Anne Louise Korallus-Shapiro
June 24, 2010
Paranoid parents will buy just about anything to make their kids smarter. Savvy marketers are thrilled to help them out.
It’s no longer enough to diaper, burp and feed your baby. If you want your tot to be the next Albert Einstein, you'd better put him in knee pads, strap him to a chair and shove him in front of useless DVDs. So says a billion-dollar industry that promises parents it can turn their children into prodigies long before kindergarten--in some cases while they're still in the womb.
Mothers now strap to their bellies a product called "BabyPlus," a machine that plays simulated heartbeat rhythms to their slumbering fetuses, and which boasts it can strengthen their learning ability. Suddenly good old-fashioned parenting is not up to scratch: Buy these programs, parents are told, or little Johnny or Sally can say goodbye to Harvard. Now or never.
Last year parents were bamboozled into doling out millions for Baby Einstein “kidvids” that pledged to make their tots smarter, a claim that's questionable at best. According to the Journal of Pediatrics, for every hour of baby-video viewing per day, children ages 8 months to 16 months knew six to eight fewer words than those who never watched a video.
“Early language development does not come from televised display," says Kathy Hirsh Pasek, author of Einstein Never Used Flashcards. "We are social creatures, and therefore language is contingent upon social interaction.” Watching endless hours of television is no substitute for talking, singing, reading and playing with your child. Pasek cautions that children who learn from DVDS and flashcards are parrots, unaware of what any of this information actually means. "Not to mention the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests children do not watch television before the age of 2," Pasek adds.
But an entire generation of toddlers seems glued to Baby Einstein screens. According to Baby Einstein, two out of three moms own at least one of its products. These products may make for good babysitters, but they could also be turning the next generation into couch potatoes. “It is best for children to develop into independent learners so we have a generation of children who take action instead of reacting,” says Dr. Susan Linn, co-founder and director of Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood.
Additionally, many of these products are not only useless, they’re rip-offs. Do parents really need the Why Cry Baby Analyzer Monitor ($99.99) to distinguish if their child is hungry or tired? Babies have been crawling on their own just fine for hundreds of thousands of years. Do they really need knee pads ($2.99)? And do mothers really need to put jock straps ($11.40) on their baby boys during diaper changes to shield themselves from their babies' urine? Or do fathers need a Daddle--a dad saddle--so their infants can ride them ($31.95)?
Still, with more than 4 million babies born in the U.S. each year, the kidvid industry shows no sign of slowing down. According to the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, companies spend about $17 billion annually marketing to children, a staggering jump from the $100 million spent in 1983. It’s a market they can mine forever.
But just because these products are well-marketed does not mean you‘re a bad parent if you opt for good, old-fashioned child’s play. Hemingway and Nabokov never had talking neon cats named Mimi teaching them the alphabet at 2 years old, and they did just fine.