Children Need Less Help Than Marketers Suggest

Preying on parental anxieties, more products and services suggest that trusting some basic skills to kick in on their own is an iffy — or at least time-wasting — proposition.

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“Walking Wings” aren’t wings. The product is a vest that goes around your baby with long straps on the top that you can yank to pull them upright, like a marionette. 

According to its marketing materials, this vest ensures your tot will “take fewer tumbles, which will help to build his confidence.” As if children don’t build confidence from learning to walk WITHOUT this contraption.

Meanwhile, a set of emotion flashcards boasts: “Teach your student emotional intelligence (EQ). IQ gets you through school, but EQ gets you through life.” 

According to the product description, “a high-quality photograph on the front of each card teaches a child to label emotions” while “the back of each card teaches a child how these emotions feel and when they could occur.” 

You’ll be delighted (lips curving up, not down) to learn the emotions pictured include “happy, sad, angry, frustrated, excited and many more.”

And then there’s the Gymboree website, which promises special classes and equipment where children can develop strength, confidence, awareness… all the stuff that you might think tots develop automatically.

Because they do. 

If these products and services were only for children with developmental challenges, of course they’d make sense. Some children do need help walking or reading faces. 

Yet “many of these items that came originally from the field of special needs moved into the mainstream,” says the author of “How Toddlers Thrive” and director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development, Tovah Klein. 

More and more they’re being marketed to parents of neurotypical children, as if trusting some basic skills to kick in on their own is an iffy — or at least time-wasting — proposition.

When my friend Ray and his husband took their 2-year-old to a kiddie gym, their son did not get to just run around. “I tried to sign up for free play time,” says Ray, a psychiatrist, “but you cannot.”

Instead, the children must be formally instructed in things like balancing and tumbling. At the end of the session, parents can be sure this time has not been wasted. “They present you with all the things the kids have learned: ‘They developed their cognitive abilities, their social abilities, their physical abilities,’” says Ray. “It is quantified.”

That, in a nutshell, is childhood today. Tots may come into the world burning to play, do, learn, tumble, but adults have decided this cannot happen without a lot of intervention, supervision and assistance. 

Increasingly, all children are treated as if they have special needs. They are assumed to require help with even basic functions.

“The message is that if you don’t teach your child this, they may not be good at it,” says Ms. Klein — “this” being anything from hand-eye coordination to enjoying music. “And if they’re not good at it, they may miss out.” 

Marketers are speaking to a generation of parents already primed to worry that their infant children could fall behind from day one and, as a result, miss that slot at Harvard.

But the gadgets and programs pushed by the child assistance complex represent “a disrespect for children or a misunderstanding of what early development is,” Ms. Klein says. “The reason children play is because they are driven to the core to explore their world.”

Children don’t need special toys to kickstart empathy. They don’t need special vests to learn to walk. They just need a little space and time. “The child who can’t climb up the steps of the ladder keeps trying it until one day they miraculously can. They don’t have to be taught to do that.”

What the adults in our culture are forgetting (thanks to all the warnings, milestones and marketing bombarding them) is that childhood is not therapy. Or at least it shouldn’t ALL be therapy, whether your child has special needs or not.

Once parents realize this, they can stop being so worried and sad (lips curving down).


Ms. Skenazy is president of Let Grow, a contributing writer at, and author of "Has the World Gone Skenazy?"

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