The Great Stroller Scare

Photograph by Corbis

Parents of the world, you are doing it wrong! As if you didn’t know that. What is it this time, you ask? It is strollers. You know that scene in Wall-E, when you learn where all the people have gone, and it’s a huge cruise ship in space where they float around in hovering Barcaloungers sipping on Big Gulps while they grow ever more obese and stupid? That is what’s happening to your kids.

At least, that’s what the author Wayne Curtis suggests in a recent blog post. Strollers have long been a flash point in the intra-Bobo culture wars, as young mothers with chariot-size prams fight for space on urban sidewalks with headphoned commuters and hipster flaneurs. Curtis’s critique is deeper, and broader, and invokes the dread specter of impeded brain development. He starts by observing that, at least in his experience, kids are being pushed around in strollers for longer these days, well beyond the age when, like our ape ancestors, they used to descend to the ground to walk about on their own two feet. This is, of course, anecdotal, but it’s true that parents seem to be buying more strollers: According to the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association, between 2009 and 2010 (the most recent data they have) sales climbed by 40,000.

Not walking as much means this new generation of pashas isn’t burning as many calories, and that may be making them fatter. It’s not just the lack of movement that Curtis worries about, though; it’s the fundamentally passive nature of stroller conveyance. Walking requires small children to make decisions, choose routes, develop balance, and indulge their curiosity. Curtis quotes from Jessica Rose and James G. Gamble’s book, Human Walking: “The need and opportunity for children to make independent decisions occurs constantly during mobility, teaching children that they have their own unique wishes and desires, a critical step in socioemotional development.” He also cites a fascinating-sounding 2004 study that mapped the routes which adults and children took walking to and from home. “Elementary school children as a group took much more complex routes than their adult counterparts,” the study found. He goes on, “They tended to make arbitrary turns and chose to walk parallel to or even away from their destination for brief stretches. The researchers postulated that this behavior reflects the learning process, and this ‘environmental manipulation’ was an essential part of personal growth: developing personal competence and a sense of space, and feeling more deeply anchored to their world.”

And don’t get him started on car seats. Once kids graduate from strollers, they’re strapped into the backs of cars, where they have to watch the world unfurl through glass. If, that is, they happen to look away from the TV screens embedded in the back of the seat in front of them.

What can we do about it? Hard to say. Though Curtis doesn’t mention this, children have been growing less ambulatory for a long time. Our Paleolithic ancestors walked enough to blow up a Fitbit—walking being a crucial component of both hunting and gathering—and as a result, a mother had to wait until a child could walk on its own before she had a second one. Settling down to farm meant we could have more kids. Caveman mores are in vogue these days—their diet, their ideas about footwear, their sense of humor—and there are no doubt those who see their child-rearing practices as exemplary, as well. But while there’s plenty to say for the Japanese tradition in which children as young as five are expected to walk themselves to school, not every trip can be a perambulation of discovery. We’re all pressed for time these days, and sometimes parents just need to get themselves and their kids from place to place. The easiest way to do that is to strap them into something with wheels.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE