A “Leg Up” or Cut Off at the Knees

In 1996 a young couple, Julie and Bill Clark, from Alpharetta, Georgia, invested $18,000 of their savings to produce a VHS (remember those) product called Baby Einstein. Julie, a former teacher and stay-at-home mom, and her entrepreneurial husband quickly added an extensive line of videos with names like Baby Van Gogh and Baby Mozart, beginning a Baby Einstein line-up that would eventually include multiple videos, educational toys and even a television show. The target audience for these videos was infants and children ages 3 months to 3 years (or perhaps more accurately, the parents who put their babies in front of these videos, so that mom or dad could jump into the shower, guilt free.) In any event, the Clark’s business skyrocketed, growing from $1 million to $10 million to $400 million in a little over a decade. Popularity and profits soared and, in 2001, Disney bought a majority share of the company. Estimates were that one in three American households with a baby owned at least one Baby Einstein product.

Parents bought these products for several reasons. They were clearly preferable to the standard fare of television and parents could control what their child could see, but most importantly, these products were touted as having the ability to enhance a baby’s vocabulary, musical ability or appreciation of art. In other words, they promised the elixir most seductive to parents- the opportunity to give their child an advantage, a leg up in what was assumed to be the competitive world of infancy and early childhood.
Unfortunately, researchers at the University of Washington found that babies ages 8 to 16 months actually had poorer language development than same age babies who were not exposed to the videos. Babies who watched “baby DVDs/videos” such as Baby Einstein or Brainy Baby acquired, on average, 6-8 fewer words per hour of viewing than babies who did not watch these videos. Older toddlers were not found to have any effect, positive or negative, from being exposed to the videos. In 2009, the Walt Disney Company offered a full refund for all Baby Einstein DVDs/videos purchased between 2004 and 2009.
If your child watched some Baby Einstein or other type of baby videos, don’t get hopped up. For most kids, words lost at a year are made up over the many following years. Throughout childhood, there will be many things that test as not especially helpful to their development, but hopefully many more that will. The real problem is that we don’t seem to know the difference between what actually gives our kid a “leg up”, and what, at best only appears to, and at worst, is actually damaging them. A new smartphone app tells us how “normal” our infants I/O (intake/outtake) is. So now our phones can provide us with invaluable information like how closely your baby’s poop schedule resembles the poop schedule of other infants. Or whether your child is average at moving, smiling, cooing, peeing or eating. If, unfortunately, your child is hospitalized for some reason his or her I/O is important. For the vast majority of infants it is irrelevant except it means that parents are pouring over data points instead of pouring over their babies.
If by a “leg up” we mean to arm our children early and properly with the skills that are most likely to advance healthy development, here are some research-based tips for promoting learning, attachment, enthusiasm and well-being. Remember the point is not to be the swiftest (remember the tortoise and the hare) but to have the skills that will fortify your particular child through good times and bad. Childhood is not a race. It is, in the words of Selma Fraiberg, The Magic Years. Sometimes magic happens in the blink of an eye, and sometimes you have to wait patiently for magic to reveal itself. Worry less about “a leg up” and pay attention more to your child’s willingness to be challenged and sense of comfort and confidence in himself or herself.
  •  Take time to get to know your baby. Attunement, that is the accurate reading of an infant’s internal state (calm, anxious, uncomfortable), is tied to almost every positive cognitive, emotional and behavioral outcome for children. This can’t be rushed, and means that rather than worrying about performance, you are learning to recognize and delight in your particular child’s signals.
  • What interests your child, interests you. If I could make it through three boys with rats and mice and lizards, you can too. The world is a never-ending source of wonder and engagement. Don’t be dismissive of your child’s interests. Many of them are likely to change and you can’t possibly predict where their interests will lead them. One of my oldest son’s friends was preoccupied with odd plants throughout childhood. He now teaches at a prestigious university and is one of the country’s experts on ferns.
  • Let your child lead the way on coaching, select teams and lessons. Often there is no faster way to kill an interest than to insist that your child is so talented that lessons are necessary. “Your voice is beautiful. I think you should take lessons twice a week” is one reasonably predictable way to help your child lose interest. The singing that was a pleasure has now become one more “work” place. Most kids will ask for instruction when they want more.
  • Welcome mistakes. Not only are they inevitable but they also help your child develop competence and resilience. Yes, I wrote a New York Times best-selling book and, yes, the first draft really sucked. To get better at anything kids need to push themselves and that means making mistakes. Model a healthy way to deal with mistakes and feedback. “I really learned something today when my boss pointed out . . . ” as opposed to “My boss is a jerk. I cried all afternoon after he picked apart my project.”
Remember that the best “leg up” you can give your children is to help them feel good about themselves, eager to test themselves out in the world and confident that there are loving, supportive and encouraging parents standing behind them.

MLevine150wMadeline Levine, Ph.D., is a nationally known psychologist with over 25 years of experience as a clinician, consultant, and educator. Her New York Times best-selling book, The Price of Privilege, explores the reasons why teenagers from affluent families are experiencing epidemic rates of emotional problems. Her follow-up best-selling book, Teach Your Children Well, focuses on expanding our current narrow and shortsighted view of success and providing concrete strategies for parents. Her two previous books, Viewing Violence and See No Evil, both received critical acclaim. Dr. Levine began her career as an elementary and junior high school teacher in the South Bronx of New York before moving to California and earning her degrees in psychology. She has taught Child Development classes to graduate students at the University of California Medical Center / San Francisco. Dr. Levine lectures extensively to parent, school and business audiences both nationally and internationally.

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