Monday, October 7, 2013

Baby Boomer on Board! -- a data-based exploration

Kindergarten graduations.  Play dates. First names like Zaiden (boy) and Bristol (girl). Driving kids to and from school in SUVs and minivans when they live in walking distance (e.g. 2 blocks).

And those "Baby on Board!" signs.

What "Baby on Board!" really signifies.
How did we get here?

This post is a data-based exploration into the origins of these cultural patterns in the White middle and upper-middle classes in the US.

(warning: long post, but with many charts and pictures)

(My bias:  Even though I'm a parent and Baby Boomer, I'm not into any of these things and I don't support the values behind them. They irritate me. But I'm curious.)

What Were They Thinking?

My investigation started when I asked various friends why they or others have "Baby on Board!" signs in the back of their cars.  I asked, "What good do they do?"

I imagined that this was a "caution" message to aggressive drivers, especially tailgaters, that they should back off and be cautious because there is a "baby on board".  Indeed, according to the Wikipedia article, it is "intended to be placed in the back window of an automobile to encourage safe driving." However, no source is given for that interpretation.  The same explanation is given on
"...their purpose was ... [to be] supplications to other drivers to exercise caution because they shared the road with vehicles that carried children."
From Season 5 of The Simpson:
  • Marge: Look what I got! Now people will stop intentionally ramming our car.

When you say it out loud, this justification sounds rather dumb.  In this monologue clip, George Carlin explains the dumbness in very confrontational terms (adult language, NSFW):

There was another motivation for some of parents. Partly fueled by a myth, some people believe that the sign is useful for signaling emergency workers in the event of a car accident -- either that they should search the car for a child or that they should look for a child that was thrown clear of the car if they didn't find one inside. Based on statements by emergency workers, this intention seems to be mostly wishful thinking on the part of parents.  (See comments to this blog post, then search for "paramedic")

So if purchase and use of "Baby on Board!" signs didn't have strong rational justifications, why did they become popular and stay popular for such a long time?  I suspected that it tapped into something deeper in these parents, specifically how their image of their kids supports their own identity.  Time for some exploration through data.

Searching for Origins

I first searched for a chart showing sales history of the "Baby on Board" sign, but no luck.  Then I turned to Google's Ngram Viewer, which a web interface where you type in search phrases (one to four word exact sequences), and a search is performed on text of books published from the 1700s to 2008.  The output is in the form of a graph, and also links to the search results by time period.  Here's the graph results for "Baby on Board" (click to enlarge):

Frequency of "Baby on Board" in American books, 1975 - 2008

In this and other charts, all I'm interested in is when an n-gram takes off (in this case, its 1984), when it peaks (1994), and it's overall shape (rise-to-plateau, as in this case, or rise-to-decline, as in other cases). I won't be doing any analysis of absolute popularity of n-grams, either, so I'll be leaving off the y-axis scale values. (FYI, I'm using a smoothing parameter of "2", which is less than the default "3".)

Based on this chart, what I'm interested in is what was going on in US society from 1984 through 1994 and how specific events, demographics, or social trends could be the unspoken motives behind "Baby on Board!" signs.

Several Misses and Then a Hit

In any exploratory data analysis, you are going to have many more "misses" than "hits", especially when you get started.  In fact, of you aren't getting a lot of misses early on, then you probably aren't thinking expansively enough. At the start of this investigation, I had my share of misses.

First, I started looking for statistics on traffic accidents and injuries involving children. However, this was a "miss" because there was a steady decline in death rates for kids during this period and the decade leading up to it. (See this report, p 18). Furthermore, there's no sign that from 1990 on, the trend continued to decline at a steady rate. There was no significantly change in the rate of decline, which might indicate that the signs were making a difference. (The data is from Table 6, p 21 in this report.)

Steady downward trend indicates that "Baby on Board" signs didn't make
much difference in fatalities of young children (under 5 yrs. old). Similar results hold for injuries.
The deviations from trend are mostly a function of miles driven,
which are mostly due to the economy and price of gas.

Then I looked at various crime statistics, guessing that it might be related to some general rise in crime.  I didn't see surge in child-related crimes in the 80s. Another "miss".

I looked at the "road rage" phenomenon.  It came too late -- only appearing in 1996. Another "miss".

I looked at popular culture.  Were there any popular TV program or popular movie in this time that might have been a catalyst? (i.e. analogous to the rise in the fear of sharks after the movie "Jaws" came out)  Looking only at the most popular shows and movies, the answer was "no". Another "miss".

