Originally published in the Sunday Oregonian - August 19, 2007
Poor Disney. It seems that its Baby Einstein DVD series might not be a magic and miraculous invention to make babies smarter, after all.
If Frederick Zimmerman and Dimitri Christakis’ latest research out the University of Washington is accurate, then babies acquire language better by interacting with real people instead of staring at a screen. What a concept! No wonder Disney is so upset.
Yet surely, however much these darling DVDs are being maligned, they, like most things in life, probably aren’t all bad. I’m sure that babies get something useful from watching “Baby Neptune: Discovering Water.” Unfortunately though, that really isn’t the point, however much it might be the topic of debate in the news.
The real question isn’t whether or not our little ones are learning enough words from these videos. What parents instead need to ask is whether or not any potential benefit of these infant DVDs is worth getting their babies possibly hooked on television at such an early age.
Since 1999 the American Academy of Pediatrics has not recommended any television for children under two. Although some evidence shows that limited amounts of educational television for children ages three and older can be beneficial, an overwhelming body of research links television viewing in children to childhood obesity, poor academic performance, aggressive behavior and attention disorders, among other problems.
So why rush to put babies in front of the virtual meadow when the real meadow is so much better for them?
Most parents will say that it’s because someone needs to watch over baby in the real meadow. However pretty it may be, that meadow still has dirt in it and maybe toxic flowers, too, and probably bugs. And more importantly, putting baby in the real meadow won’t give parents and caregivers the break they so desperately need. Taking care of small children is exhausting enough, and in a nation like ours without paid maternity/paternity leave and easily accessible childcare benefits, it can be even more draining. No wonder we watch so much TV. No wonder parents’ intention to limit viewing to just 20 minutes a day for their baby often quickly turns into 30 minutes and then 40 minutes. By the time the child is of preschool age, he or she is watching several hours a day.
Parents are all too often overworked and taking care of their kids in isolation. They’re forced to make a priority of getting dinner on the table rather than taking time to read books to their budding Einsteins.
I know what that’s like. I remember letting my toddler dismantle the contents of our pantry once, while I collapsed on the sofa after a long day. I needed a break. All parents do, but by putting our tots in front of the tube, we may be sabotaging our chance to get a bigger break later on. If the research is accurate, parents whose children are hooked on television could be spending a lot of time in the future taking them to reading tutors, school counselors, speech therapists, and doctors for ADD medications and diet advice.
But what’s a parent of a fussy baby to do when she needs a shower? Well, what did parents do before we had baby DVDs? Maybe we didn’t take as many showers. Or better yet, maybe we asked for help from our friends, neighbors and relatives. In other words, we interacted with real people in our community rather than relying on television.
Of course, making friends and dealing with relatives can be messy—like playing in the meadow, but it has its rewards. Like babies, we adults also fare better with real human interaction.
Even so, there are still those times when no one is available (or maybe your neighbors are all psychopaths), and you still need that shower. That’s where a little ingenuity helps. I remember, in my attempt to keep my baby TV-free, I gave him an annoying music box to play with. Because he was only allowed to have it while I was in the shower, it held his interest. I used this method successfully with various toys and objects in the car and while cooking breakfast, too. Before long he learned to entertain himself wherever we were, and at a far earlier age than his TV-watching peers.
The truth is that raising kids without television (or with limited amounts) is actually easier. Sure, it can be hard in the beginning. Siblings fight and argue, but they also learn how to negotiate and actively solve problems, something they can’t experience while glued to television. And the payoff is more than worth the effort—having a healthy child with an imagination and the ability to focus—maybe even having a truly brainy boy or girl, a real Einstein.
Apparently, that’s something Disney just can’t offer us.
Ellen Currey-Wilson is the author of “The Big Turnoff: Confessions of a TV-Addicted Mom Trying to Raise a TV-Free Kid” (Algonquin, $23.95, 352 pages). She lives in Southwest Portland.