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In my shopping-for-baby days, I used to raise some serious eyebrow at the whole Baby Einstein operation. Einstein? Really? Toys, books, and videos are going to transform our babies into Einstein? Would we even want that? The whole idea was as absurd to my then-childfree self as a cup holder on a stroller or a Moby Wrap (both of which I now love dearly, of course).

I warmed up to Baby Einstein, too, after receiving a “Baby Mozart” DVD for a present. It was gentle and apparently very entertaining to the little guy in small doses. When he was a toddler, I bought him “Baby Neptune” and found it very useful during the weaning process. He’d wake up from his nap and cuddle with me, sipping a yogurt drink instead of nursing as we watched tropical fish and splashing orca whales on the screen. Good stuff. And yet . . . educational? Einstein? I still didn’t see it. And even though I’ve gotten used to the name, I’m still not fond of its implications.

It’s not the products themselves that are troubling. It’s this larger notion of “educational” materials for babies and toddlers in the first place. Why is that necessary? Is an interactive Baby Einstein “educational” toy with lights and music really going to give Baby A an advantage over Baby B, who’s just got a set of plastic keys and her own toes? Isn’t everything educational to a baby?

Research tells us that a child’s brain develops at an incredible rate during ages 0-3, and marketers have turned that information into an opportunity to sell us any and all “educational” products to make the most of that window. Cram in all the math and Mozart that amazing little brain can hold! But I wonder if it’s really the quality of the content that makes a baby “smarter,” or if it’s a loving and engaged parent that makes the difference, whether the baby’s hearing Mozart or “Little White Duck” or an old Coca-Cola jingle.

It’s my understanding that the developing brain is less like a blank canvas and more like a net. When we read to our babies, sing to them, or hold up flashcards, all that information won’t necessarily sit there intact awaiting the perfect moment to dazzle teachers and relatives. Rather, we’re helping them build a stronger net; a tighter, quicker net to catch all manner of facts and concepts as they grow older. It’s more about process than content. (At least that’s my layperson’s understanding. You child development specialists out there in Internetland please feel free to jump in and clarify.)

Whether there’s a significant difference between content or not, it’s curious to me why a culture that’s often so proudly and willfully ignorant would care whether their babies are smarter than other babies. Remember when George W. Bush praised Baby Einstein founder Julie Aigner-Clark in his 2007 State of the Union address? Ah, sweet nourishing irony. A preschooler uses a big word: he’s a genius! A presidential candidate uses a big word: he’s an elitist, out of touch with “real” Americans! At what age does intelligence lose its bragging rights, anyway?

But here we are. Seems to me that education often is about bragging rights and competition. And marketers know that, too. Those of you who indulge in a little screen time have probably seen those Noggin commercials – the ones in which proud-parent voiceovers gush about the amazing things their children have learned while clips from the shows are featured, illustrating just how Noggin’s quality preschooler programming teaches our little darlings to identify shapes or butterfly species. One squealy-mom-voice even proclaims “She wants an accordion for her birthday! An accordion!” (Baby Linnell, anyone?)


I’m not anti-TV by any means. I love quality preschooler programming as much as the next parent who spends every minute of every workday with her small children. Nine straight hours is a lot of book-reading, block-building, and trips to the park. An hour of Noggin or PBS here and there helps keep me relatively sane. My own little Baby Mulder and Baby Scully are watching it right now.

There’s no doubt that kids’ television has come a long way, and I appreciate its efforts to be non-violent, multicultural, pro-recycling, and as educational as a talking glow box with product placements can be. In moderation, I feel pretty confident that it’s doing no real harm to my kids. But it’s not making them any smarter, nor should I expect it to. Sure, they might pick up the odd fact or concept or vocabulary word. But they pick that stuff up from everywhere. They’re already smart. All children are already smart. They have these wildly developing brains and a tremendous capacity for learning. Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that we need to consume more products to help that process along.

Views: 83

Tags: Baby Einstein, Brain Development, Competition, Educational Television, Educational Toys, Noggin

Comment by ruth on August 13, 2009 at 5:13am
Well said.

Also, people who think that TV is really going to teach anything to their kids are sadly mistaken. Small bits of TV are fine (and believe me, mine watch way too much) but there are mountains of evidence that children really "learn" very little from watching anything, and learn almost everything from interacting with adults. I tell the parents I work with to think of TV as just another source of topics to talk about with their kids, but putting the TV on in the hopes that it's actively teaching anything is not going to accomplish anything.
Comment by rommie on August 13, 2009 at 6:42am
Count me in the eyebrow-raising not-yet-a-parent group. The whole line, and the people trying to push it on me, have irritated me to the point where it's like sticking my head in acid to buy anything they make. How do movies or brightly colored, battery-operated hunks of plastic that teach you about animals and rocks do so better than I can when we live in a rural area and can grow visit our neighbor's animals or dig fossils for real? Meanwhile, my husband's grandmother, who I really adore otherwise, is insisting that she's going to get us the entire DVD collection when the baby's born. Apparently if you don't make sure that your child is watching at least two hours of Baby Einstein a day starting immediately after you bring him home from the hospital, he's doomed to fail kindergarten and turn into an underaged hobo. (Also, J needs to stop drinking Mountain Dew and switch to Coke instead. Mountain Dew is full of nasty chemicals, but Coke is fine and healthy. TV said so!)

TV, or in our case DVDs, have their place. I've been around kids enough to realize that popping in a short movie serves wonderfully to distract them so you can get a shower or run a load of laundry (or, heaven forbid, lay down on the couch and try not to lose your mind). It's probably better than duct taping them to the wall. What worries me is when people like my sister-in-law plunk their toddlers in front of some extremely inappropriate TV shows for the majority of their waking hours in order to avoid actually doing anything with them. I didn't get pregnant to have a flickering box occupy all of my future child's attention all the time. Maybe I'm just naive, in which case feel free to laugh. I'm sure I will later.

