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Playing dice with your kids: What would Mrs. Einstein have done?


Shelley Page

The Ottawa
March 16, 2008


Shelley Page on how modern parents plunked our youngsters in front of the DVD player, believing the videos were as indispensible as diapers and bottles. How could we have been so gullible?

If little Albert Einstein were in the school system today, what would be his fate? The future Nobel Prize-winner in physics didn't speak until he was three and struggled throughout school, especially in math.

He might have been labelled learning-disabled, spoonfed Ritalin and shuffled off to a special-needs class, written off as a lost cause. At least that's the prediction of child psychiatrist Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, co-author of Hyper-Parenting: Are you Hurting Your Child By Trying Too Hard? He suspects that in the modern world where parents expect their pre-schoolers to be prodigies, Einstein's slowness would have marginalized him.

Who knows if such labels would have hampered his special theory of relativity, published in 1905 at the positively geriatric age of 26?

Dr. Rosenfeld, then, finds it ironic that the No. 1 educational program for infants is named after the late-blooming physicist.

As anyone whose had a baby in the last decade knows, the Baby Einstein program, which makes DVDs for babies and toddlers aged three months to three years, promises to brighten our babies and sharpen their speech with multi-coloured musical feasts for the eyes and ears.

Many of us bought the hype that our babies' growing brains would soak up the stimulation of these video products and prime them for future brilliance. While we were washing dishes, taking showers, checking e-mail, our budding baby Einsteins were glued to a video, as indispensible as diapers and bottles. Surely Harvard and Yale would soon come calling. Or at least elementary school teachers sniffing out giftedness.

At one point, it was estimated one in three American children had watched a Baby Einstein video, or one of the competing products, such as So Smart and Brainy Baby and Baby Prodigy.

How could we have been so gullible?

Just last week, Baby Einstein stopped billing its videos as educational, following a formal complaint from a U.S. advocacy group that the Disney-owned company was making "false and deceptive" claims that it can give babies a leg up in learning.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood claimed victory after Baby Einstein quietly changed its website to remove assertions that its videos help develop cognitive skills in the very young.

The company removed promotional claims such as the one saying the Baby Wordsworth DVD "fosters the development of your toddler's speech and language skills" and Numbers Nursery will "help develop your baby's understanding of what numbers mean."

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood filed a complaint almost two years ago with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. The commission ruled in December that it would not take any enforcement action against Baby Einstein, under consumer protection laws, in light of changes the company had made to descriptions of its DVDs and a promise that it would "take appropriate steps to ensure that any future claims of educational and/or developmental benefit for children was adequately substantiated."

If any one of us had bothered to investigate what was clearly too good to be true, we might have bypassed the videos in favour of some one-on-one time with Junior. But ease and convenience are the mantra of the modern parent.

Baby education was launched by a 1993 study that purported to have found the "Mozart Effect." Researchers Gordon Shaw and Frances Rauscher at the University of California at Irvine had groups of college students listen to 10 minutes of a Mozart sonata, a relaxation tape, or silence, and then take a paper-folding-and-cutting test.

Those who listened to Mozart performed better than those who had not. The researchers concluded that listening to Mozart improved the students' short-term spatial thinking. This one study led well-meaning social engineers to apply the Mozart Effect to infants.

Soon mothers were playing Mozart to their pregnant bellies, and politicians were legislating classical music.

In 1998, Georgia Governor Zell Miller signed a bill to send to every home with a newborn in his state a Mozart CD to enhance the baby's mathematical ability. Gov. Don Sundquist of Tennessee made sure Tennessee newborns were receiving CDs, while the State of Florida ordered all state-funded childcare centres to play classical music. Baby Einstein and other baby education companies were quickly launched at the exact time that parents seemed to be determined to try anything to brighten their baby.

Only one problem: the Mozart Effect couldn't be duplicated.

Several dozen unsuccessful attempts have been made to replicate the findings in scientific settings. And in a 1999 television debate, researcher Rauscher -- who has said she stands by her work -- stated, "There's no scientific data suggesting that playing Mozart to babies is going to make them 'smarter.'"

In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children younger than two should watch no TV at all, no matter how educational the content claims to be. And one recent study found such products might actually delay language development in toddlers.

Researchers at the University of Washington found that with every hour in a day spent watching baby DVDs and videos, infants learned six to eight fewer new words than babies who never watched the videos, with the strongest detrimental effect on babies eight to 16 months old. The results of this study have been strongly disputed by Disney. Its CEO complained about the methodology used to study the videos' effects on children, pointing out that only telephone surveys were used instead of actually observing the "interactive nature" of such products.

While I'm sure some parents sit beside Junior "interacting with them" while these so-called brain boosters are broadcast, I never did. I ran away and hid, usually with a phone stuck to my ear, desperate for adult conversation.

If I could convince myself that my kids were growing neurons while I talked on the phone, all the better. Although -- and this isn't just in hindsight -- I doubted the videos had much impact. My second child fell asleep the few times she watched them.

What I find curious is how so many of us fear that if our children aren't labelled "gifted," or possess some unique talent, by the time they're out of diapers, we've failed as parents. What's the hurry? I have to ask myself that question all the time. I never picked up a basketball until I was in Grade 9, and made my university team -- yet today, if I suspected one of my daughters was interested in the sport, I'd probably sign them up as soon as possible, who cares if they're five and nine? They'd probably hate the sport in no time.

Still, parents get sucked in by stories of midget math prodigies or the tennis success of the Williams sisters.

I have it on good authority at least one kid I know hates the pressure.

The other day I was snuggling with my five-year-old, and she said something characteristically funny about boobs and bowling balls. I told her that she cracked me up. Her response?

"Don't sign me up. Don't sign me up! I just want to be a jokester around home."

No kidding. She must have smelled clown camp in the near future.

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