We’ve taken a lot of heat for not embracing baby videos. When the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with their recommendation against videos for kids under the age of 2– we were delighted (and quite frankly it made it possible for us to continue excluding these videos from our television segments despite a lot of pressure). But we still knew that these videos have become a staple in most households with very young children.
So I was really happy to read The New York Times article “No Einstein In Your Crib? Get a Refund” by Tamar Lewis that discusses the announcement that Baby Einstein has agreed to offer parents a refund of $15.99 for up to 4 videos bought during the last five years. The settlement came after a threatened class action lawsuit alleging that the company made false claims that these videos were educational. Kudos to Susan Linn, Director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, for taking on Disney (it bought the Baby Einstein Company in 2001).
While we were taping a segment about the best toys for babies, one of our favorite producers from the local WNBC came to our offices with her baby and one of her friends brought her baby as well so that we could get their kids on tape. Our producer’s baby was completely engaged– at 9 months he was completely taking in the world around him. He delighted when his mom would play with him. He was thriving. In contrast her friend’s baby, also 9 months old–was very muted. His mother, an investment banker, was insisting that the Baby Einstein videos were doing wonders for her son. She was a walking billboard for the Baby Einstein marketing strategy. And no matter what my mother and I said to her about how babies benefit more from “real life” interactions with real people, she would not be moved from her belief that these videos were preparing her baby for preschool, doing well in elementary school and beyond.
When the videos first came out I was taking a graduate class in neurological development in children at NYU. I thought maybe my mother and I were missing something. It’s important not to be closed minded so I brought in one of the best selling Baby Einstein videos for a screening. The class and my professor were stunned and then there was just a lot of laughing. When I told them that this was a multi-million dollar business, they were shocked. There was no research supporting that showing random images and exposing kids to the four different languages at the same time delivered any magic educational bullet.
What Baby Einstein and others in the market accomplished was to scare parents–that if they didn’t buy these videos their kids would be left behind. The success of these videos spawned a multi-million dollar industry and I can’t tell you how many video makers in this category would try to get us to change our mind.
That investor banker mom also argued that her child knew and wanted the videos. So we put one on and watched both babies. It was true that when the music came on, both raised their arms in excitement and then they became glued. “See they love it!” She’s right they recognized the music and responded happily. Anyone who has watched young children (or let’s face it, adults) in front of the tv, know that it’s easy to become dazed- it certainly doesn’t mean something educational is happening. (In fact, young children will often watch something very scary on the tv without emotion or moving away because they can’t make the leap between reality and fantasy, they literally can’t make that break.)
When we suggested that awake play time would be better spent getting down on the floor and engaging her son, she just shook her head. The video had won.
Of course the whole “smarter baby” push is not limited to videos. During the same period that Baby Einstein came on the scene, most toy companies got on the same bandwagon- pushing toys that were going to make your baby smarter, faster. This meant that almost every baby toy was covered with the “ABCs”. One of my “you have to be kidding” moments at toy fair was being shown a Baby Einstein toy (licensed to Playskool) that encouraged babies to find the rhyme! Yes, babies that aren’t even talking yet were to find the word and image that rhymed with bat. What was even more alarming were the number of young editors from parenting magazines taking it all in–“wow” “that’s great”….
The whole “hurry-up baby syndrome” unfortunately gave parents the wrong information about what they should expect from their babies – not to mention that kids were being given toys that were well beyond them–teaching them nothing but frustration. While we wrote about this trend in children’s media across the board in our annual books, it was hard to convince new parents that the nursery doesn’t need to be filled with school based skills. Children don’t make the leap to abstract thinking much before the age of three. So if your child can sing the ABC song at two, it’s usually very cute and will delight the grandparents, but if you ask a two year old what does LMNOP mean…you’ll see, it’s not really too meaningful. What is important is that babies and toddlers are engaged–we know that young children that are read to on a regular basis, will enter school with at least 300 more words than kids who don’t have that exposure to language.
So I’m delighted with the news and the refunds–just sad that it took so long. And for what it’s worth my older son probably learned more about his ABC’s from Wheel of Fortune. “Give me an N!”