Truth is, the parenting culture has had mixed feelings about the playpen seemingly since it was invented. An ad in a 1925 newspaper, for example, for a device called the "Kiddie Koop" (reputedly designed by Buckminster Fuller), encapsulated the tension: "There is no thrill like that of holding and caring for a baby in your arms," it began. "Yet the modern mother with her manifold duties must—simply MUST—forego such maternal joys at times, or the 'regulation of household affairs' will suffer." Playpens would continue to be debated, not in the pages of scientific journals but in the mothering advice columns of newspapers. In a 1943 edition of the Spokane Daily Herald, Myrtle Meyer Eldred touted the benefits of playpens: "Not only is the child free of possible physical injury but his behavior is not subjected to constant punishment, since what he does in his guarded play-place does not annoy the parent." In a 1957 article in the Chicago Tribune, the writer, after first asking the reader to remember "the great hue and cry raised against the play pen a few years back," then goes on to cite a report by Dr. E. Robbins Kimball noting various advantages of the playpen (including the fact that it "gives nervous mothers relief.") In 1966, a columnist was asked in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette if mothers used playpens "as a lazy excuse to keep their babies out of the way"; while in an article in that same paper a decade later, a reader of the "Parents Ask" column wondered about "some psychologists who are against playpens." The column's author, Louis B. Ames, noted the reader was probably referring to Burton White's The First Three Years of Life ("there is no way of keeping most children from being bored in a playpen for longer than a very brief period of time"), and then went on to advise that "the ordinarily lively and intelligent baby does not have be entertained by others during all his waking hours."
As Ann Hulbert documents in Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children, this sort of confused and conflicted debate has long been a touchstone of the parental advice genre. In Anxious Parents, Peter Stearns notes that where parents once put children in playpens to safeguard them from dangerous household equipment, as that household equipment was made more accident-proof, the playpen itself soon began to be seen as the source of danger—both literally, as in a series of high-profile recalls of poorly designed playpens and playards, and figuratively, as a symbol of damaging neglect.
The debate over the playpen, in the end, seems less about the thing itself than one of the eternal conditions of parental pathos: the fact that children demand so much of our attention and that we cannot always give it to the extent we (and they) would wish. As I've been writing this I—a modern father with "manifold duties"—have had to occasionally give time to the nearby girl I've stashed in the Fisher-Price "Cradle 'n' Swing" (some bylaw must require that children's product names use 'n' in place of and), which for all I know may simply be the infant forerunner to the playpen. (My friends nervously and jokingly call it the "Neglect-o-Meter.") Yes, my lack of attention may be stunting her development—shaving a notch off that IQ—but my failure to write portends more sweeping consequences, like the lack of a roof over our heads.
So, playpen, childproof room, fully free range, or something else? Are playpens cages of disregard or safe, useful accoutrements? How much time is too much time? Will a playpen keep my daughter out of the Ivy League? When I asked Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at University of California-Berkeley and author of the just-released book The Philosophical Baby, about any work on the negative consequences of playpens, her answer was instructive: "I don't know of any systematic research on this," she noted, adding, "Ironically these small kinds of parenting differences, which are just the things parents care about most, are just the areas where scientists wouldn't expect to see many differences."
She continued: "It's as if you asked a climate-change scientist whether the fact that you bought a Prius would make a hurricane less likely in New Orleans this summer. Carbon makes a big difference and so does care-giving, but not at that scale. Of course if you kept a baby confined in a playpen and never took him out that would probably make a difference, but nobody actually would do that." While science does suggest crawling strongly influences the way babies think and learn, she points out "babies in playpens are crawling and exploring too, of course." Her last bit of advice? "Parents should try to think not 'How will this affect my baby in the long run?'—who knows?—but 'Is this helping my baby and me to thrive right now?' " That, she says, depends on what you and your situation are like—and only you know that.