Sunday, September 10, 2006

Baby Einstein

The name says it all. It's actually a trademarked brand name for a line of CDs and DVDs intended to enhance the development of infants and toddlers by exposing them to a raft of educational and artistic information way early in their development. Today's WaPo has this review of HOTHOUSE KIDS, The Dilemma of the Gifted Child.

...from the time they're fetuses until they're old enough to be high-school math champions, we put pressure on our children to fly as high as they can -- to be the best they can or rather the best that we think they ought to be, which is better than everybody else. So they're not just bright, they're "gifted" or "extremely gifted." Everybody's kid's a genius, right? If they're not, they could be -- or would be, with the right early training. Or so the "Baby Genius Edutainment Complex," as Quart terms it, would have us believe.

We blast our developing fetuses with Mozart to give them a leg up in life. We park our 6-month-olds in front of "Baby Einstein" and "Brainy Baby" videos, whose bells and whistles are supposed to kick developing neurons into overdrive. We drag our toddlers to early-childhood "enrichment" classes and subject them to IQ tests as preschoolers to ensure that they get the best "gifted" education, if we're lucky enough to live in a place that offers it or rich enough to pay for private schools and tutors.

By the time they're teens, we've groomed our children to take no prisoners at Scrabble tournaments, in science competitions and at national spelling bees. These events may, if they (we) are lucky, earn them scholarships, national media exposure and maybe even a shot at Wall Street. Quart includes a chapter on math whizzes who are courted by financial firms as well as by government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security.

Recruited for Homeland Security? I don't think so. Between now and the time my youngest grandchild gets old enough to be considered for that kind of work I hope to have given him enough discernment to know better and be more selective about the company he keeps (or the company that wants to keep him).

This book seems to be advancing a worthwhile caveat to parents who would overdo the growth-and-development thing, but my observation is that the next generation is far more at risk of parental neglect than any amount of over-involvement. If the Baby Einstein generation is malformed, it is because that series is being (mis-)used as training wheels for the TV, movie, and video games vehicle that will carry them further away from core values as they mature. By the time they enter school, public or private, most children will be well-adjusted to the notion of in loco parentis that undergirds what passes for education these days. (Exceptions, of course, are those being home-schooled, but that alternative, also vulnerable to abuse, opens up another can of worms. I am personally impressed by a number of excellent examples but I am reminded of phrases like do-it-yourself appendectomy or He who represents himself in the courtroom has a fool for a lawyer...)

I have railed at length about what I see as problems with education, but in a line or two I can say that the next generation is far more at risk, hothouse kids and all, of a careless, even toxic level of neglect than any amount of over-involvement. The parents who wisely use these and other resources in a balanced educational diet will produce children with appropriate competetive educational skills in their toolbox. That balance does not come from the tools, but the knowledge of how to use them correctly. There is a difference. And that difference comes from practice, coaching and the examples of good role models.

If our children do not become what we expect, then there probably has been something seriously awry, not with them and their development, but with our own expectations and failure to be sufficiently involved to avert the problems about which we (and they) complain. I have met a lot of people who act like they know too much, but I have never met any who really do. The main lesson we fail to teach our children is that their education is never done.

Thanks to 3 Quarks for the link. And also because they illustrate this last point. Education is never done.

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