domain, one populated by goods designed and manufactured for babies–and their parents–to better equip them for all of life’s supposed challenges, to train, dress, entertain, edify, and amuse them. An industry of industries churns out one product after another, first placed on baby registries, then procured and presented, and then, sometimes, handed on down, to the generations to follow. They cater to many, many needs, some imagined, some real; they cater to anxieties and insecurities; they reassure, comfort, sustain; they prop up the edifice of upbringing and rearing.

There are wipes, fragrance-free, made of the right chemicals that won’t corrode skin; high-technology diapers that could soak up a mid-grade tsunami; breast-feeding aids, boppies, that promise comfort to the exhausted mother; ointments, creams, lotions, shampoos, all carefully calibrated for the tender infant’s epidermis; towels that will dry and warm; rattles that will distract and amuse; books in bright and dark contrasting colors, all the better to train babies’ eyes with; cribs and cots with adjustable bottoms and padded walls; bottles of plastic and glass sporting a dazzling variety of nipples and shapes; bottle cleaners and sterilizers; breast pumps, which introduce a new sound, disturbingly industrial, to the daily rhythms of the household; hand sanitizers to ensure the non-transmission of germs from caretakers and enthusiastic visitors to the baby; food processors for blending, whirring pureeing, and chopping, to prepare those mysterious concoctions that babies so happily and messily consume; musical toys, sometimes classical, for the more refined sensibility and the more ambitious parent, sometimes plebeian; talking toys, sometimes jocular, sometimes perky; toys with flashing lights; video and audio monitors; diaper changing tables; diaper pails, which, sadly, need to be emptied periodically; strollers and perambulators, their sizes ranged along a spectrum marked out by gigantic, tank-like behemoths at one end and slender whippets at the other; baby carriers for placing the infant in front, at the back, or on the side of the parent’s body and then carrying around; car seats for safe automotive transportation–you can’t bring home your baby from the hospital without one; high-technology noise machines to ensure an undisturbed daytime nap while the sounds of the city–the fire engines, the ambulances, the road construction crews, the police cars, the sanitation trucks–rage outside; bibs to keep the soon-to-be-soiled cute onesies and dresses clean; the high chairs for dining; the door swings; the rocking chair; the plastic tub and rubber duckies for the bath; the numbered blocks for learning to count; the snot-suckers; the thermometers; the pediatric vitamins.

The list goes on; you get the picture. A dazzling array of products conceived and constructed with every need, every eventuality, every possibility, seemingly kept in mind, anticipated, and catered for. And then, placed on the market, advertised and hawked as indispensable aids for life’s journey.

Tiny creatures; but ones apparently requiring a complex, expensive, and intricate infrastructure, all made available for the right price.