Extreme Parenting

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

Academics who study cognition also question the value of prenatal enrichment products. Gary Marcus, a professor of psychology at New York University and the author of The Birth of the Mind, says that while it is possible to learn something in the womb, it isn’t good to give a fetus too much stimulation. And given the paucity of long-term research on the subject, it’s hard to gauge what would be overstimulating: “We don’t know enough about early brain development to say.”

It’s one thing if these products are ineffective. But what if they’re actually damaging? A number of scholars have started to investigate whether children who have grown up watching educational videos have actually been hurt by their intense orientation to television. (In May, a child advocacy group filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, arguing that Brainy Baby and Baby Einstein product labeling should include the American Academy of Pediatrics’ warning that children under two shouldn’t watch any TV.) One study found that today’s high level of indoor activity and play—even if it involved “learning—harmed children’s young bodies and minds. (The study was financed by Wisk Laundry Detergent—perhaps in an effort to promote grass stains.)

Despite these negative findings, and for all the fuzziness of the product-makers’ claims, even the most sophisticated parents can be drawn to edutainment for babies.

“There are some guarantees with these products,” says Lynne Varner, a forty-two-year-old newspaper columnist who lives in Seattle. “My son may not see all the colors in the prism every day. He may go outside and see a green tree one day and a roaring bus the next day, but I have to hope that nature and life offer everything to him. I want our child to always be doing something that stimulates him. And so does everyone I know.”

Varner’s accumulation of educational toys started with Baby Einstein and grew to include Baby BumbleBee toys purchased at the Imaginarium and the now-defunct Zany Brainy. The stores and products made reassuring promises that her kid was going to be smart, she says: Baby Einstein markets itself this way to the “über-parents” she knows.

On Amazon.com, parent reviewers likewise emphasize that displaying these videos is part of their responsibility to adequately stimulate their children. “My 1-year-old is growing into a Brainy Baby,” writes one. “How many [babies] can tell you what an orangutan is, or the difference between a circle and an oval, or that the color of our van is ‘silver’? My son could—from watching these videos!”

Of course, many parents don’t entirely trust the pitches from the companies. Lynne Varner recognizes that they aim to capitalize on her worst fear: that her child will fall behind. But she still buys the products. Many parents, like Varner, buy them even as they remain skeptical about their claims. They don’t want to fail to do the right thing for their kids. They want them to have every edge.

It seems to me that the Baby Genius Edutainment Complex also arises from a simpler fear than those about lost brain cells and missed opportunities. The edutainment products are, at bottom, meant to reduce unproductive time—to prevent idleness and stave off boredom. But what exactly is boredom for a child? “One of the most oppressive demands of adults [is] that the child should be interested,” writes Adam Phillips in On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored, “rather than take time to find what interests him. Boredom is integral to the process of taking one’s time.”

Some experts even argue that a certain amount of boredom is important for children’s development. Fred Dick, the developmental cognitive neuroscientist, says an infant’s caregivers should obviously attend to a child but not feel obliged to provide constant stimulation. But in the new, improved infancy, taking one’s time—waiting for desire to awaken—goes against the grain.

One specialist in educating gifted children suggests that for an infant, watching a waving adult finger or playing with a set of keys can be just as stimulating as the whirling dervish of rainbows on a Baby Einstein DVD. Such simple pleasures, which adults find boring—and this is part of it: we can’t remember how easily we were once entertained—are often just what infants need.

In the Baby Genius Edutainment Complex, the palliative for child boredom is always a new product, and it can seem that price is no object. In effect, these products are mostly intended for the reasonably well-off. The Leapster Multimedia Learning System is $70. BabyPlus runs to $150. The by-now-classic Baby Einstein videos—Baby Mozart, Baby Bach, Baby Beethoven, Baby Einstein Language Nursery, and Baby Einstein Language Discovery Cards—come as a special boxed set at $69.99.

Like other elements of childhood for the precociously gifted—private or home schooling, overstructured activity, and proto-professional training—edutainment products are part of a system that divides children into haves and have-lesses. The infants inculcated with the early-reading DVDs and flash cards are supposed to deploy their early advantage to get ahead of other reasonably affluent children. For those who can afford them, the DVDs and toys are just the beginning. After all, the educational-toy-and-video industry is a gateway into the larger giftedness culture; it’s the start of the voyage on which America shapes its children into champions.

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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