I looked at national politics. Another "miss". I couldn't find any national candidate or major interest group that promoted "danger to children" as a major theme.

Then I remembered the crack cocaine epidemic.  Maybe that fueled a surge of interest (unspoken) to protect children.  Looking at this n-gram chart, it looks like the crack epidemic came later (starting in 1988), and thus didn't play any role in the early take-off of the "Baby on Board!" craze.  However, it might have been an influence in the later half: 1988 to 1994.

Frequency of "crack cocaine" in American books, 1975 - 2008.  It lags 4 years behind "Baby on Board".

Then I did an n-gram search on "missing children".  Bingo!  "Hit"!

Frequency of "Baby on Board" and "missing children" in American books, 1975 - 2008.
Notice similar timing of take-off, peak, and plateau shape.

"Stranger Danger" Was One Proximate Cause

The 1980s and 1990s was a period of abnormally high concern for child abduction by strangers. For context, take a look at this long-term chart for the "missing children" n-gram, from 1850 to 2008.   While certainly there have been missing children throughout this long time span, it was only in the 80s and 90s that it became a major cultural concern.

Frequency of "missing children" in American books, 1850 to 2008.

Here's a similar chart showing the introduction and rise of related n-grams: "protecting children","child abduction","child sex abuse", and "stranger danger", starting with 1960.  The chart below shows "child abduction","child sex abuse", and "stranger danger" since 1975.

Frequency of "protecting children","child abduction","child sex abuse",
and "stranger danger" in American books, 1960 - 2008

Frequency of "child abduction","child sex abuse",
and "stranger danger" in American books, 1975 - 2008

You can see from these charts that the timing for take-off of the "Baby on Board!" craze coincides pretty closely to the steep rise in concern for missing children, child abduction and child sex abuse.  With some further investigation, I found out that the years 1983-85 were particularly important in building cultural consensus about "stranger danger":
  • President Ronald Reagan created the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 1983 and proclaimed May 25, 1983 ‘National Missing Children’s Day’ (source)
  • The TV movie "Adam" was viewed by 38 million people when it first aired in October 10, 1983 on NBC. It was rebroadcast on April 30, 1984, and again on April 29, 1985. It portrayed the kidnapping and murder of Adam Walsh, son of John Walsh who went on to host the TV series "America's Most Wanted". (source)
  • In 1984, the NCMEC organized a campaign to put photographs and descriptions of missing children on milk cartons.  (source)

There were several highly publicized news events that preceded these landmark events, including the Atlanta missing and murdered child case of 1979-81 and the Etan Patz missing child case of 1979.  Significantly, Etan was abducted while walking to the school bus stop.  For my purposes, it's interesting to note that it took four years for these alarming news events to galvanize into a movement and cultural phenomenon.

From 1983 to 1990 there was a related wave of fear regarding Satanic ritual abuse of children, fueled by the sensational McMartin Preschool case.  Soon after McMartin, hundreds of other preschools across the country were also subject of allegations.  Here's the n-gram chart of "ritual abuse".  The surge coincides with the airing of a two-hour prime time TV special in 1988, hosted by Geraldo Rivera, titled "Devil Worship: Exposing Satan's Underground" (see this for a contemporary review: "TV at its worst")
Frequency of "ritual abuse" n-gram in American books, 1975 - 2008

This wave of fear over "stranger danger" was way overblown and unjustified.  There have been a number of reports and studies that provide solid evidence for this conclusion,  e.g:
But there is no obvious connection between "stranger danger" and the "Baby on Board!" sign, is there?

Yes, there is.

Connecting "Stranger Danger" to "Baby on Board!"

The connection between the two appears to be through the general belief that parents need to watch their kids all the time to protect them, and one way to do this is to drive them every where, including to and from school, rather than allowing them to walk or bike.

Here is a long view on the "protecting children" n-gram.  While there's a small rise from the 1920s to 1940s, near all those references are focused on problems with child labor and general neglect and abuse, not "stranger danger".  But in the 1980s the focus changed significantly toward protecting children against abduction and abuse, including sexual abuse.

Frequency of "protecting children" n-gram in American books, 1800 - 2008.

