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Baby Einstein = Baby Gump

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Nov. 4, 2009 at 5:04 pm with No Comments »
November 4, 2009 5:08 pm

It turns out that Baby Einstein isn’t all that smart. I’m not surprised.

A couple years ago, I did some looking into the cutting edge of brain development research, a lot of which is happening at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences.

Researchers there had done what has become a well-known experiment. They’d had a Chinese graduate student read a child’s book – in Chinese – to 10-month-old babies, just for a few weeks. Those children were tested when they were older, and they proved to have the ability to hear sounds in spoken Chinese that are normally inaudible to English-speakers.

Interesting result. Then they repeated the experiment. Only instead of having the grad student read to 10-month-olds in person, they showed the babies a video of the same woman reading the same book, replicating the same inflections and facial expressions.

Result: The children absorbed no recognition of uniquely Chinese sounds.

Young children learn from people, not screens. Technology is just no substitute for flesh-and-blood moms and dads.

A Chicago Tribune editorial on the subject:

Baby Einstein videos were marketed with a promise many parents found irresistible: Park your kid in front of the television, and let us make him or her, if not a genius, then at least above average.

That pitch was brilliant: A beleaguered parent (that is, every parent) can merely slip in the $15.99 video, flip on the television and voila! Baby gets brainier!

Except … apparently it doesn’t work. One study even suggested that it could have the opposite effect: Watching Baby Einstein an hour a day was associated with slower acquisition of new words.

Recently, under legal pressure, Walt Disney Co. offered a refund to anyone who bought a Baby Einstein video in the last five years.

Some parents fall for such advertising claims because they desperately want them to be true. They’re the early-education types who believe that piping Mozart into the womb will produce a child capable of conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra before the umbilical cord is cut. They think a kid is like a computer: Just download the software, the earlier the better.

There are millions of other parents who didn’t fall for those Einstein claims. But they desperately wanted a few minutes to take a nap or a shower. They needed to establish a baby-free zone. Baby Einstein allowed those parents to assuage their guilt by telling themselves that their children weren’t just being parked in front of the TV to absorb mind-poisoning reruns of “Alf.”

No, she was being educated. Bah. Yet parents shouldn’t feel guilty about stationing their kids in front of the television for a while so they can carve out a respite from relentless parental chores. No child was ever permanently scarred by “Dora the Explorer” or whatever holds an 18-month-old’s attention for a few blessed minutes. Yes, we know that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no television at all for the first two years of crucial development. But that is unrealistic. As mom always said, moderation is the key.

It has been a while since we plunked down a toddler in front of “Sesame Street,” in the desperate hopes of wresting a few minutes of personal peace. But who can forget? A baby is an overwhelming responsibility to a new parent. Those of us who have been there and lived to tell about it offer this advice: Don’t sweat a little TV time for the toddler.

Babies don’t come with instruction manuals. (That’s what grandparents and nosy neighbors are for.) But if they did, here’s what would be etched in big red letters on the front: Want a happy child? Hunker down, and play with her. Talk to her. Read to her.

We’re betting that not a lot of those Einstein vids come flying back to the stores. They may not have achieved their stated goal. But they were smart. Where else can you get a good permanent baby sitter for $15.99?

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