Finally! An insidious product, cleverly marketed for over a decade to parents at the expense of our children, is being outed. But will parents wise up?
First, the good news: According to a recent article in the New York Times, “No Einstein in Your Crib? Get a Refund,” The Walt Disney Company is widely refunding users of its ”Baby Einstein” videos in response to challenges about the legitimacy of its educational claims. For years the “Baby Einstein” packaging included assertions that the videos would encourage language development, even “[teach] words to babies under 2 years old.”
The hero in this case is The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a Boston-based advocacy group that brought the DVD’s bogus claims to the Federal Trade Commission in 2006. It has been fighting ever since to take “Baby Einstein” to task for misleading consumers with false advertising on the product’s packaging and web site. Under FTC scrutiny and the added pressure of a threatened class-action suit, the company removed certain wording from the packaging asserting that the DVD has some positive effect on a baby’s development.
Obviously, these claims are not — nor have they ever have been — supported by scientific research. In fact, studies conclude the opposite: increased TV and video watching is linked to delayed language skills and learning disorders (not to mention obesity). Most parents are now aware that The American Academy of Pediatrics warns against media for children under the age of 2. Of course, this is “Baby Einstein’s” target audience.
Now for the bad news: recent studies show that decades of warnings against TV and video viewing for babies have had little effect on parents. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times entitled “Kids’ Eyes are Glued to TV” also covers the “Baby Einstein” marketing scam and reports grim findings: “The amount of television usage by children (has) reached an eight-year high…”
Why are parents hooked on getting kids hooked on TV? In the many papers I have read, experts assign guilt to parents without providing solutions. Studies that poll parents have found that the majority of those who expose babies to TV know they are compromising their child’s optimum health, but they see no other choice to get chores done or take a break. So, unfortunately, one can only conclude that parents would rather feel guilt about the way they are raising a child than feel trapped by a child who they believe cannot occupy himself.
Experts offer vague directives like, “Children should be playing outdoors. Watch TV with your kids. Read to your children. ” In the L.A. Times article, Susan Linn, psychologist and director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, clarifies the problem. “If we start children early in life on a steady diet of screen time and electronic toys, they don’t develop the resources to generate their own amusement, so they become dependent on screens.”
Bingo. But none of this information is particularly helpful, because it does not offer any specific alternative to giving a baby passive entertainment when the parents need a well-deserved break. No question, parents need breaks, and the last thing they need is guilt. But no one tells us how not to resort to TV. To my knowledge, no one other than infant expert Magda Gerber offers a viable plan to solve the TV issue. And while Magda Gerber’s non-profit organization (RIE) cannot compete with “Baby Einstein” when it comes to marketing dollars, Gerber’s approach to child care is the real genius.
Picture this: our week old baby is on the changing table after a diaper change. He is looking at the ceiling, calmly and quietly. He is content. Instead of picking him up because we’re done and want to move on, we wait and watch. Five minutes go by before he looks toward us. We then say, “Okay, now I will pick you up.” Our son has just enjoyed his first session of uninterrupted play time, and he has given us a non-verbal signal that he is ready to move on.
The key to guilt-free breaks: never interrupt a contented baby.
If we place our baby on his back in his safe bed or playpen so he is free to move, and if we resist the temptation to entertain him (which will over-stimulate him anyway, and wear us out), we can then relax, observe or take short breaks away from the baby while he takes in his immediate world. This personal ‘play time,’ a time when the baby may ponder a shadow on the wall or a solution to world hunger (to be shared in a dissertation years later), will begin with a few minutes here and there, and will later extend to long periods of learning, exploration and fantasy play as the infant develops.
An infant’s uninterrupted play time must be balanced with plenty of intimate one-on-one time with loved ones, and Magda Gerber encourages parents to provide focused togetherness each day while mutually accomplishing chores like diapering, feeding, and bathing. When we take advantage of these activities, rather than rushing through them to make way for ‘playtime,’ and when we give our baby undivided attention, slow down, and invite the baby to participate as much as possible, then both parent and child are refueled by the shared experience. A child who receives a parent’s full attention several times a day can then spend hours happily occupied with independent play, and give parents time for breaks.
Volumes could be written on the rewards of self-directed play and also on the negative effects of television, and I will address those subjects in future posts. But what parents must understand is that early exposure to media and other passive entertainment will immediately undermine a child’s innate ability to create play on his own and will perpetuate the very problem the parent is attempting to solve: a child who cannot occupy himself. Children are creatures of habit, and they quickly become used to a life of passivity when we expose them to media. TV and videos are harmful to a baby, period. There are no benefits.
TV and videos are a passive experience for an infant. They do not ‘learn’ from them because they do not understand them. The only way an infant does gain knowledge is by exploring the world around him with all his senses, in his own way and in his own time. This is active learning, and it is as simple as having the freedom to look around a room or examine his fingers and toes. Compare this to being strapped in a booster seat, mesmerized by meaningless words and images cascading from TV set. Surely, no sane or educated person could claim this as ‘educational’.
When we know and embrace a better plan, one that facilitates (rather than thwarts) our baby’s innate potential to explore, examine, create, imagine, solve problems and develop a long attention span for the rest of his life, we feel pride instead of guilt. Children want to actively absorb life — not pictures of life — from the moment they are born. The real baby Einstein would have known that.
To learn more about RIE parenting, check out these resources:
Your Self–Confident Baby by Magda Gerber and Allison Johnson
Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect by Magda Gerber
My books: Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame (both available on Audio)