Baby Einstein Recall

MOLLY SCHOEMANN: When did television become ‘educational’? When I was a child in the 80s, it was pretty much understood that TV was a free babysitter. It was not how you taught your kids how to read. It was how you taught them how to stay out of your damn way while you made dinner.

These days, programs like Baby Einstein encourage parents to teach their infants about the world through the magic of passively watching television. After all, is there a better way to learn about shapes and colors than by watching shapes and colors on a TV screen? Why explore the world around you when you can watch a DVD in which someone else shows it to you? The ‘Baby’s First Impressions Head to Toe’ video, found on brainybaby.com, even claims that “your child will enjoy watching other children on screen demonstrate how a hand can do many things, like hold, touch or clap.” Now, why didn’t I have a video to teach me how to do things with my hands when I was a baby? How did I even make it this far in life? (Also, since when can a hand clap by itself?  Maybe these DVDs are a little philosophically advanced for the zero to three month age group).

It gets better. There’s another program called “Your Baby Can Read”, which teaches frighteningly tiny infants to memorize flashcards. Flashcards! They’re not just for older students with motor skills anymore! Somehow the idea that you should be forced to memorize a flashcard when your first instinct is still to put it directly in your mouth is unsettling. A video on the website, YourBabyCanRead.com, shows 9 month old Andy raising his arms in the air after being shown a flashcard that says ‘ARMS UP’. This is exactly the sort of young overachiever they look for at Yale. (As long as Andy doesn’t burn himself out by the time he is eighteen months old.)

Baby Einstein videos are now receiving negative publicity because studies have shown that infants who watch television early in life end up with a shorter attention span than those who have limited or no screen time before the age of two. They also have smaller vocabularies and are less verbal — although this fits nicely with the irony that as a baby, Einstein himself was a little slow on the uptake. Perhaps this was intentional on the part of the creators of Baby Einstein.

Across the board, baby DVD websites also tout the idea that watching a video fosters ‘interactions’ between parent and child, and encourages them to spend quality time together. Somehow I doubt this. Let’s face it, television is not ‘interactive’. Watching television together does not encourage socializing and intimacy. If it did, my boyfriend and I would know each other a lot better than we do. Television encourages staring, mouth-breathing, and drooling—all of which babies instinctively know how to do. No $15.99 DVD necessary.

Even though I hate the idea of a baby watching television (after all, she’s got her whole life ahead of her to spend staring a screen, especially if she ends up with a desk job!), if they’re going to have educational DVDs, they may as well encourage our children to develop useful skills. Instead of teaching your baby about shapes and animals, teach them how to play Scrabulous, or help them create a profile on Facebook. You’ll be building skills they’ll be improving upon for their entire lives. They’re not really social skills, but by the time those kids are in grade school, they’ll be the only skills anybody has.

HOWARD MEGDAL: While I agree with Molly that those who put their kids in front of a television are dreaming if they think it will make their babies into geniuses, I do take issue with the idea that we can’t develop a baby’s intellect at an early age.

We don’t know for sure what an infant is capable of integrating mentally. So I have put my child, who is currently a fetus to be born in April, on a vigorous program of music listening. I simply take an IPod, plug in some ear buds, place one in my wife’s belly button, the other in her ear. Mozart, Brahms, Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald- the baby, in other words, is hearing great music- and we are engaging.

I plan to, if anything, spend even more time with the baby once she is post-womb, of course. My pilot program, “Baby Arthur Sulzberger”, will be to read The New York Times with my baby, assuming the paper still exists by the time she is born.  By age one, I expect her to be able to construct a competent lead paragraph.

It’s called engagement. You can’t shortcut your way to a baby genius.

My guess is that many parents who bought Baby Mozart, for example, wouldn’t listen to Mozart music themselves. In other words, the genes being passed along made a young genius extremely unlikely, no matter what television program they force-fed their baby.

Certainly, my decision to play Vin Scully for the baby during the baseball playoffs doesn’t mean she will come out with the ability to weave articulate stories from baseball history around an engaging in-game narrative and advertisements for Dodger Dogs.

But it doesn’t not mean that either.

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