When Corporations Encourage Giggling At Children’s Distress

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This summer, Pampers embarked on one of their newest initiatives: the Poo Face Campaign. Pampers are encouraging parents to snap photos of the adorable faces their babies make in the midst of bowel movements.

It kicked off in July with the release of an entertaining film, made by advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi, to accompany the launch of Pampers’ new product: sensitive baby wipes. Three months on, the advert has been viewed millions of times.

The film has received endless commendations. It won three awards at the Cannes Film Festival, and superlatives have popped up all over the web: ‘glorious’, ‘epic’, ‘hysterical’, ‘hilarious’, ‘brilliant’. Following its release, parents were encouraged to get involved by snapping their own wee one’s poo face and tweeting it to #Pamperspooface, so that everyone else could enjoy the giggle too. The best face is set to win a year’s supply of wipes.

Three months down the line, I find myself wondering where innocence in giggling stops. I especially wonder how all the baby brains out there will be experiencing being the object of another person’s laughter? It’s the kind of niggling question you find yourself asking once you really ‘get’ the science of connection. What’s it like to have your mum or dad snapping a photo when you are in the midst of physical experience that you don’t understand, can’t control, is often uncomfortable and sometimes even painful? What’s it like to have someone laughing at you, when you aren’t laughing yourself?

I realise that by this point in this article, some readers will already be feeling their hackles rising. In the turmoil and exhaustion of dealing with children, it’s easy and understandable that we sometimes giggle at kids’ behaviour. Rest assured I’ve done it myself plenty of times. Maybe some readers may even have taken part in the Poo Face Campaign, tweeting in a photo. Those readers might now be on guard, wondering if I am about to criticize them – or perhaps dubious, wondering if I seriously think this a topic worth writing about.

Therein lies the challenge that seems to be inevitable in talking about the science that reveals humans’ innate inter-connection, trying to render it relevant to the real world rather than leaving it safely ensconced in the ivory towers of academia. How do I increase the chances of inspiring curiosity, rather than defensiveness?

Screen Shot 2015-10-17 at 01.24.31I’m asking that question because it’s not as if the tone of Pampers’ campaign is novel. Amazon carries the Daddy Nappy Survival Tool Belt, which is marketed as “helping Daddy go from novice to pit-stop changer in no time”. The tool belt comes complete with face mask, disposable gloves, plugs for Daddy’s ears, and a peg for Daddy’s nose, ensuring that a father never has to risk getting anywhere near touching the baby or her poo. The baby’s brain will be treated to the scary sight of dad’s hidden face and will hear the tone of mock disgust in his voice. But perhaps I’ve overplayed my point? It’s only a gag gift for new dads, after all.

So how about the campaign of celebrity US talk show host Jimmy Kimmel? He’s been busy over the past few years establishing what he calls “a beloved new holiday tradition”. Every October, he encourages American parents to play a trick on their children the day after Halloween, telling the kids that they (Mum or Dad or both) have eaten all the Halloween candy that the kids worked so hard to collect the night before whilst trick-or-treating. Parents are encouraged to film the child’s response to this ‘confession’ and then send the film in to the show, so that everyone can laugh at the children’s over-the-top reactions. You can watch those entertaining scenes of distress here, alongside 35 million other viewers.

If you find yourself craving more of this holiday tradition, you can tune in to Jimmy Kimmel’s Christmas edition. Every December, he and his team now encourage parents to wrap up a terrible Christmas present and objectify the child’s disappointment by catching that distress on film.

You will discern from my tone that I don’t find these jokes as funny as many other viewers. To see them as humorous, you have to discount the child’s distress.   You have to ignore the fact that their ‘over-the-top’ angry behaviour or crying meltdown stems from a sense of betrayal.

But there I go again: party-pooper me, pouring cold water (and bad puns) on a harmless bit of fun.

Most people don’t yet ‘get’ what the neuroscience is saying. It is perfectly understandable, then, that they would not realise that the response to their child’s emotional distress or their baby’s pooing effort is literally shaping the child’s neural pathways. They would not appreciate how emotionally attuned babies are to other people. They may not comprehend how long-lasting the physiological consequences of distress, mistrust and mis-attunement can be, if it goes frequently unrepaired. Giggling would seem a harmless, passing moment.

800x800_Art of the Well-Rested WomanAnd maybe Pampers’ campaign is harmless. Babies poo on a very regular basis – an unremitting, too-regular basis for many parents. There is a mountain-load of 3000 nappies to be changed over a child’s first year alone. What difference will giggling at one poo make, in the midst of 3000 nappy changes?

Probably none. It isn’t a single nappy change that I’m worrying over. Rather, I’m reflecting on the mindset bred by Pampers and Jimmy Kimmel and Amazon’s Macho Tool Belt. I’m thinking about the ways in which they encourage us to relate to our children – and to other human beings too. Pampers might use sweet catch-phrases like ‘Love, Sleep & Play’, but all too often their initiatives are failing to inspire real curiosity about children’s experiences. Rather, they are exercising their global power in ways that normalise the decline in empathy already underway in our society.

That may seem unsurprising for a global brand. I still think it’s worth talking about – because I’m not the only one worrying along these lines. The owner of the London-based company Nappy Ever After, Susan Haire, recently wrote her own blog about Pampers’ Poo Face Campaign. She was brave enough to use even stronger, more uncomfortable language than I have. She tried to get readers to view pooing from an adult perspective.

