Extreme Parenting

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

The Baby Genius Edutainment Complex owes its explosive growth to more than just savvy marketing; it also has roots in actual scientific research. The popularity of DVDs with classical music, pinwheels, and colorful imagery was incited by infant-development theories that became fashionable in the early 1990s. As Liz Iftikhar, founder and president of Baby BumbleBee, puts it, the kid-vid biz emerged on the back of the “Mozart Effect.”

In 1993, Gordon Shaw and Frances Rauscher—researchers at the University of California at Irvine—conducted a study in which a group of college students listened to ten minutes of a Mozart sonata, a relaxation tape, or silence. Then the groups took a paper-folding-and-cutting test. Those who had listened to Mozart reportedly performed better than those who had not. Shaw and Rauscher concluded that listening to Mozart improved the students’ short-term spatial thinking. In 1995, a slightly different study by the same researchers yielded similar findings.

It wasn’t long before someone proposed that the results could apply to infants. (Zell Miller, then governor of Georgia, pushed his state to send a classical-music cassette or CD to every newborn.) Video companies seized on the idea that classical music played to infants, or even to fetuses, would improve their ability to reason. In 1995, they started to make videos for babies, usually with a classical-music component, and touted them as beneficially stimulating. One music impresario, Don Campbell, trademarked the term Mozart Effect and used it to sell what he called “educational” CDs for infants and books.

But here’s the catch: according to the effect’s doubters, no psychologist or musicologist has been able to persuasively duplicate the result that Shaw and Rauscher described. Kenneth Steele, a professor of psychology at Appalachian State University, was one of the scholars who tried several times and failed. He eventually became the notion’s greatest critic, publishing half a dozen papers debunking it, chief among them “Prelude or Requiem for the ‘Mozart Effect’?” in Nature magazine in 1999. To date, the Mozart Effect has failed to be replicated in scientific settings on at least a few dozen occasions. Even Rauscher, although she stands by her findings, has been amazed by the appropriation of her work for corporate ends. In a 1999 television debate, Rauscher agreed with Steele, saying, “There’s no scientific data suggesting that playing Mozart to babies is going to make them ‘smarter.’”

None of this, however, has stemmed the spread of the Baby Genius Edutainment Complex—far from it. The complex has only expanded since the mid-1990s, building on the claim that the creation of infant prodigies can now begin in the womb. Brent Logan, the president of BabyPlus and author of Learning Before Birth: Every Child Deserves Giftedness, promises that his prenatal sound-delivery system, a speaker unit that a pregnant woman wears in a fabric pouch strapped to her abdomen, will produce a higher-than-average IQ. The key to his pitch appears to follow the logic of inversion: infants in Romania who are deprived of stimuli suffer as adults, he notes, and thus infants in America who are stimulated by a product like his will blossom. “Babies and children enriched with BabyPlus,” his company’s ads claim, “are more relaxed at birth, with eyes and hands open, crying little”; they “reach their milestones earlier” and “have longer attention spans.” The pitch preys on parents’ fears that their children might not hit milestones early, or even at the “normal” time.

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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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