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.”

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.

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.

Many infant DVDs are hawked with dubious information about time-limited opportunities for learning. Some products prey on parental fears, invoking the specter of infant brain-cell death. Charles Zorn, a neuropsychological education specialist, told me that he often has to reassure parents that brain-cell counts are not a measure of a child’s intelligence, knowledge, or ability to learn. The brain deliberately makes too many, then lets a bunch wither; which ones wither depends on the environment the newborn encounters. Cell death is actually part of the development process. “When you learn to read, you are killing cells to create a pathway,” Zorn says. Indeed, reducing infant brain-cell death is counterproductive; cell death is a way the nervous system refines its circuits.

But nervous parents are not inclined to make such fine distinctions. And the industry does its best to blur these distinctions anyway. “Parents know about that preschool window of opportunity—it’s very narrow,” says Dennis Fedoruk of Brainy Baby. “Parents want to maximize results in their children without causing their children trouble. Listen, you can’t turn back the hands of time. Once they enter kindergarten, they can’t have the window of opportunity any longer. It’s too late.”

Karen Foster, CEO and founder of Athletic Baby, points to Tiger Woods as she tells me that her Athletic Baby Golf and Athletic Baby All-Star DVDs help parents give their kids a head start. “Everyone has heard about Tiger’s imprinting from an early age by his father,” she says. “The earlier the age, the more successful they will be.” Foster gives the standard edutainment-complex line: if infant deprivation yields negative effects, these “enriching” products must inversely produce a positive effect.

“BabyPlus helps with imprinting,” claims Brent Logan, CEO of BabyPlus. “And soon, the imprinting window shuts off for the pre-infants.” These pitches could make most any parent nervous. (“I do believe that the brain has a certain clump of neurons firing, and that by the time [my baby] is five, it will be too late,” one woman, an educated professional who consumes these products avidly, told me. “It sounds panicky, I know, but if those neurons are dying off … You have to get in there during the first three years. If my baby doesn’t use it, with a stimulating game or class, he is going to lose it.”) But are these pitches accurate? To start answering this question, one needs to separate the popular ideas of “crucial stages” and “imprinting” and “brain plasticity—which is today’s scientized buzzword for “ability to learn—from the science and cultural history underlying them.

Americans have long sought to control natural processes, demonstrating both our faith in the human ability to harness nature and our obsession with using time shrewdly. When the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget toured American universities in the 1950s, describing the cognitive stages children pass through as they mature, audience members wanted to know how they could make their children go through those stages faster. (Piaget was not pleased.) In the last decade or so, this emphasis on early development has been touted by celebrity foundations like Rob Reiner’s Parents’ Action for Children, whose slogan is “The first years last forever.” This, coupled with the findings of several studies and an aggressive federal information campaign, has generated rising awareness of the crucial zero-to-three period.

But recently scholars have cast doubt on this time frame as an absolute. William Green­ough, whose much-publicized studies of brain development in rats in the eighties helped pave the way for the current obsessions with sensory stimulus in infants, is a vehement critic of the new overemphasis on early learning. His research supports the idea that the brain continues to be plastic—still developing—after infancy. Indeed, many neuroscientists now deny that even adult brains lose plasticity.

“It’s important to point out that windows of development do not slam shut, as the earliest versions of [Parents’ Action for Children] and the Birth to Three movement suggested,” says Bradley Schlaggar, a pediatric neurologist at Washington University in St. Louis. One implication of that claim, he says, is that “when the development windows are thought to slam shut, parents may feel that the case is closed, and must try again with the next child.”

Schlaggar and many of the other neurologists, cognitive scientists, psychologists, and child-development specialists I spoke with questioned the idea that educational toys or DVDs accomplish what their makers claim. In a study by a University of Massachusetts researcher, a sample group of infants learned to use a puppet from a live teacher, while another group studied a video. The tots who had a teacher learned to use the puppet immediately, but the infant video-watchers had to view the instruction six times before they learned the same skill. As Charles Nelson, a professor at Harvard Medical School and a preeminent scholar of the infant brain, puts it, “There is no proof of the value of the early-enrichment toys and videos in terms of brain science.”

A number of scholars also argue that the idea of hard-and-fast “critical periods” is overplayed. For one thing, there is a difference between brain functions that are “experience-expectant” (which are bound by critical periods), and those that are “experience-dependent” (which are not). For instance, the brain requires that the eyes be exposed to light so that vision can develop properly. This must take place at a particular point in the development of all infants—it is experience-expectant. Experience-dependent learning, by contrast, is environmentally conditioned—learning a language or an instrument, or making a dumpling. This sort of learning is less governed by time. As John Bruer, an education consultant and the author of The Myth of the First Three Years, puts it, “critical periods are less likely for traits and behaviors … that are unique to the experiences of individuals, social groups, or cultures.”

According to Fred Dick, a developmental cognitive neuro­scientist and a lecturer in psychology at the University of London, starting early to learn a second or even third language can be a good thing. But “early” doesn’t mean in infancy. Furthermore, language-study DVDs tend to offer only disconnected words, and typically a child must be exposed to a language continuously to acquire it. Teaching a language to two or more children in person, at any age, may well be preferable to using videos, because a normal environment with another child “holds more information than any multimedia film,” Dick says. Studies have shown that the ability to learn the grammar of a second language doesn’t begin to decline until puberty—quite a while after the age of three.

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.