Thomas Bausman, 2, and his brother Jake, 10 months, are typical American babies. Every day, Thomas settles down to watch two hours of television, while Jake sits in front of the set for an hour, the national average for their respective ages. Their favorite thing to watch, by far? Baby Einstein. Anita Bausman could not be more pleased with her children's preference. Jake, she reports, learned colors, numbers and his love of robots from the popular videos, which are filled with puppets, animals and moving objects, often set to classical music. "It's not just turning on Nickelodeon," Bausman says. "It's educational and beneficial. I know he's happy watching, and I can pop in and point out something onscreen, then go deal with the laundry."
Bausman's attitude is typical of U.S. parents. In a 2004 Kaiser Family Foundation study, more than half of the parents surveyed said that educational videos and toys are "very important to children's intellectual development." Efforts to get kids on the Ivy League track now begin at infancy, and in the past few years, the so-called edutainment market for babies and toddlers has exploded. According to Vicky Rideout, vice president of the Kaiser foundation, in 2003 there were 140 videos or DVDs for kids age 2 and younger for sale on Amazon. Today, there are 750.
Many of those products bear enticing messages on their packages: "stimulate baby's cognitive development" or "increase baby's brain capacity." But according to a new study, "A Teacher in the Living Room?," by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the companies do essentially no research to back up their claims. Nor can they cite research by others that relates specifically to their products. "We're not neurolinguistic scientists," admits Marcia Grimsley, a senior producer for Brainy Baby, purveyor of such DVDs as Right Brain and Left Brain, which claim to develop the creative and logical components of a baby's mind. "We went out and researched other people's work—scientists, neurologists, psychologists—and applied that knowledge to our products so they could be fun and beneficial to parents and children."
The unspoken assumption behind most of those products is that stimulation is good and that more stimulation is even better. But that's not necessarily so, says Meredith Small, an anthropologist at Cornell University and author of Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent. In fact, she says, "there's a growing thought that maybe Americans are overstimulating their babies, or stimulating them in the wrong ways."
There's a basic misunderstanding that stems from studies of children and laboratory animals that were starved of attention and stimulation, says Pat Levitt, director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development. "Everyone heard about the orphans in Romania who were deprived of stimulation as babies, then had learning and emotional problems later," says Levitt. But just because a normal environment is better than a deprived one, that doesn't necessarily mean that a hyperenriched environment is better still. As Levitt puts it: "There is no evidence that says you can drive the baby's system to ever greater heights."