Sunday, August 12, 2007

No, you can't teach babies by parking them in front of the TV!

Some of you may already know of my background in childcare: I have been babysitting since I was little more than a child myself, and spent 6+ years working in a formal preschool/child care setting. (In fact, I still babysit regularly for a family that I've known for three years.) In addition, my minor was in psychology, focusing on child psych and development, and I have taken a number of early childhood education and children's literature classes.

Okay, you probably get the point -- I have experience. Anyway, I have also developed several little pet peeves -- things I see parents do regularly that drives me nuts. One of my biggest pet peeves is when parents buy into the idea that listening to Mozart or watching colorful shapes fly across the TV screen will make them smarter.

If you are a parent, you probably realize that I'm talking about products such as "Baby Einstein" and "Brainy Baby." Well, it turns out that I'm not wrong for despising them. A study recently found that babies' language development decreases the more they watch these baby programs. In fact, a single hour a day of "Baby Einstein" means six to eight fewer words (on average) than other kids of the same age.

As far as I'm concerned, it's no grand revelation that parking kids in front of the TV slows their language development. Television -- even educational programs -- is a passive activity. Your baby isn't listening to you talk to him (which is infinitely more pertinent to him than what a disembodied voice on a baby video has to say), nor is he trying to communicate back to you. Chances are that he probably doesn't pay attention to that disembodied voice much at all -- all the visual stimuli is most likely monopolizing his attention. (Anyone who has ever tried to talk to a small child when they are watching TV knows exactly what I mean.)

My opinion is that watching educational programs on TV is never going to be as good as reading a book or learning about something hands-on -- language-related or otherwise. Baby videos about finger painting can't teach your child that fingerpaint feels cool and slimy and slippery, anymore than the narrator can teach her what the words "no" or "mommy" or "more" feel like to her lips and tongue.

As for the notion that playing Mozart for your baby will make her smarter... Well, that is the unfortunate result of a psychological study that the media reported incorrectly. The original study demonstrated that college students performed marginally better on spatial tasks immediately after listening to Mozart, as opposed to other classical music. This doesn't mean listening to Mozart makes you smarter. It might temporarily make your brain more alert -- or it might just mean that other classical music makes your brain less alert.

In general, I think the moral of this story is to take miracle products with a grain of salt. If it seems too easy for your kid to learn everything they need to know from a baby video, that's probably because it is.

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