Also, if the guy I tried so desperately to avoid while camping last week tells me one more time that I have to get the Baby Mozart DVD or my child will never grow to appreciate music, I'm going to implode. My husband is in a band. That's how I met him. I play multiple instruments and sing (at least when there's no one around). Our house is filled with music, and I don't need some little animated thing to teach me kid about it when I can let him play with our guitars or piano or violin or sax or drums or....
Comment by kanachick on August 13, 2009 at 6:54am
Sh'yeah...cause Mrs Mozart totally used those DVDs to instill a love of music for her little boy, eh?
Comment by Teacher Tom on August 13, 2009 at 6:57am
You shouldn’t wish your child is a genius, you should hope (s)he’s an optimist. --Edward Hallowell (The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness)

Balls, dolls, cardboard boxes, water, blocks, tempura paint, play dough, puzzles . . . Those are the educational toys. My rule of thumb is that if you have to plug it in, put batteries in it, or read instructions, don't buy it.

There is no correlation between early talking/reading/counting/etc. and future success and/or happiness. Young children have notoriously "spikey" development (my own daughter was using words at 3 months, but didn't walk until 18 months). It's kind of fun when a child demonstrates an obvious developmental burst, but it's ultimately meaningless.

Excellent post as always.
Comment by DLBK on August 13, 2009 at 7:10am
Baby/toddler "educational" videos have been proved to actually do the opposite of improving vocabulary, probably because they're so simple. Watching TV in general is linked to learning less, not more, since TV watching is passive. There is no way anyone will convince me that any video is beneficial for their kid; the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV at all for children under 2 years of age.
Kids can watch TV, but it's for the same reason as adults--for entertainment, not for learning.

Great post!
Comment by bap2 on August 13, 2009 at 7:42am
Having spent a good part of last year studying brain development as part of my professional development, I found this presentation during Grand Rounds at Seattle Children's Hospital to be quite definitive (if you can sit through it).

The examples they used (Baby Einstein vs. Mr. Rogers) was eye opening to say the least. Now I look less at the "educational" claims of videos and more at the way it is presented and the transition times between scenes. To sum up what they said, it really depends on the kind of media. Their results came in at little change in attention span when viewing PBS-type shows, moderate change for things like Nickelodeon and such, and significant change when viewing violence, especially when there were multiple scene changes. Of course it all depends on what you consider "significant" when it comes to relative risk of things like ADD.

Also there was a study done on the effects of Sesame Street on Israeli children. That is where you get into the notion of "intelligent viewing." NB-they used 5 year olds, not the under 2 set.

However, my son and I sit down nearly every day and watch the last 10 minutes of Sesame Street (Elmo's World). He sits on my lap and I point things out to him and then sing the songs and get up and dance the dances. He loves it. I don't know what magic voodoo Elmo has behind his eyes, but he was hooked from that little red bastard's first 3rd person statement.
Comment by The Oracle on August 13, 2009 at 8:14am
Gah! Thank you! The focus from Day One on stuffing kids' brains full of facts as opposed to developing diverse sensory experience, relationships, self-discovery, self-worth, self-expression, whole-kidness, etc. has always gotten to me. Trying to find a daycare/preschool that doesn't drive kids to read and write before kindergarten is turning out to be torture. Don't they understand I want him to play with worms and come home with finger paint all over his t-shirt? I've even been alarmed to see how many preschools around here "sometimes turn on the TV, just to give everyone a little break." Really? They always tell me that with a little apologetic tone, too, which I find interesting.

Of course, I will sheepishly admit that the Dragon is watching TV right now as we speak. But I expect that if I'm paying you to take care of my kid, you have a roomful of supplies and activities, and there are other teachers there to break you, you're not going to resort to TV when you get overwhelmed.

And thanks for the links, bap2. Can't wait to check them out.
Comment by G to the G on August 13, 2009 at 8:32am
I've even been alarmed to see how many preschools around here "sometimes turn on the TV, just to give everyone a little break." Really?

>>> Dude, that is why my kid goes to preschool so he can do something other what he can do at home... so weird that they would even have TVs.

I have total mommy guilt over the amount of TV that El D watches. Almost an hour a day. I am the reformed TV nazi that gave in to full time working and a shitty spouse.
Comment by The Oracle on August 13, 2009 at 9:00am
GG, we are waaay past an hour a day at this point. Pregnancy exhaustion with lots of pain, working at home, no daycare or preschool right now... I envy your hour-only and wish I had the fortitude to keep it to that at this point. Poor Dragon is going to be sorely disappointed when I regain my enforcer energy.
Comment by Mamawho on August 13, 2009 at 9:14am
Oh, how GirlWho loved Elmo when she was 2 ish. Then I realized why - one day, instead of calling him Elmo, she said "friend." DaddyWho and I had been killing ourselves to split a schedule of work and school so that one of us was home with her, because we just weren't ready for daycare. She started daycare the next week, because there were no other kids at our house.

My grandma shoved educational crap down my throat from babyhood. She would proudly tell anyone that she was doing everything she could to make me a genius. So I have a natural aversion to educational tripe. Friends and family were appalled that I didn't read to GirlWho every night when she was younger. I tried - she hated being read to, so we didn't do it. Guess what? She's reading independently and happily, just barely ahead of "schedule."

Kids, especially babies and toddlers, can't help BUT learn. It seems to be their default.


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