Baby Einstein vs. Barbie

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Who would win in a fight, Baby Einstein or Barbie?

Baby Einstein isn't a character, just a brand, so this imaginary fight wouldn't be a fistfight. It'd be a fight for mindshare and market share. It'd be a fight for dollars.

In fact it is a fight for dollars. Every day, in Targets and Wal-Marts across the country, these two brands go at it. Which one do you give your kid? It depends on how old your child is, obviously, but it also depends on what kind of parent you are. As any good Supermom will tell you, Baby Einstein is the choice of parents who want their daughter to speak Swahili by 7th grade and go to Harvard. They leave the Barbies for other people — people who, they imagine, just want their daughter to have a smile on her face and go to a great state college.

So who's winning?

It's not even close. Barbie crushes Baby Einstein. Last year the Baby Einstein brand (now a Disney property) sold $200 million worth of products. The sales of the Barbie brand, (a Mattel property), were 15 times higher — a staggering $3 billion.

I bring this up because I sense the media is increasingly ignoring the true American family, and instead is putting the dramas of affluent families on Page One. It would be okay if they delivered these portraits with a sardonic wink, so that we might laugh at the foibles of the well-off. But there is no wink. Instead, we are asked to sympathize with people's self-made problems, and these affluent-family issues are held up as representative of us all.

In the eyes of the media, we all buy Baby Einstein.

Here's how the typical American family is being portrayed. Most kids are coddled by helicopter parents who protect their child from failure. All moms have misgivings over their choice to work or stay home. Nannies are on duty at every playground, and the parents have fabulous jobs. Every child is pushed with too much homework, and every teenager is spoiled with too many luxuries. Teens have to apply to twelve colleges — because they're competing against all the other overachieving youngsters. And once they graduate, you would think every one of these young adults moves back home to mooch for a few years, unwilling to grow up and get a job.

The latest example of this is the enormity of coverage on parents who are crazily obsessed with giving their children a head start. By middle school the kids are world-weary and anxiety-ridden. These domineering parents are the subject of books such as Alissa Quart's Hothouse Kids, Alexandra Robbins' The Overachievers and Madeline Levine's The Price of Privilege. Or last year's media sensation, Judith Warner's Perfect Madness, about mothers on the brink of insanity as they seek to create perfect childhoods for their tots. The affluence of these parents is never copped to; yet once these fears enter into the media bubble, they get supercharged into widespread panic by the multiplying coverage.

I don't deny that some families have this problem of coddling, pushing and overachieving — but not one of these problems is the public menace it's supposed to be. "A social trend is whatever is happening to a newspaper editor and the editor's friends," Claude Fisher, a professor of Sociology at U.C. Berkeley, says with a laugh.

The media needs a reality check. Mountains are being made of molehills. This new paranoia that we're all smothering our kids is a myth.

Parental involvement in schools has actually gone down, not up (a drop of 10% since 1998 in such things as attending PTA meetings and helping out with homework). Nor is every teenager spoiled or lazy; nearly a third of 16-year-olds have jobs while in school. Nearly a third of them volunteer, about one hour a week. Only 2% of students apply to 12 or more colleges, and only 150 of the nation's 3,500 colleges are so selective that they turn down over half their applicants. There are actually tons of college slots: 44% of colleges accept every single applicant. Some graduates do move home after college, but more 18-to-34-year-olds lived at home during the 1980s than do so today. Most families in America aren't doing too much for their children. They're doing everything they can, and it's just barely enough.

The newest entrant in the Supermom Lit category is Searching for Mary Poppins: Women Write About the Intense Relationship Between Mothers and Nannies. A book like this has its place, but it's a small place. Only one out of twenty kids in America will ever be cared for by a nanny. Nevertheless, the book's authors seem to think having a nanny at home is indispensable for a middle-class American family.

As this constant misrepresentation trickles down to the lower classes, it causes unintended consequences. It teaches the paranoia to people who don't have the problem. Parents who didn't even know college placement specialists existed are suddenly panicked that they should sell their Chevy to hire one.

A survey of young Latinos showed they had picked up this panic that colleges are too selective and too expensive. Many had not bothered to apply even to their local public college, assuming it was as expensive as the Ivy Leagues and their grades weren't good enough to be admitted. When they were told the facts, three-fourths of them said they would have applied to college, if they had known earlier.

New research from the University of Minnesota shows that the media's shaming of college kids who live at home is hurting Hispanic and Asian families. These immigrant kids aren't lazy; they live at home because it's their culture and they don't have the money to both live apart from their parents and pay for college tuition. Nevertheless, the media coverage has made them feel defensive, embarrassed and un-American.

Over the last three years, I interviewed 700 families across America, asking them what they'd had to deal with. Extremely few mentioned the kinds of problems diagnosed by Supermom lit. Rather, they had old-fashioned problems like infidelity, mental illness, teen drug use, poverty, racial prejudice, custody battles, emotional frigidity and marital boredom. Every family in America has had challenges to struggle through. But the kinds of problems people actually deal with are covered by few people besides Oprah and Dr. Phil — which helped explain why they're the cultural phenomena they are.

Thirty years ago, as bright young women got great educations and then crashed the workforce rather than just getting married, they were a bellwether of society's changing face. But now that so many drive a Lexus and push an $800 baby stroller, I'm not sure they are still a significant bellwether. They're trendy, but the trend they represent misses the typical American family by a mile.