“Imagine you’re an adult who’s had a stroke.  You can’t talk and you can’t walk.  You’re still continent though.  And you can still communicate. But it takes longer for people to work out what you’re trying to tell them.  You finally make your carer understand that you want to be taken to the toilet.  “Don’t worry,” s/he says, “you’re wearing a nappy.  It’s not time to change it yet.”  So you have to hold and hold and hold.  You don’t want to do it in your nappy and feel your skin burning until the carer’s scheduled time to change you. So how do babies feel?  We’ll never know, but my view is that it’s inappropriate to laugh at a baby trying to empty her/his bowels.”

Susan Haire is brave because she knows that, in expressing such a view, she too is at risk of being branded a tiresome party-pooper — or maybe even an irritating trouble-maker.

Except, she’s not alone.  Even the Metro newpaper’s coverage of Pampers’ campaign used the headline “Its all kinds of wrong”.   When the author at SFTU Parents set out to unpack the fascination with this campaign, she ended by quoting that very headline. A mum wrote privately to me this week, expressing a similar worry:

“Its like the trend for that blog by Greg Pembroke, ‘Reasons My Child is Crying’. People find it humorous to point out that their child is crying for something that seems irrational to them, but failing to see that this is a vulnerable moment for their child. It makes me sad, but I usually get told to lighten up when I suggest this.”

Screen Shot 2015-10-17 at 02.07.17I understand the disbelief and defensiveness that can arise when people hear someone making the case we’re all making. No matter how many hours I have taken agonizing over my words, the idea itself can seem silly or judgmental. If you had no idea that babies’ brain development is shaped by the treatment they receive from other people, you wouldn’t know how much your interactions matter. Ironically, once you begin to get a glimpse of that importance, you don’t feel excited, but guilty. Parents are endlessly bossed about by ‘experts’ and told what to do and how to parent. That’s irritating for them, and makes the exhaustion of parenting even more fraught. When you’re exhausted, you are grateful for a good laugh.

It’s just that… there is a difference between laughing AT someone and laughing WITH them. Susan Haire asks in her blog about empathy, compassion, respect: “Don’t those qualities still matter?” Yes, they do. When a baby’s emotional needs are not met with respect and curiosity, then their brain interprets those needs as shameful. Once enough shame gets woven into your neural pathways and your sense of self, it is hard to banish that feeling.

Most of us adults intuitively identify with the difficulty of shrugging off shame. That’s whypsychotherapist Robin Grille has been able to build an international career talking about shame. That’s why the organisation Creative Child recently took the risk of saying that shaming doesn’t occur only in abusive homes, but is actually regarded as an “acceptable form of ‘discipline’ in your “average nice family.”  That’s why Brene Brown’s TED talk on shame has been viewed over 7 million times worldwide.

That’s why I decided to write this article. My core concern is not parents who choose to snap a single poo picture for a Twitter competition for wet wipes. It is corporations who created the competition in the first place. Global brands like Procter & Gamble (who own Pampers) and ABC Television (who produce the Jimmy Kimmel show) and Amazon (who market Macho Toolkits) are weaving shame into our children’s brains. They probably don’t know that, and maybe they didn’t intend to. But once you get what science is telling us about the development of emotional regulation, you realise that that is what is happening. We are letting corporations have this impact on our children whenever we buy their products or their message without being able to make a conscious, informed choice.

Pampers positions themselves as a parent’s friend. But they aren’t a good friend if they are encouraging parents to giggle AT their children. If enough shame and mistrust becomes woven into a baby’s brain, then their ‘behaviour’ will be harder to ‘manage’ later in childhood.  Unmanageable behaviour is what results when a child’s brain learns that only some emotions are allowed, and that other emotions must be suppressed.  So It is not too strong to say that Pampers is making the longer-term job of parenting harder for some families, rather than easier.

Do Procter & Gamble and ABC Television care about what I’ve just said? I don’t know. They’ve never called me to ask about the science of connection. I doubt Jimmy Kimmel’s team even knows I exist, so they wouldn’t have thought to invite me as a talk show guest. I doubt Pampers has ever seen the film produced by my little organization, entitled the connected baby, that shows the magic that can happen during a pooey nappy change when a parent – or childcare worker — attunes with a baby’s emotions.

Screen Shot 2015-10-17 at 01.31.13What I don’t doubt is that Procter & Gamble and ABC Television are making lots of money from their campaigns. Who wants to listen to a kill-joy scientist like me, when so many people are having such fun with the campaign?

Perhaps, then, it is sufficient merely to secondSusan Haire’s tongue-in-cheek comment: “Don’t worry, Procter & Gamble. So few people read this blog it’s not going to affect your sales.”

Of course, Procter & Gamble, I’m only a phone call away should you ever decide that me and my science could be of help to the millions of families who give your company an average of £650 per year per child in exchange for those 3000 disposable nappies and wipes.

One of the grandfathers to whom I spoke this week said that there was no chance they would ever do that. He was of the view that this advertising campaign is sinisterly clever, because it is able to con parents into laughing at their own exploitation.

Lets hope he’s wrong.  Pampers, please call.

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