This Essay Will Help Your Kid Get Ahead
Actually, it won't. But why are so many products making such ridiculous claims?

Aqua, pink, lilac, yellow -- the cheery-hued "program curriculum" updates arrive every month, shoved into my 2-year-old son's day-care cubby by his gymnastics teacher. But far from simply imparting fun facts about how my toddler spends his exercise time, the summaries detail the invaluable physical, social and cognitive development occurring each time he attacks the mini-trampoline like an overcaffeinated kangaroo. Among the class "goals": to "build confidence while having fun in a safe and positive environment by practicing and applying the use of listening skills, imaginations and following directions." Which prompts me to greet each new missive with the thought, How many parents are impressed by this mumbo jumbo?

Quite a few, it seems--at least if the proliferation of such advisories is any indication. No longer is it sufficient for kiddie paraphernalia to carry hypercautious legal disclaimers--CAUTION: DO NOT ALLOW CHILDREN UNDER 3 TO PLAY INSIDE CAMP STOVE WHEN LIT. Nowadays toys, classes, even cartoons carry high-concept "claimers" detailing how said item or activity is prepping your preschooler for a Supreme Court clerkship.

The more elementary the product, the more grandiose the embellishment. For his second birthday, my son received a set of sponge-on paints. Cool, huh? You have no idea. According to the box, the nifty gift "provides children with an opportunity to do original planning and thinking while creating expressive art." Original planning? Expressive art?! Well, color me happy! And I thought the boy just liked painting his sister purple.

Even more inspiring are efforts by one children's network to fight the prevailing notion that TV is the Great Satan. Programs are explained in terms of how they improve a tot's language-comprehension skills, his abstract-thinking skills, his "auditory-discrimination" skills--which, as best as I can tell, involve a child's ability to sing the Dora the Explorer theme song at top volume until Mommy's ears bleed. The network's website has a parent's section detailing the miracle of "connected learning" that occurs via the media's ability "to help children make connections between essential curricular content and the world they know." Much of it reads as if it comes straight from an industry journal on early-childhood education. For instance, one program's "multidisciplinary" approach "addresses information, skills and beneficial habits of mind from across traditional disciplines." Honestly, people, aren't we taking our cartoons just a little too seriously?

It's easy to blame such over-the-top pitches on the often noted tendency of today's parents to ruin childhood by applying the same maniacal will to raising kids as they did to making partner before age 35. Marketers are no fools. They read Bobos in Paradise, David Brooks' satiric deconstruction of the new educated élite and its obsession with useful leisure activities, and they are well aware that today's overachieving superparents can't bear the thought of their obviously exceptional offspring wasting breath on any activity that won't help them win early acceptance to Princeton. ("Now, Sweetpea, you know Madison can't sleep over on Fridays because then you're both too grumpy for your Saturday-morning bilingual yoga class.")

That said, these parental advisories also seem to tap into an even broader need for meaning. Their elevated aims and empty jargon bring to mind the corporate-mission-statement craze of the '90s, when companies composed pithy statements of purpose that were so generic and laden with buzzwords (Optimizing! Adaptive! Empowering!) as to lose all meaning. Even now one drugmaker aspires "to provide society with superior products and services by developing innovations and solutions that improve the quality of life and satisfy customer needs, and to provide employees with meaningful work and advancement opportunities, and investors with a superior rate of return." At the risk of sounding obtuse, isn't that the mission of every company? I mean, what firm has as its raison d'être "to provide shoddy products and poor service while ticking off customers, treating employees like dirt and impoverishing investors?"

But in the soulless chaos of modernity, it's not enough for someone to do a good job developing/manufacturing/hawking pharmaceuticals--or to be a productive member of society more broadly. Many of us need the deep, underlying purpose of our daily toil spelled out in fancy-pants terms. Why then should parenting be any different? When handing our child a paint set, we want to know we're doing something grander than simply keeping her occupied until dinner. (Expressive planning! Original art!) And since so much of child rearing involves playing the same games, singing the same songs and answering the same questions until your brain goes soft, it's arguably even more important for parents to be reassured that seemingly trivial activities serve a higher calling.

Then again, maybe we're just desperate to find an upside to those blue and red paint spots all over the living-room carpet. •,00.html

I would answer Walmart to the highlighted bit.