“You’re dad’s favorite.”

At least it's not a favorite *kid*! Vintage ad via JBCurio, flickr.com.

At least it’s not a favorite *kid*! Vintage ad via JBCurio, flickr.com.

A new study from Purdue University lends weight to the idea that, emotionally, children do not always grow up in the “same” home. Research by Professor Jill Suitor and graduate student Megan Gilligan builds on this with a bit of sibling rivalry: siblings are likely to be more bothered by perceived favoritism from fathers than from mothers.

Other work has shown moms who picked “favorites” had caused sibling tension, but studying the influence of both parents was a novel approach. Revisiting 2008 interviews (from the Within-Family Difference Study) with “Baby Boomers” whose parents were still alive, the authors spotted the difference. Karl Pillemer of Cornell University, who has worked with Suitor and Gilligan on this data previously, commented in a HealthCanal article:

We often think of the family as a single unit, and this reminds us that individual parent and child relationships differ and each family is very complex. Favoritism from the father could mean something different than favoritism from the mother. We suggest that clinicians who work with families on later-life issues be aware of this complexity and look for such types of individual relationhsips as they advise families on care giving, legal, and financial issues.

Suitor also offered an explanation:

Mothers are often more open and affectionate with their children, whereas fathers have sometimes been found to be more critical, leading offspring to be more concerned when fathers favor some children over others.

From families to gender, culture, and the lifecourse, scholars are sure to take up this new angle on household dynamics.

Economics, Sentimentality, and the Safe Baby

Catalog photo by travelingcookie via flickr.com.

Catalog photo by travelingcookie via flickr.com.

Adam Davidson, of NPR’s “Planet Money,” makes a sheepish confession right at the very start of his latest NYTimes piece: “raising a child in Park Slope, Brooklyn, can bear an embarrassing resemblance to the TV show ‘Portlandia.'” Having trucked his family down to the Brooklyn Baby Expo, Davidson saw everything from plant-resin teething rings to organic-cotton car seat covers (to limit babies’ exposure to manmade fibers). He realized, the baby market is a commodity market, and that’s when he started to feel better:

It’s easy to feel like a sucker once you realize that nearly every dollar you’ve paid over the commodity price is probably wasted. But the process also has enormous benefits for all consumers.

When companies need to compete, they must differentiate, and in the baby market that can mean safety innovations that set the newest standard—possibly inspiring the government to raise safety regulations. Even if you’re not an early adopter of BPA-free bottles, you may soon find that your store brand bottles are BPA-free, just like joovy® “boob baby bottle.” And then everyone’s a little safer, even if that concern is relatively new.

Davidson turns to classic research from sociologist Viviana Zelizer to expand on “The Sippy Cup 1%” and changing childhood:

It might shock the shoppers at Brooklyn Baby Expo, but the idea that everything children touch should be completely safe is a fairly new one. In previous generations—and for most people currently living in poorer countries—having children was an economic investment. Viviana Zelizer, a Princeton sociologist, in her 1985 classic, “Pricing the Priceless Child,” tracked how childhood in America was transformed between the 1880s and the 1930s. During this period, Zelizer says, parents stopped seeing their children as economic actors who were expected to contribute to household finances. Families used to routinely take out life insurance plans on their children to make up for lost wages in the not unlikely event of a child’s death.

But eventually, increased societal wealth, child-labor laws and the significant drop in child mortality led parents to reclassify their children, Zelizer explained, as “a separate sphere, untainted by economic concerns.” This came along with “an increasingly sentimentalized view of children,” in which their comfort and protection can be given no price. Now, for the first time in human history, having a child in the United States is a net financial cost for a parent. This, of course, has been a huge boon to child-product manufacturers. Companies profit from our sentiment with extraneous features. The whole process is prone to produce absurdities like the $4,495 Roddler custom stroller, but the best advances become inexpensively incorporated into everybody’s products. In the end, it really does contribute to making children safer than ever.

Class War in the Toy Store

A new, educational toy from Japan, Wammy. Photo by japan_style via flickr.

With the holidays bringing so much attention to our shopping habits and stores, many odd trends are bound to crop up. One recent Citing, for instance, looked at the long-standing gender-segregation of toy aisles. Now we spot another toy divide, perhaps as pervasive, but harder to notice: the New York Times argues toy stores divide kids by class, too.

The piece explains that the emergence of larger toy retailers like Toys “R” Us has made toys with a focus on enrichment or learning more rare—they’re more likely found at small, specialty stores. The problem is that these smaller, more upscale stores are mostly found in affluent areas. The article’s author, Ginia Bellafante, writes:

In the way that we have considered food deserts—those parts of the city in which stores seem to stock primarily the food groups Doritos and Pepsi—we might begin to think, in essence, about toy deserts and the implications of a commercial system in which the least-privileged children are choked off from the recreations most explicitly geared toward creativity and achievement.

Research on how much these ”high-class” toys actually help in child development is inconclusive, but it’s easy to infer the toy gap may add to both the education gap and the class divide.

Desegregating the Toy Store

Catalog image via viewer.zmags.com and rt.com

The moment they are born (and even before), children are shaped by gendered expectations: boys today are born into a world of blue and girls in pink. Boys are expected to go outside and be rough, playing war games and cops and robbers, where girls play house or tend to dolls. Even toy stores are segregated, with “girl aisles” strewn in pink and bursting with dolls, wholly separate from those for boys, which are stocked with weapons and action figures.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, however, describes a Swedish company working to eliminate such stereotypes. The Top-Toy Group has released its holiday toy catalog, and shoppers have found it breaks common gender expectations. The catalog features young boys playing house and giving make-overs, while ready for battle with their shiny toy guns.

Occidental College sociologist and Sociological Images’ co-founder Lisa Wade was interviewed by the article’s author, Anna Molin, to help explain the significance of Top-Toys’ gender neutral catalog. Wade points out that the company is doing a lot to challenge our concept of masculinity: “You may give tool toys to your daughter, [but] you don’t [usually] give the lipstick bag to your son.” That would deviate too far from society’s gender norms. Wade warns, however, that the catalog may be nothing more than a marketing stunt. As she puts it, “It’s a mistake to think that companies typically do this out of ethical belief. Most of the time they are doing it strategically.”

Whether it’s clever advertising or a real effort to change gender perceptions, Top-Toy’s lookbook is bringing a lot of attention to gendered play. Seeing girls aim their Nerf guns and boys “baking” cookies, parents might ask their tots what they really want, rather than reflexively heading for the pink or blue aisle.