I was watching Oprah on the treadmill the other day when I saw an advertisement for Hooked on Phonics. In it, a 4-year-old boy was reading out loud to his mom in front of a gaggle of other amazed moms. "How old is he?" they wanted to know. They also wanted to know the first mom's secret. She said -- with some rather forced humility -- that they'd been practicing. Flash to an ad for the Pre-K Hooked on Phonics system.
The whole thing seemed a wee bit distasteful to me. Not the part about a 4-year-old reading. I know that many highly gifted young people start reading long before kindergarten because they view reading as a way to learn more about the world. Since they want to learn more about the world, they learn to read. But this is often to their parents' amazement. There is very little "practicing" going on. The ad plays into the oft-repeated dismissal that parents of these highly gifted young people are just pushing them into reading in order to impress the other moms at playgroup. If 4 years old is good, why not even earlier? Fortunately for those looking to put other parents to shame, Hooked on Phonics has a baby edition that is aimed at 3-18 months.
But also, I found the ad disturbing because I just finished reading Susan Gregory Thomas' Buy Buy Baby. This book documents how various marketers have aimed their products at increasingly young children in order to build brand loyalty, and have gotten away with it by claiming the products are educational. Her particular bugaboo (the name of a $800 stroller, by the way) is the Baby Einstein series, but as she told me when I interviewed her for an upcoming USA Today column, there's really no escaping it. Elmo's face is on diapers. One of her daughter's first words was Dora, and she hadn't seen the show. My son Jasper loves his "How Big is Baby Elmo? Baby Elmo is SO Big" board book, and he doesn't watch Sesame Street. It was simply a pleasant looking book available at Babies R Us, but now he'll have an affinity to the red furry monster -- and no doubt the lunch boxes, toys, and sleeping bags he adorns -- for the rest of his childhood. Sigh.
The humorous thing about all these products is that they must be pitched as educational in order for families to feel it's OK to buy them. Every marketer knows this. Jasper has a musical animal train toy that plays incredibly annoying songs. But they all talk about "learning about animals." It's not enough to say that giraffes are tall, or to play Old McDonald Had a Farm, or what have you. The little singing voice keeps chirping that "learning about animals is so much fun!" Gregory Thomas tells a funny story about a doll for toddlers that had the names of body parts stitched onto the appropriate places. Toy stores refused to stock it because it wasn't "educational." So it was redesigned with numbers and letters stitched on instead. Now it was deemed OK, even though the new design made absolutely no sense.
It's unclear why parents are so concerned that toys for young kids be educational. Kids learn through play, period. They certainly don't learn more watching a Baby Einstein video than they do when you talk to them while folding laundry. Gregory Thomas blames a White House 0-3 conference in 1997 which claimed that those years were absolutely critical to brain development, as well as parental worries about whether kids will do OK in our winner-take-all culture.
The Hooked on Phonics Pre-K programs play into these worries. So do the various LeapFrog game systems which give very young kids even more screen time (unlikely to help little brains, regardless).
But there is definitely a backlash brewing. Brainy Baby and Baby Einstein videos took a big hit recently when some researchers discovered that kids who watch the videos know fewer words than those who don't. And TRUCE (Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children's Entertainment), has been featured on many blogs for its 2007-2008 Toy Action Guide which actually has the gumption to call LeapFrog's Click Start My First Computer a toy to avoid. Well!
Certainly there's no harm in pre-K kids learning their letters and numbers. But it is funny that we've become so obsessed about it, as if there is not a minute to lose in those critical early years. After all, the other little 4-year-olds are reading. All Johnny needs is a $99.95 toy, and he will be too...