Extreme Parenting

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

The claims made by the producers of these DVDs and similar products may seem absurd, but the impulses that drive parents to purchase them are understandable. The wish to raise flourishing children is as old as humankind. Today’s Baby Genius Edutainment Complex yokes together two concepts of infant betterment: first, that parents can help a child develop many skills and aptitudes that are not inborn; and second, that if the child isn’t launched on the route to super-achievement in the first years of life, he or she will be doomed forever to mediocrity or worse. As this notion of a compressed time frame for baby-genius cultivation has become more widespread over the last ten years, parents have become much more susceptible to sales pitches for flash cards, DVDs, toys, and games that promise to provide “just the right level” of stimulation.

From the archives:

"Where Toys Come From" (October 1986)
Selling fun to children is one of capitalism's least predictable pursuits. By David Owen

Educational stimulation has not always been the primary aim of children’s playthings. Until the twilight of the nineteenth century, what few toys children had were made at home, usually by hand. Diminutive replicas of babies, women, and furniture enabled children to engage the larger world at their level, that of small bit players. Such toys were meant to help pass the time, not to create genius.

The turn of the last century saw a rise of mass-produced toys designed for solitary play. Milton Bradley (founded in 1864), Parker Brothers (1888), and Playskool (1928) were the first three toy companies to specialize in “education games.” The teddy bear emerged in Brooklyn in 1902 and soon became faddish; it was thought to spur children’s emotional growth. Lincoln Logs (invented in 1917 by John Lloyd Wright, son of the architect Frank), Crayola crayons (first produced in 1903), and Erector sets (introduced in 1913) all signaled an increase in time spent indoors by the children of newly prosperous families. A notion of playthings that helped children grow up was on the rise, but these toys did not claim to promote a child’s acuity. (In an article in a toy trade magazine in 1927, dolls were termed an “Antidote for Race Suicide,” in that they would encourage white girls to reproduce.)

Around this same time, the educator Maria Montessori designed toys to teach math concepts and declared that pupils would learn willingly if their schoolwork were more like play. Montessori’s ideas caught on among some educators, but also sparked much debate about the nature of toys. Academics championed free play and urged industry executives to make better-quality toys that appealed to the imagination.

But many toys still left little for young minds to conjure with. By 1957, the cultural critic Roland Barthes was decrying his era’s playthings as products of “chemistry not nature.” He was horrified that there were “dolls which urinate” and other toys “meant to prepare the little girl for the causality of housekeeping, to ‘condition’ her to her future role as mother.” These toys, Barthes wrote, “are meant to produce children who are users, not creators.” He was enunciating what was to become a central tenet of scholars of play: self-directed play is superior, and toys that invite children to improvise and imagine are better than those that are passive and preprogrammed.

The study of toys reached a high point during the seventies with Erik Erikson’s books Childhood and Society and Toys and Reason. Erikson created a developmental timeline, starting with “autocosmic play,” in which infants play with their own bodies, and going on to a toy “microsphere,” followed by the “macrosphere” of play with other children. Erikson underlined that playing with toys is a part of identity formation, and insisted that a child’s world of manageable toys should be interfered with as little as possible.

By the 1950s, toys had become short-term and expendable: Davy Crockett hats and the like—spin-off gear from television shows or children’s movies. This isn’t to say that the “maturational” function of toys vanished. Lego won a large following as an “instructive game” in the late fifties and early sixties, and when the ultimate maturational television program, Sesame Street, debuted in 1969, a line of educational toys followed in its wake. The lessons of Sesame Street were strongly influenced by Maria Montessori’s educational philosophy, and from the beginning the show’s producers, the Children’s Television Workshop, worked hard to connect with young children and their families in low-income areas. In fact the show was viewed as an extension of the 1960s War on Poverty, and was funded in part by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

Some of the early debates that swirled around Sesame Street are echoed today in the debates over the Baby Genius Edutainment Complex. The program’s critics argued that young children benefit from playing inventively on their own, rather than watching television. But there is a crucial difference between edutainment DVDs and Sesame Street: the TV show was not intended for babies, while today’s DVDs are made explicitly for children two and under. And now even Sesame Street has an infant DVD line.

Presented by

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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