Extreme Parenting

Does the Baby Genius Edutainment Complex enrich your child’s mind—or stifle it?

Common wisdom holds that it is wholesome and American to give children the best chance for success: to fill their rooms with lush playthings, to adorn their walls with bright alphabet letters and their plates with mercury-free salmon. Lately, however, the pursuit of advantage has taken an extreme turn. Not long ago, words like gifted and precocious were applied mainly to older kids who read a lot, calculated in their heads, or took more than the average number of after-school classes. (I was one of them.) But in recent years, as a new child-enrichment business has marched into babyhood, right through infancy, and even into the womb, it sometimes seems as though any parent who doesn’t aspire to have his or her child show early evidence of “talent” is somehow being less than fully American.

The vast giftedness industry has expanded to include such disparate phenomena as the teaching of baby sign language, the IQ testing of toddlers, and the proliferation of video programs like the Baby Einstein series. (Never mind that Einstein himself was a late bloomer; he didn’t speak until he was three, and no one thought him “gifted.”) Specialized camps and competitions are now enrolling the youngest of children; classes include soccer for three-year-olds and Broadway Babies for starlets of only six months.

I call it the Baby Genius Edutainment Complex, the first stage of the American passion for making gifted children. It reflects a faith that if babies are exposed to enough stimulating multimedia content, typically in tandem with equally stirring classes, bright children can be invented.

Parents who press their children to succeed do so in hopes of preparing them for an adulthood of high achievement. Economically anxious, many parents see their children’s accomplishments as a sort of insurance against the financial challenges of old age; high-achieving kids, this logic goes, will become high-earning adults, and therefore be better able to help Mom and Dad pay for the assisted-living facility in a few decades. And, of course, kids can be a handy vehicle for combating status anxiety: even if your net worth is failing to keep up with the Einsteins’ next door, you can still take solace in the fact that while the Einsteins’ son is barely speaking in complete sentences, your son is already reading Heidegger.

But with so much competition for everything from preschool to summer camp to college, children must work harder and train more extensively than ever to out-achieve their equally avid young rivals. It’s into this nexus of anxiety and aspiration that these new brainy-baby products have flooded, promising scientifically demonstrated mind enrichment for your children. But the line between activities that nurture and those that merely waste time (and money) is not always so clear. Which raises the question: Whose purpose does all of this aggressive early learning serve?

Until 1997, there was no such thing as Baby Einstein. Six years later, one American child in three had watched a Baby Einstein video, seeing such ostensibly mind-developing scenes as the one, in Baby Van Gogh, where a puppet called Vincent van Goat trots through the six primary colors as they appear in van Gogh’s Starry Night and Wheat Fields With Reaper at Sunrise. Some parents may have also exposed their children to competing products: the So Smart! two-disk set, suggested for infants of nine months and up, features interactive alphabet games an infant can play on the TV screen, using the remote control, while the V.Smile video game system promotes itself for toddlers with the slogan “Turn game time into brain time.”

DVDs with characters like Vincent van Goat may be cute, but their selling point is that they offer their young viewers a great deal more than entertainment. The Baby Prodigy DVD claims to give your child “A Head Start in Life!” The disc’s back copy reads: “Did you know that you can actually help to enhance the development of your baby’s brain? The first 30 months of life is the period when a child’s brain undergoes its most critical stages of evolution … Together we can help to make your child the next Baby Prodigy!”

Walt Disney, Warner Brothers, and other studios have spent the last decade developing children’s programming with an educational component (Disney owns Baby Einstein). Toy companies have also entered the fray: Fisher-Price, for example, a major DVD producer, is a subsidiary of Mattel. Videos and DVDs for preschool-age children earned $500 million in 2004—and overall sales of educational toys increased by 19 percent. As Dennis Fedoruk, president of Brainy Baby, says, “There’s a bumper crop of new kids each month, after all.”

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Alissa Quart is the author of the forthcoming Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child (Penguin Press), from which this article is drawn.

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