Monday, November 2, 2009

It doesn't take an Einstein...

I meant to post on this one last week:
Parent alert: the Walt Disney Company is now offering refunds for all those “Baby Einstein” videos that did not make children into geniuses.

They may have been a great electronic baby sitter, but the unusual refunds appear to be a tacit admission that they did not increase infant intellect.

“We see it as an acknowledgment by the leading baby video company that baby videos are not educational, and we hope other baby media companies will follow suit by offering refunds,” said Susan Linn, director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which has been pushing the issue for years.

Baby Einstein, founded in 1997, was one of the earliest players in what became a huge electronic media market for babies and toddlers. Acquired by Disney in 2001, the company expanded to a full line of books, toys, flashcards and apparel, along with DVDs including “Baby Mozart,” “Baby Shakespeare” and “Baby Galileo.” [...]

In 2006, Ms. Linn’s group went to the Federal Trade Commission to complain about the educational claims made by Disney and another company, Brainy Baby. As a result, the companies dropped the word “educational” from their marketing. But the group didn’t think that was enough.

“Disney was never held accountable, and parents were never given any compensation. So we shared our information and research with a team of public health lawyers,” Ms. Linn said.

Last year, lawyers threatened a class-action lawsuit for unfair and deceptive practices unless Disney agreed to refund the full purchase price to all who bought the videos since 2004. “The Walt Disney Company’s entire Baby Einstein marketing regime is based on express and implied claims that their videos are educational and beneficial for early childhood development,” a letter from the lawyers said, calling those claims “false because research shows that television viewing is potentially harmful for very young children.”
Read the whole NY Times article here; it's interesting, especially given the ubiquity of the videos--the article mentions that a couple of years ago a third of American babies may have had at least one of these video products.

But I do have to wonder: did parents really buy Baby Einstein videos because they believed that the videos would increase their infants' intelligence? Or did parents buy the Baby Einstein videos because during that intensely exhausting child development phase between the point at which the child wishes to be put down to play and the point at which the child actually can be put down to play, the Baby Einstein videos made a slightly less annoying alternative to Barney and the Teletubbies?

I think that many of the baby products that cause parental guilt were meant to address this particular phase, which I remember occurring at around four or five months of age, and lasting until baby mastered the art of the crawl--though admittedly, it's been a while since we've had anybody even close to that young age. Even though at the time our babies were that age we didn't have the Baby Einstein videos (I'm not sure they were made yet), and our one television was in a sort of basement rec room that the girls were too young to be in, I bought many a baby product that was supposed to help baby make the transition from sleepy little wrinkled cutie to mobile curious adorable happy (mostly) explorer without stopping for too long along the way in frustrated furious tiny immobile-and-aware-of-it land. And there are many such products: bouncy seats and swings, Johnny Jump Ups and walkers, tummy mats filled with interesting tactile sensations, support seats and play gyms, and too many more to list.

And just like the baby videos and similar parental aids, these products have one thing in common: they don't work.

Oh, sure, they might let Mom put the baby down long enough to tighten her back brace and fling dinner into the microwave, but they all seem to entertain the baby for no longer than eight minutes total, and that's on a good day. But for those eight minutes (or less) Mom can do one of the many piled-up two-handed chores she hasn't been able to manage so far today, and even the price she pays in attachment-parenting horrific mommy-guilt seems worth it in her sleep-deprived state. Years later she might be attacked by floating latent parental anxieties that seem linked to her "selfish" past need to mate clean socks--mate clean socks! How could I?--instead of serving 100% of the time as baby's source of food, comfort, mobility, entertainment, cuddling, cleanliness and hygiene, to the exclusion of all other activities, until the baby was old enough to walk, or at least crawl around at a good clip instead of doing a sort of squishy marshmallow ooze that ends up frustrating him worse than immobility did. But at the time, during those months when she holds the baby approximately 22.5 out of 24 hours and somehow manages to be up half the night with the potty-training toddler as well, those baby swings and seats--and Baby Einstein videos--seem like a pretty good trade for any future parental guilt that may transpire.

So while I'm glad that Disney is going to provide refunds to parents for implying that the Baby Einstein videos were educational, I think that much more needs to be done in the world of products that claim they will entertain and educate the baby. Perhaps future baby products of this sort will all carry a legal disclaimer, that will read something like the following:

Warning: This product will not make your baby happy during the age at which he or she is unable to move across a room under his or her own power. The happy babies who appear to be at that age who are shown on this product's packaging were Photoshopped to make them look as if the product made them happy. This product may, under prime operating conditions, allow a parent approximately eight minutes in which he or she will regain the ability to use both hands. If baby appears content for more than eight minutes while using this product, stop using the product immediately and consult your pediatrician. The company accepts no liability for present or future parental guilt which may result from the use of this product. Any educational value this product appears to have is purely coincidental.

But maybe we don't really need warnings and disclaimers like that on those kinds of baby products. It doesn't take an Einstein to figure out that even the most challenging of baby development ages appears, in hindsight, to have gone by faster than the speed of light.


John Thayer Jensen said...

I confess I find it astonishing that there might ever have been anyone who actually imagined that playing Mozart to a baby (rather than, say, singing it a lullaby) might increase its intelligence.

Can this be? Or is this just another opportunity to get money out of deep-pockets organisations?

Scott W. said...

On the lighter side: Children's Song

Anonymous said...

I played Schubert for my second son on cassette tapes (along with other classics on the public radio station)--who's to say that his early sense of perfect pitch did or did not arise from the repetition? Is that the only aspect of growth parents are interested, though? He still has perfect pitch, but what to do with 'it'?

Maybe we might to an idea that babies learn from attentive and loving caretakers, and not devices to provide growth-stimulating interaction.

JMB said...

Great post! With my oldest, I remember being at a La Leche league meeting and the leader was saying that we could raise our baby's IQs simply by breast feeding. I bought it hook line and sinker. At some point, college educated mid to upper middle class mothers have to realize that we can't make our children any more intelligent or holy or good than the Lord has made them.

Melanie B said...

My baby being at that age, I have to laugh. Though the first couple of times I put him down on the play mat that we have, it did engage him for upwards of thirty minutes!!!! Then he started to figure it out, got bored and now I'd agree that it's about 8-10 minutes I can get out of it before he gets mad that he can't pull the rattle off to chew on it or that he can't move himself over to play with a different toy.

I've never been tempted by the videos, however. Though my sister-in-law once gave us a bag, they sat unused in a closet until I got rid of them.