Baby Einstein or a Cardboard Box?: Give our children back their childhood

playing-with-cardboard-boxes

I’m a good husband. Really, you can ask my wife. I learned a long time ago wives are always right. And when husbands are right, they are still wrong. So there you go, recipe for nearly 20 years of marriage.

However, I remember vividly a time when I put my foot down. We were registering for our first baby shower. Talk about stressful. The only thing that was more stressful was registering for our wedding shower. A woman shows a man 50 different white plates with silver or gold bands of varying widths and we are supposed to have an opinion other than please make this stop?

So there we were at Babies R Us. The nice woman hands me a scanner that is a cross between a gun and a video game controller – the only pleasant part of the whole experience. I’m ready to start shooting stuff. Let’s go! There was another couple registering and I needed to either beat their high score or shoot more stuff. In retrospect, perhaps they make these things look like guns to keep a man’s attention.

Fifteen minutes in with my gun still holstered, my bride finally asks, “Which stroller do you want?” To be honest, at this point I just want her to pick something because my trigger finger is getting antsy.

So we finally settled on a strategy. She picks stuff and I shoot, I mean scan it. This is working great until we get to one specific aisle. While choosing breast pumps, I believe I made up an excuse to use the restroom. When I return I find that my gun was confiscated to scan some belly headphones designed to pump Mozart into the womb.

I ask, “Wait a minute, what is this thing?” My wife explains the package said it would help the baby’s brain develop. Ok, so I studied psychology and I am an INFP for those who know the Myers-Briggs, so I like to believe I know when someone is trying to capitalize on wishy-washy research. No way! I had to get the manager to reverse this decision. I’ve read the research.

In 1993, Professor Rauscher from the University of Wisconsin conducted a study showing that college students who listened to 10 minutes of classical music scored higher on a spatial-intelligence test than their peers who did not listen to music. And there was the birth of what the media dubbed – The Mozart Effect.

By 1999 researchers refuted this original study by showing that while music affected mood, it did not improve IQ. Between the media and savvy businesses, however, a whole string of products were introduced from Baby Genius to Baby Einstein. There were CD’s to help the fetus brain, manuals to increase your baby’s brain, and a series of videos to make your toddler smarter.

Fast forward.

While I was not having any of that before my son arrived, then he was born. As I gazed into his beautiful blue eyes, my preconceptions of parenting from all my research melted into a pool of uncertainty around his little feet. As I sat there holding him for the first time, tears running down my cheeks, I promised him and I promised God that I would do anything and everything for him.

Isn’t that what drives us as parents? That is what companies hope, because they took the Mozart Effect and the cover of Parent’s Magazine, Raise a Smart Kid, and capitalized on it. While I was filled with head knowledge while my son was still in utero, now my heart was face to face with my promise.

What am I going to do to give him an advantage?

Isn’t it my responsibility to make sure he is someday the smartest and most athletic kid in school? In retrospect, I wish somebody had told me that I was just projecting my own selfish ambition onto my baby because I wasn’t that kid in school.

But just like your brain goes mush when you fall in love, it’s even more pronounced when you have a child. It wasn’t until my children were older…ok, it wasn’t until I was a bit older and wiser, that I realized all children are brilliantly made.

So, like trying to eat just one chip, I caved in.

At first it was just one Baby Einstein video someone gave us as a gift. My son loved it. I think it was the first TV program we let him watch. Have you ever seen one of those videos? They are downright creepy. I’m fairly certain a man and his wife took a home movie camera, some puppets, and said, “Let’s do some super obnoxious things and set it to music.”

And they made millions.

But my son loved it, and I read The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, after all, so I quickly added baby Van Gogh and Baby Newton to our original copy of Baby Mozart so he would be an artist, scientist, AND musician. (Ok, I admit it, I bought the whole set including Baby Noah because that would help him love God, right?)

But here is what I’ve learned through experience and research – all this stuff that they try to get us to buy to make our baby smart, doesn’t really help. In fact, it may have the opposite effect.

When we rush learning for young children, or when we rush them around from activity to activity, we often try to introduce things that have little relevance to them, from a developmental perspective. Dr. Sigel, a senior scientist from Educational Testing Service in Princeton New Jersey commented that teaching facts or skills when children cannot connect them to their own world are useless.

There is this thing called neurological crowding, which happens in the brain when information competes for synaptic connections. Professor Huttenlocher, a brain researcher, taught us that early crowding effects might lead to decreased activity in unspecified brain regions that may be necessary for creativity in adolescence and adulthood. I will go further into that in another post in my mission to save creativity in our schools and imagination in childhood…but just remember that some scientists believe making a young child count and read before they are ready might actually interfere with creativity later on.

The thing about brain development is that our brains are designed to develop naturally, early in life, in a progression – sight, hearing, movement. It is going to happen that way regardless of how much we try to intervene.

A lot of the hype started after a 1960’s study by Rosenzweig called, More Experience=Bigger Brain. He and his colleagues studied rats in an impoverished environment and an enriched environment. The rats in the enriched environment had more neuronal connections than those in the impoverished environment.

This study changed the course of our thinking about raising children. All of a sudden a baby’s nursery turned into Disneyland with patterned everything. As policy makers fought for education funding, they touted this study, and opportunistic companies lined up right behind them to meet the demand.

The problem though is that our children are not raised in impoverished environments without stimulation. Most children are raised in normal environments. While Rosenzweig’s first study was groundbreaking, the media chose to overlook a future study where he compared rats raised in enriched environments to those raised in natural environments.

It turned out that the rats that remained in nature, stimulated by the sights, sounds, and smells of nature, who socialized in packs, chose leaders and mates, and even played, had the best brains of all.

So what does this all mean for our children?

They need to play. They need to be curious. And we need to be observant of the things they are drawn to. They need us to spend more time being responsive to their natural curiosity and spend less money on gimmicks to accelerate their development.

Will listening to Mozart help your child develop? Sure it may, but so can listening to Simon and Garfunkel, Jack Johnson, or singing lullabies. Music is good and parents should play music for their children and sing with them. Better yet, as annoying as it may be, give him a wooden spoon and some pots and pans and let him create a symphony. You’re laying the foundation of creativity.

Your child will learn more when you play with her than from the state-of-the-art devices that claim to improve their cognitive capacity.

How many times have you bought your child a toy and they are more fascinated with the box? And the bigger the box – the better. A new appliance box is pure gold and will be fun for weeks because it can become a rocket, a fort to fight aliens, or a castle for tea parties with imaginary friends.

And you know what? That box is better for your child’s development than the latest brain games for 3 year olds that someone is trying to sell you.

The truth is that the key predictor for healthy intellectual and emotional development is responsive caregivers. It’s really that simple. However, companies can’t profit from that and that won’t sell magazines.

Speaking of selling things, I have a box set of Baby Einstein videos for sale. Message me if interested. 😉

Note: If you are interested in learning more about this topic, I highly suggest the book I am currently reading titled, Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How our Children Really Learn – and why they need to play more and memorize less, by two moms who are developmental psychologists. I would also like to thank a good friend, whose story inspired this message.

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