Here's a sample of several books from that period with the phrase "protecting children" in them:
While it appears that none of these books advocated that parents should drive their kids every where rather than walk or bike, it's clear that this became a common behavior pattern.  Here's a quote from one parent in a newspaper story regarding the 2003 report "Can’t Get There From Here --The Declining Independent Mobility of California’s Children and Youth":
" 'With all the kidnappings, the shootings ... I'm terrified,' said Rosie Ramos, a San Fernando mom who chauffeurs her only child, 11-year-old [son], to school, football practice, the mall and everywhere else." (source)
(In a recent blog post, the folks at Freakonomics report on some research on why kids were walking to school less, and what the health consequences were.  But I'm not so focused on health, so I won't follow those threads.)

The desire to protect children and also haul them around easily was one of the factor that drove the market for minivans and then SUVs, whose growth in popularity paralleled the "Baby on Board!" craze.

Frequency of "minivan" and "SUV" n-grams in American books, 1975 - 2008

In summary, this connection is compelling, but I have to say that it isn't fully satisfying. Once a child is old enough to potentially walk or bike to school, he/she is no longer a "baby" and the sign wouldn't apply.  There may be a connection to the "protecting children" theme, but we need another proximate cause.

What else is going on?  It didn't take me too long to find evidence of Baby Boomer narcissism at work.

The Other Proximate Cause: "Yuppies" and Their "Superbabies"

So far all the exploration and analysis has focused on protection from danger and safety.  But the "Baby on Board!" sign is also showy in the "Look at me! Ain't I special?" sense.  This is one reason why it inspired so many parody derivatives.  So now I want to turn my attention to the cultural developments in the parent's generation, the "Me Generation" of the 70s that became "Yuppies" (Young Urban Professionals) and parents in the 80s. Newsweek magazine proclaimed 1984 as the "Year of the Yuppie".  The Yuppie Handbook was published in 1984.

Yuppies were a minority of the Baby Boom generation.  American Demographics determined that about 5 percent of baby boomers (4.2 million) qualified (source).  But they had outsized influence on culture across middle and upper-middle class White America.

After the difficult years of the 1979 Oil Embargo, stagflation, and then recession of 1981-2, the Yuppies emerged with energetic focus on money, success, material possessions, gentrifying urban neighborhoods, and perfect children.  Yuppies often worked long hours or traveled for work, or took work home with them.  Frequently both parents worked in a high-paying, high stress career.  This created conflicting goals, as described in this contemporary newspaper article:
"Parents in this class have three not entirely compatible goals: to have a happy child, to have a brilliant child, and to have a home so smoothly managed as not to distract from either parent's brilliant career."
Yuppies approached parenting the same way they shopped for travel alarms at The Sharper Image (which, by the way, opened its first retail store in 1983).  They were looking for the best (in some high tech / modern sense) and they were looking to be special and unique.

Enter the "superbaby" and the "supermom".  Here's a chart that shows the rise and fall of these n-grams.  The next chart shows that "superbaby" rose earlier than "Baby on Board!", and thus probably played a role in the early phase of adoption and diffusion.

Frequency of "superbaby" and "supermom" n-grams in American books, 1970 to 2008

Frequency of "Baby on Board" and "superbaby" n-grams in American books, 1975 - 2008.

As the chart shows, "supermom" entered the discourse in the early 70s when middle class mothers started entering the workforce in greater numbers.  A "supermom" is a mother who tries to "do it all" -- to be a mother to her children, to be an ambitious career person, to be athletic and trim, to be a vibrant wife to her husband, and even to be active in the community.

Demographics plays a significant role, though I won't go into all the statistics and charts.  Basically, total child births began to rise in absolute numbers in the 80s after having fallen since the mid 60s (i.e. the "Baby Bust" or "Gen X" generation).  But the number of children per family never rose very high, and for most middle and upper-middle class White families, the norm was one or two children per family.  Similar to the effects of the "One Child Policy" in China, this low child/parent ratio caused the parents to value the individual children more highly.

"Superbaby" builds on this belief that "my child is special", and it draws on special techniques that parents can employ to accelerate their baby's development, especially in areas of achievement such as reading, math, learning general knowledge, sports, performance, and playing a musical instrument.  All these methods were powered by the "latest research" and high technology through books such as Teach Your Baby To Read and How to Multiply Your Baby's Intelligence.  It was seen as a fast-track to success for the child, which mirrored their Yuppie parents' quest for the fast-track to success in their career. In essence, the superbaby program was a perfect fit to "The Sharper Image approach to parenting".  (For contemporary criticisms, see this and this.)

