Monday, December 17, 2007

The Brainy Baby Backlash Continues...

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...


Anonymous said...

Of course what you haven't mentioned is that these teaching toys will someday be, perhaps already are, an excellent replacement for the educational content of grades K-4. No wonder elementary Educators are saying that what they offer is 'so much more' than facts and skills, and cluck about social development while they deny needed grade skips because there is very little going on for elementary aged kids in the upper ranges of gifted at school that electronic 'toys' couldn't do better and with less cruelty.

Scary, no? As my DS points out, the wheel was used for thousands of years as a children's toy before anyone used it for serious work.

Sure, sure, I hate that learning for babies has become defined so narrowly, and that our children are on the altar of consumerism. But I think that there is more than healthy repugnance going on here, just under the surface.

Or, as I posed at a recent dinner party, "What if all upper elementary and middleschool teachers were replaced with 'Dungeon Masters?'" If only my kid's elementary teachers had been that explicit in their expectations and rewards!


Anonymous said...


I think the marketing people are preying on parental fears. If all the other parents buy their children these gizmos, will little Johnny be left behind? With all the talk in recent years about quality time, critical development periods, etc. it's quite easy to buy into the educational toy scheme. Not that these products are all inherently evil, but they will never replace the stimulation of human interaction.

My kids are profoundly gifted, and they really get excited about learning. But their most impressive intellectual feats have been almost entirely self-motivated. As infants, they enjoyed being read to, and then as toddlers, they simply started reading for themselves. No flashcards, electronic devices, or drill and kill involved; it was important for them to decipher the words, and so they did.

thanks for a thoughtful and insightful piece.

Anonymous said...

I really don’t think American teachers are in a position to give advice regarding how children learn and how best to instruct them.

Maybe they should instead give advice on how to manipulate data so as to appear that you are excelling at work and how to silence any discontentment with the accusation that disgruntled parents and tax payers just don’t care about the children like they do.

Gramatrick said...

My big beefs with a lot of these "educational" toys are:

They are often noisy in a jarring sort of way. Consequently, I really don't think they're that fun to play with. These sort of things given to us by well-meaning relatives often mysteriously lose their batteries.

They can be played with only one way. I think a lot of the educational value of play comes through developing your own worlds and games. Cheap dollar store dinosaurs and a pile of sand offer a lot more educational value for a 3 year old in my opinion than a $39.99 machine where the method of interaction is static and predetermined.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous #3 said it perfectly. I wonder what it will take for teachers and administrators to start listening to the folks who not only pay their salaries but who also happen to have birthed and raised the kids that they are teaching.

The only thing that will make administrators give a rip is school choice.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you guys are missing the point. I love the baby videos. I'm a consumer. I want it. If the products were not on the market, I would have created them.

It's not replacing time with mom, it's replacing the blank void time that existed when I work from home and don't have time for one on one.
Market economy: supply - demand.

I have no fears of my child being stupid. Simply, I like to spend my money. There's worse ways to spend money in a commercially driven world. Thank the USA that I live in a free market!

If I don't want the old wood hand made toy, I can buy the funny doll with the numbers oddly sewn on. Heck, I also buy paper towels when clearly cloth ones are available and reusable. I have money to spend, I will spend it... even if it's on hypermarketing. I buy many things that are not based on fear, function, need, or value.

Let's not think too much about something so simple.

Candice H. said...

I think the last anonymous poster is missing the point. Your child does not need Mom or TV to entertain him/her. Children need slow, careful, creative, reflective time... and babies needs LOTS of it. They need input-free time to decide where to aim their senses on their own. Having small amounts of intense 'quality time' with a baby can 'fill them up' with social, connected time and leave them relaxed and curious to explore on their own for a while. Babies and children without sufficient 'me' time are not being allowed the opportunity to learn how to be on their own and will build a constant need for input/entertainment... which is the exact opposite of what a parent-working-at-home wants. If the goal is self-sufficiency, then we need to really let them explore on their own, without the direction that comes from TV and these electronic toys. Sure they're not EVIL but in many ways they are counterproductive, so logically a waste of the child's time, which is to me far more valuable than your money.

Anonymous said...

Love the post. It is so hard in this day to resist the marketing hype - especially when all around you are succombing - not just to teh videos - but the endless 'extension' activities of music and movement, art class,... and so it goes on.

I have two profoundly gifted kids. I have always bucked the trend of noisy, electronic, gimmecky, flashing lights etc. My kids have blocks. And pans and joined me making cookies in the kitchen. My eldest (who has just tunred 4) has been independent reading for over a year now. She learnt by reading my shopping list, working out recipes, and doing every day play. These comapnaies want parents to pay so that they can feel better that they don't spend enough time with their kids. It's a quick fix. "I won't read to you. Look this stupid bear will read it instead." It's just too much effort to help you play and learn!