Saturday, April 21, 2007

Mind Games

Nell Casey has a story in Cookie magazine's May/June issue on "the cult of the wunderkind." She says that after a 1994 Carnegie Corporation report claiming that the 0-3 years were critical for neurological development, an explosion of educational toys, games and videos aimed at that age group hit the scene. Every major magazine did a story on ways of increasing children's intelligence and even though marketing studies find that Gen X moms don't like it when products are aggressivey marketed as educational, they buy them anyway.

Baby Einstein is, of course, the epitome of this trend. Sold for $25 million in 2001 to Disney, the brand is now showing up everywhere, to the tune of $250 million in sales per year. Toys R Us, Buy Buy Baby, you name it. The educational nature of the books has subsequently been watered down to pointlessness. I flipped through a Baby Einstein picture book at a store today, and saw no reason it couldn't have been any other picture book of animals, colors, etc. But somehow it's got the halo effect of being for parents who want smart children. (Funny quote from the Casey story: "One health professional interviewed ... posits that 'the reason babies seemed so riveted on Baby Einstein videos was that they were actually slipping into what could be described as a low-level seizure state.'")

As I've said in past posts, I don't like the narrative of pushy parents forcing all these educational toys on their children from birth in the hopes of getting their tots into Harvard later in life. Very few parents fall into this category. The average child watches more hours of TV per day than any of us care to think about, very little of it even claiming to be educational. If well-meaning parents want to buy children books with colors and animals and shapes and so forth that claim to boost intelligence, well, hey, at least they're buying them books. While some children have been "hothoused," in most schools extreme intelligence is not exactly perceived as a good thing. One wonders how those pushing this narrative would feel if nature suddenly bestowed upon them children with IQs of 160+.

But Casey does have a point about the extreme neuroses everyone seems to feel entitled to inflict on parents. She felt if she gave her infant a single bottle, she would have harmed his intelligence for life. When she did, she chose a formula brand loaded with DHA and ARA, the "smart" fatty acids (the research is unclear on whether these actually boost IQ). Even if all the neuroses raised IQ a point or two, though, this can disappear in statistical noise. Gifted children are gifts. Relaxing and enjoying them is probably the most gracious way to accept such a present.


traveln-hsr said...

It's not just toys that get inflicted on parents, people looking to make a few bucks the same you are describing here are also preying on those who have to find "daycare"

League Day Care: What Happened to Crayons?

dajot said...

In my experience, both personal and professional, it boils down to three things to boost a child's potential: human interaction, physical activity and play. You need all three to maximize ANY child's potential.

The danger with "educational toys" is that some people think the toys can replace any one or all three of the aforementioned influences on development. Used wisely, combined with play that includes quality interaction and appropriate levels of physical activity, ANY toy can enhance a child's development. And the toy doesn't even have to be a *toy* per se. Parents don't need to spend tons of money on educational toys - they need to invest time and effort into child raising. Gifted child or not. They need the same thing.

As for these toys actually raising IQ, as a parent of several children I doubt it. I have seen the difference between levels of giftedness and average children in my own home. You can provide each child the same "input" and still get different output. Some of it is just hardwired. IMHO