Baby Names in the 80s and 90s: 50,000 Ways to be Unique and Super Special

The 1980s marked the beginning of the Baby Naming Industry.  Below are two titles, one first published in 1974 and the other in 1980.  

Before the 1980s, baby names were chosen for a mix of reasons ranging from family tradition, religious affiliation, and social fashion (i.e. popular or famous people).  But starting in the early 80s, more and more non-traditional baby names were chosen, especially for girls, and fairly quickly a new aesthetic had taken over: the baby name as a work of art.

Not only are there more and more books devoted to baby naming, there is an 'arms race' to list the most number of names from the most number of angles, traditions, or cultures.  This chart clearly shows the average number and maximum number of names in each book is steadily increasing.  (The current market leader offers 140,000 names!)

Source: babynamewizard

Here's a few basic statistics on the explosion of name diversity.  According to Laura Wattenberg at Babynamewizard, in the 1950s "the top 25 boy's names and the top 50 girl's names accounted for half of babies born. That meant that the typical child received a name that was very broadly used, so the name didn't communicate much about the family that chose it. ... Today, you have to include 134 boy's names to reach the midpoint of babies, and a whopping 320 names for girls." (emphasis added) 

A more sophisticated analysis is to calculate the Shannon entropy for the distribution of names.  Wattenberg has done just that.  (In this setting, entropy is a natural log measure of diversity or randomness in the population of names, where higher entropy means greater diversity.)

Entropy (i.e. diversity) has been increasing since
the early 50s, with sharp uptick in early 80s,
and then again in mid-90s to 2000s

Same as left, except vertical axis is clipped and expanded

There's a whole chapter (ch. 6) in the Freakonomics book on the naming phenomena, focusing on what signals it sends regarding class and race, and how it affects employment prospects and discrimination.

I think it is safe to conclude that the effort to find unique and different baby names is aimed at communicating something specific about the family that chose it, including the general message that the family and parents are unique and special.

Conclusion: An Origin Story

Let's put all this evidence together.  In the 80s, many supermoms in Yuppie couples were trying to raise superbabies.  They wanted their baby to be special, unique, successful and happy, yet they were pressed for time and were prone to buy fancy gadgets that might help them meet their conflicting goals.  Add on to that the growing fear of "stranger danger" that was in the broader culture, which along with time pressure lead them to drive their kids to more and more places, including play dates and early education lessons of various types.  While the couple may have delayed parenthood, now that they were into it, they were really into it and were proud to show it.  Many other couples who weren't Yuppies went along with the trend, especially when everyone started believing the myths about how the signs helped emergency workers in case of a crash.

In this confluence, buying and proudly displaying a "Baby on Board!" sign makes perfect sense.  It was a social signal and a talisman, of sorts, that might ward off danger for their precious fast-tracked child.



Irony of Ironies: "Baby on Board!" Signs Could Be Hazardous

This was quote comes from a New York Times article titled "'BABY ON BOARD' SIGNS BECOME CONTROVERSIAL" (October 1986):
"The New York-based Insurance Information Institute released a statement calling for drivers to remove the parodies from their rear windshields - and also the serious signs - because they say the signs increase the possibility of automobile accidents. 'There is a problem in that they reduce vision and they create another blind spot,'' said Harvey Seymour, an institute spokesman." (emphasis added)
Later in the article, it says that "Georgia, Maryland, Hawaii, Virginia and Nebraska, also have initiated efforts to have the signs removed."

There have been some people claiming that they are hazardous as a loose projectile during a crash, including risk of decapitation.  That's going to the other extreme and there's no solid evidence that I could find for it.


  1. I got to say, I love the "dangerous projectile" story. At the forces needed for the suction cups to let go, I'd guess the occupants of the car have likely succumbed to blunt force trauma already.

    Reminds me a bit of the people in my organisation worrying that a natural disaster is going to incapacitate both main data centre and the secondary data centre because they're not well within 20 miles range from each other. One is in the suburbs, the other in the outskirts of the city. A natural disaster taking both DC's out for a significant amount of time would likely bankrupt the company (insurance) in the first place.

    1. Yeah, the "dangerous projectile" story is a fine example of people taking a valid risk (loose stuff in the back seat can be dangerous projectiles) and misapplying it. But notice how the vendor reacted: On the "Baby on Board!" sign at the top of this post, you'll see that the vendor put a "Crash tested" label on it. That settles that!