I grew up on a cattle ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. After spending nearly 20 years working as a copywriter in advertising, my first book, Confessions of a Slacker Mom, came out in spring of 2004 and made the San Francisco Chronicle's best-seller list. My second book, Confessions of a Slacker Wife, was released in spring of 2005.

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Please, No More Genius Babies

Recently Time Magazine (along with a long list of other newspapers and magazines) published the findings of a new report that Baby Einstein videos, according to University of Washington research, don’t actually work. Apparently you can’t turn your baby into a genius by making him or her watch TV. In fact, according to this latest study evaluating the claims of these and other smart-baby videos, they actually delay development and “may be doing more harm than good.”

This must be disappointing news for the millions of American households with kids that have purchased the videos, but for me it’s good news because I thought they were a questionable enterprise in the first place. The Time article started out by commenting how these videos “always seemed too good to be true,” but frankly, I thought the promise inherent in the Baby Einstein series—inherent in the very name of the company—was too outlandish to be true, not too good to be true. I hate to sound cynical but I just don’t think the words “Einstein” and “baby” go together. Same for Galileo and baby, and Mozart and baby, and Shakespeare and baby. Undoubtedly the parents who bought the videos knew there was some exaggeration going on there, but then there’s always that niggling hope … maybe! Maybe if I start right in on him as soon as he exits the womb (or before), maybe my baby WILL be the next Einstein! And thus a multimillion dollar industry was created.

But can we really think Albert Einstein got where he got because his parents made him watch math videos as an infant? My understanding is he got where he got by his own (adult) efforts and desires far more than by his parents’ efforts and desires, and because of his own marvelous capacity for creative thought, which was probably inborn, but even if it wasn’t inborn, it’s not something that could possibly be absorbed via the passive and repetitive activity of watching television.

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There’s another video series with the slightly less audacious title of “Your Baby Can Read!”. The package shows an infant maybe old enough to crawl wearing a mortarboard, who appears to be holding a large hardback book and has a very satisfied look on his face (perhaps, before shooting the photo, they’d given him a bottle). The copy on the package urges you to “Start your child NOW!” and claims it’s appropriate for those as young as three months.

But is it? Is it really a foregone conclusion in our competitive culture that teaching a three-month old to read would be a desirable thing to do? If so, can the Baby Trump videos be far behind, presenting to infants (with the help of puppets and sing-a-longs) the fundamentals of the public stock offering, the hostile takeover, and the bankruptcy reorganization?

Personally, I never wanted my baby to read. I want my seven-year old to read, and he does, but that’s different. It’s different because he’s old enough to have formed an interest in certain books and magazines. And because he wants to comprehend the instructions on Monopoly “chance” cards. And because not every men’s room has a symbol on the door; some of them have only words. In other words, the reason why it’s important for him to read has mostly to do with the content of what he’s reading. It can’t possibly be about the content for a three-month old.

Which begs the question, What’s the hurry? To everything there is a season. I could never see why it was better for my baby to read before everyone else’s baby did, nor did I think it made me a better mom, but in the words of one Brainy Baby fan, “I have impressed my friends with children the same age.” I just hope that’s not what it all comes down to.

I can certainly sympathize with the busy mom who’s trying to grab 10 minutes to take a shower and just needs something to entertain the three-year old while she conducts her business. A little Baby Einstein could come in handy there. But I hope these new reports will herald the beginning of the end of the Baby Genius era in parenting trends. We shouldn’t expect babies or toddlers or even preadolescents to be geniuses. We should just expect them to be kids.

—Muffy

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