While browsing at my local public library, I came across Parenting, Inc.: How We Are Sold on $800 Strollers, Fetal Education, Baby Sign Language, Sleeping Coaches, Toddler Couture, and Diaper Wipe Warmers – and What It Means for Our Children by Pamela Paul. Her main argument is that parents are manipulated into making expensive purchases for their children thinking that it will benefit them developmentally, when in reality, many of these products create more harm than good. Paul backs her statements with numerous studies and interviews with various researchers, yet her book remains a fascinating, enjoyable read.
Chapter 4, “Let Us Edutain You” is particularly appropriate for our class. Paul discusses such products as Your Baby Can Read! from the Infant Learning Company, Inc., whose website claims “[n]ew scientific evidence suggests that learning language is actually easier during infancy than at any other time.” This plan calls for infants watching videos for one hour each day beginning at 3 months and claims that the child will be reading at 6 months. (The company also airs infomercials on television with video and testimonials to prove the children are reading.)
Paul takes on the Baby Einstein set of videos, a combination of real-life images of objects, people and animals set to classical music, with foreign language, nursery rhymes and counting thrown in. Paul notes that the idea that classical music can improve cognition is taken from a 1993 study of college students that proved a correlation between listening to 20 minutes of Mozart and improved performance on a paper cutting and folding task. The problem is that this study has never been independently replicated with college students, much less with children. The idea that a video can teach a foreign language is simply false, according to an experiment by Paula Kuhl, a researcher at the University of Washington. Paul reports that “in order to learn a foreign language an actual foreign-language-speaking human must be present” (p. 122).
Paul notes that the problem with these products is that parents see them as education, not television. They are sold on these products with emotion, the fear that without such a “head start” their child will be developmentally delayed and behind their peers. In fact there is no study that can back the claims of these products. The studies cited on The Infant Learning Company, Inc.’s website are all related to studies with older children, not babies or toddlers. Instead, as Paul makes clear, these products “great selling point is time off” (p. 128) and parents must be more willing to acknowledge the fact that they are used as babysitters allowing parents some needed free time.
There are studies to prove that these products can be harmful or at the very least, have no impact whatsoever. Paul points to a 2005 Kaiser Family Foundation study that found that “baby media companies do essentially no research on their products” (p. 124) and further states that “it does not (italics original) follow that because children’s brains develop quickly during the first few years, there needs to be extra learning stuffed into those years. Nor should that learning come via a TV screen” (Paul p. 126). A number of articles in Pediatrics link early television viewing with increased obesity, sleep irregularity, aggression, attention problems, less creative play and bullying. Paul introduces the term video deficit to describe the fact that children viewing an activity on video took 6 times as long to learn a task as with a single live demonstration (p. 131). She summarizes her argument with “overstimulation is damaging to the developing mind…Rapidly changing colors, sounds, and motions force a baby’s brain to stay at attention” (p. 130).
Reading Paul with my librarian hat on, I kept thinking about the role of the public library in child development. I realized that this chapter could almost be taken as an implicit endorsement of the techniques of infant lapsits and toddler storytimes at the library. When librarians perform storytimes, they are interacting with the children and modeling some ways that the accompanying adult can interact with that child. Storytime is usually conducted at a slow pace with plenty of time for children to absorb the activity. Attention spans are allowed to wander, but a new activity will usually pull it back toward the librarian. The child learns to interact socially and with everyday objects. Librarians model skills and the child sets about acquiring that skill, as through finger plays. And so, I was disappointed that Paul does not mention the possible role of the library in encouraging healthy, positive development through interactions with actual humans.
I’m left with several questions that revolve around our responsibilities as librarians. Given what we know about the recommendations of The American Academy of Pediatrics against allowing children under 2 to watch television, and Paul’s arguments that I’ve summarized here, do we have an obligation to pass along this information to parents? Do we add multimedia (movies, software, etc.) that caters to very young children to our collection? What if parents repeatedly request such multimedia? Is it any of our business, even if it is in the best interest of children? If it is our obligation or duty, then how do we go about sharing these facts in a way that won’t be offensive to parents? Any thoughts?
Paul, Pamela. Parenting, Inc.: How We Are Sold on $800 Strollers, Fetal Education, Baby Sign Language, Sleeping Coaches, Toddler Couture, and Diaper Wipe Warmers – and What It Means for Our Children. New York: Time Books, 2008. Print.
Your Baby Can Read! 2007. The Infant Learning Company, Inc. 25 April 2009. http://infantlearning.com/
Pediatrics. 2009. The American Academy of Pediatrics. 25 April 2009. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/search?sendit=Search&pubdate_year=&volume=&firstpage=&author1=&author2=&title=&andorexacttitle=and&titleabstract=&andorexacttitleabs=and&fulltext=television+under+2&andorexactfulltext=and&fmonth=Jan&fyear=1995&tmonth=Apr&tyear=2009&fdatedef=1+January+1948&tdatedef=20+April+2009&flag=&RESULTFORMAT=1&hits=10&hitsbrief=25&sortspec=relevance&sortspecbrief=relevance