Baby Einstein Videos: Not a Ticket to Harvard

We’ve taken a lot of heat for not embracing baby videos.  When the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with their recommendation against videos for kids under the age of 2– we were delighted (and quite frankly it made it possible for us to continue excluding these videos from our television segments despite a lot of pressure). But we still knew that these videos have become a staple in most households with very young children.

So I was really happy to read  The New York Times article “No Einstein In Your Crib? Get a Refund” by Tamar Lewis that discusses the announcement that Baby Einstein has agreed to offer parents a refund of $15.99 for up to 4 videos bought during the last five years.  The settlement came after a threatened class action lawsuit alleging that the company made false claims that these videos were educational.  Kudos to Susan Linn, Director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, for taking on Disney (it bought the Baby Einstein Company in 2001).

While we were taping a segment about the best toys for babies, one of our favorite producers from the local WNBC came to our offices with her baby and one of her friends brought her baby as well so that we could get their kids on tape.  Our producer’s baby was completely engaged– at 9 months he was completely taking in the world around him.  He delighted when his mom would play with him.  He was thriving.  In contrast her friend’s baby, also 9 months old–was very muted.  His mother, an investment banker, was insisting that the Baby Einstein videos were doing wonders for her son.  She was a walking billboard for the Baby Einstein marketing strategy.  And no matter what my mother and I said to her about how babies benefit more from  “real life” interactions with real people, she would not be moved from her belief that these videos were preparing her baby for preschool, doing well in elementary school and beyond.

When the videos first came out I was taking a graduate class  in neurological development in children at NYU.  I thought maybe my mother and I were missing something. It’s important not to be closed minded so I brought in one of the best selling Baby Einstein videos for a screening.   The class and my professor were stunned and then there was just a lot of laughing.  When I told them that this was a multi-million dollar business, they were shocked. There was no research supporting that  showing random images and exposing kids to the four different languages at the same time delivered any magic educational bullet.

What Baby Einstein and others in the market  accomplished was to scare parents–that if they didn’t buy these videos their kids would be left behind.  The success of these videos spawned a multi-million dollar industry and I can’t tell you how many video makers in this category would try to get us to change our mind.

That investor banker mom also argued that her child knew and wanted the videos.  So we put one on and watched both babies.  It was true that when the music came on,  both raised their arms in excitement and then they became glued.  “See they love it!”   She’s right they recognized the music and responded happily. Anyone who has watched young children (or let’s face it, adults) in front of the tv, know that it’s easy to become dazed- it certainly doesn’t mean something educational is happening.  (In fact, young children will often watch something very scary on the tv without emotion or moving away because they can’t make the leap between reality and fantasy, they literally can’t make that break.)

When we suggested that awake  play time would be better spent getting down on the floor and engaging her son, she just shook her head. The video had won.

Of course the whole “smarter baby” push is not limited to videos.  During the same period that Baby Einstein came on the scene, most toy companies got on the same bandwagon- pushing toys that were going to make your baby smarter, faster.  This meant that almost every baby toy was covered with the “ABCs”.  One of my “you have to be kidding” moments at toy fair was being shown a Baby Einstein toy (licensed to Playskool) that encouraged babies to find the rhyme!  Yes, babies that aren’t even talking yet were to find the word and image that rhymed with bat.  What was even more alarming were the number of young editors from parenting magazines taking it all in–”wow” “that’s great”….

The whole “hurry-up baby syndrome” unfortunately gave parents the wrong information about what they should expect from their babies – not to mention that kids were being given toys that were well beyond them–teaching them nothing but frustration.  While we wrote about this trend in children’s media across the board in our annual books, it was hard to convince new parents that the nursery doesn’t need to be filled with school based skills. Children don’t make the leap to abstract thinking much before the age of three.  So if your child can sing the ABC song at two, it’s usually very cute and will delight the grandparents, but if you ask a two year old what does LMNOP mean…you’ll see, it’s not really too meaningful.  What is important is that babies and toddlers are engaged–we know that young children that are read to on a regular basis, will enter school with at least 300 more words than kids who don’t have that exposure to language.

So I’m delighted with the news and the refunds–just sad that it took so long.  And for what it’s worth my older son probably learned more about his ABC’s  from  Wheel of Fortune.  “Give me an N!”

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7 Responses to Baby Einstein Videos: Not a Ticket to Harvard

  1. Frank Lima Dear says:

    I’ve been driving with my daughter on my lap since she was 8 months old. I’m sure it will make her a better driver when she gets old. She learnt her numbers by pointing at the speedometer (“Faster, Daddy, Faster”, she would gurgle.) Yes, I’ve had to deal with her occasional cheesing on the steering wheel, but it is worth it to know that she will grow up to be the Dale Earnheardt of her generation.

  2. Jen says:

    You’re kidding right?

  3. Aari says:

    Great piece, thanks!

  4. Marlaina says:

    I would just like to say that my son loved the baby einstein videos and music CDs. He watched his first one when he was about 1.5 and loved them until he was 4! I do not see why people are being so negative about these videos. Some of them are very good and the music I’m sure created a love of classical music in my son at an early age. He had every song on the videos memorized and then borrowed all of the music CDs from the library and matched the songs from the videos (Bach, Vivaldi, Beethoven) to the CDs and could tell the difference and recognize every song and the composer. He loved the Meet the Orchestra movie and decided he wanted to learn to play the violin (3 yrs old at the time). I allowed him to start taking lessons when he was 4 and he is still loving it and still playing it at 5.5. Obviously, we spend a lot of time doing other things than just watching these movies and I don’t think they would change any kid into a genius but there is some great stuff in these videos that I think people are missing! The one about the seasons (forget the name of it now) has paintings by Monet and Van Gogh so when we first went to the art gallery my son and daughter were excited because they saw paintings by those artists and new who they were….they now love going to the art gallery and have a great time and I have to drag them out. In addition, the Gallileo one about the solar system gets little minds thinking early about space and the planets but is done in a fun entertaining way. Every time we go to the library my son still loves to bring home 5 or 6 books about the solar system, planets, galaxies, etc.

    • Dave says:

      If you asked any individual in the 30-45 age bracket where they learned about classical music, I’m almost certain they would state their first exposure was through the Warner Brother’s Bugs Bunny cartoons. Videos may give exposure to certain arts and media, but that exposure is not limited to things marketed as “educational.” Interacting with your child is much more important when they are at a young age. Letting them experience things is truly important to development, but I suggest real interactions instead of staring at a video for hours each day.

  5. kelly says:

    People need to relax! If you think that after watching a Baby Einstein video (Gallileo)that your child will someday be a rocket scientist…there might just be something wrong with you. And if marketing from the Disney company is just that effective maybe they should market healthy food to the masses! But then no one would fall for that, though, would they? I wish people would take some responsibility for themselves and stop blaming others. You need to speak to your child and interact with them. You use Baby Einstein for the 1/2 hour it takes to make dinner!!!

    • twin mom says:

      I agree with kelly for sure. I’m a stay at home of twin two yr olds. I basically narrate everything that is going on through out the day. This way, they repeat things that I say & really start to understand what things are & how they work. I do own 2 baby einstein dvd’s & I admit, they love them more than any other cartoon they have watched…they learned where theur eyes, nose, mouth, etc was from watching it just a few times. However, I do not sit my kids in front of the tv all day…they watch movies when I need to occupy them for a little while….like when I’m making dinner, or getting ready to go somewhere. Point being: Your kids learn very inportant social skills & basically everything that will set the stage for their personality, learning habits, and pretty much everything from watching you!

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