Songs, games, colds and ear infections are the usual things swapped during children's play groups: those gatherings of parents and their offspring created for the sub-kindergarten set to socialize.
But in what appears to be another chapter in the relatively new intensity of mail solicitations to kids (read "parents with disposable income"), many participants in play groups across the country have gotten linked into another phenomenon: the toddler chain letter.
Some of the missives promise a cache of books for the addressee -- never mind that the tot still can't say the ABCs -- and claim to be endorsed by the U.S. Postal Service, as well as an outfit called the U.S. Literacy Campaign, which apparently doesn't exist.
No doubt inclusion of the latter is trading on contemporary parental obsession with early achievement for diaper-clad future Ph.Ds. in a scheme that may be as old as the mail itself.
Six months ago, Julie Dillon, a Chicago resident and mother of 3 1/2 -year-old Rose received a letter from a friend in Massachusetts telling her to add her name to the top of a letter and send six copies to friends. Additionally she was supposed to send an inexpensive children's book to the person whose name appeared on the top of the letter she received.
A week later she got the same letter from a friend in Minneapolis. She didn't follow the request. Three years ago, Laura Hart, then of Chicago, received a letter from the mother of one of the children in her young daughter's baby group. The child's mother also phoned asking Ms. Hart to continue the chain letter, and said if she sent the book she would end up with a trove of free books from later letter recipients.
According to the post office, it's a good thing the women broke the chain. It's illegal, said John A. Ruberti, U.S. postal inspector attorney. The post office gets hundreds of complaints about chain letters each day. Unless fraud is suspected, the post office usually sends out warning notices to the letter writers. From Nov. 29, 1993, to Oct. 1, 1994, the postal service sent out 13,651 such warnings.
Chain letters have been around since anyone can remember, postal officials said.
"They're the garden variety multilevel marketing," said John Ventresco, attorney for the consumer protection division of the U.S. Postal Service in Washington. Typically a chain letter promises a recipient will make money or receive an item of value from others to whom they send the same letter.
Variations on the children's-book chain letter have been circulating throughout the country. Some are addressed to children who are too young to read and are sent via a parent. One asks the recipient to send a Golden Book. The book publisher, Western Publishing Co., based in Racine, Wis., has been aware of this letter for the past four years, said spokeswoman Kim McLynn.
"We have nothing to do with it," Ms. McLynn said. "We wish they would stop using our name. Some people think it's a marketing stunt. We certainly don't condone them at all. Our legal counsel has looked into it. But where do you start?"
As for the claims in some that the scheme is approved by the U.S. Postal Service and was created by the U.S. Literacy Campaign to stimulate children's interest in reading:
"That's the standard baloney," Lou Eberhardt, postal spokesman for the Great Lakes area, said. "It's illegal. Anything that promises some kind of reward is flat out against the law."
Most of the time, the letter writer ends up with nothing but writer's cramp, Mr. Eberhardt said.
"You get zilch," he said.
And the U.S. Literacy Campaign to promote reading? That's also fiction, according to the National Literacy Hotline, a clearinghouse for literacy organizations, programs and supporters.
Most of the letters warn against breaking the chain and use persuasive language to make the children, and ultimately the parent, comply, "It won't be fun for the children if the chain gets broken," said one chain letter circulating in Oak Park.
Chain letters can have long life spans, Mr. Ruberti said. "There are chain letters that have circulated for 10 years," he said.
Postal officials said younger children may be the newest chain letter participants because the structured play groups usually involve a well-organized network of parents and children. That has been one factor in creating a flow of information and goods to children, a system that manufacturers and marketers are riding, said Tim Prosch, director of marketing for the American Marketing Association.
"It's just another intense thing they've created," Mr. Prosch said of many of today's parents, who are older and richer than their parents were when they had infants. "They take everything much more intensely. All this effort to target their money; the marketers will respond."
It's also part of the cradle-to-grave marketing practices that begin with names of newborns collected at hospitals and end with similar lists from nursing homes.
Ms. Dillon said her child started receiving catalogs in the mail when she was less than 2 weeks old. But it's not the infants the marketers are reaching, just as the chain letters, seller and senders are after the parents with their deep pockets and limited time.
"Marketing to this group has become a bigger business," Mr. Prosch said. Within the first two years of their child's life, a parent will spend between $3,000 to $4,000 on kiddie "stuff": cribs, walkers diapers and such, he said. And brand loyalty starts early, he added.
"The candy you liked at 7 will be your choice now," Mr. Prosch said.