Friday, June 29, 2012

Little Einstein - an unpublished column

I wrote this in 2009, and I can't remember if I ever submitted for publication, or if it was just rejected for one reason or another. I also can't remember if I've ever published here. If I did, I apologize for wasting your time. :)

When my nephew was born fifteen years ago I wasted no time in trying to secure his future. No, I didn't run out and buy stocks or bonds  in his name, none of which I could afford as a college student. Instead I drove to the bookstore and scooped up anything with titles like "Your Baby Can Read!" and "Teach Math to your Infant!".

I remember knowing, with a faith bordering on the religious, that these tomes would give my nephew the head start he'd need to succeed in life.

Did it work? Well, no actually.  He didn't read a book or do long division  until elementary school (gasp!). While  he's a bright kid, I'm afraid  the only way he'll qualify as the next  Edison is if the definition of 'genius' expands  to include  World of Warcraft acumen.

I thought of those books when I read that the Disney corporation was offering rebates to customers who purchased their popular Little Einstein videos between 2004 and 2009.  The videos feature simple images of toys, colors and shapes accompanied by music, and Disney shrewdly chose to market the product as educational for infants. That led to a a group called the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood filling a complaint with the FCC in 2006.  As a result, Disney complied with their demand and dropped the claim about its educational value.

According to the CCFC's own website, it wasn't enough. “We thought parents deserved better, “ the website said. And so, under pressure  Disney agreed to a rebate for customers who bought the films “mistakenly believing the videos would make their baby smarter.”

Let's gloss over the fact that the 'rebate' only seems to encourage an investment in the product line, seeing as it primarily comes in the form of coupons or exchanges. What bothers me is the fact that this argument got any traction at all.

By the era of Little Einstein I was a parent myself, and yes, I bought a few of the tapes. I no longer had any illusions about tweaking IQ's, but my daughters found it fascinating and , if nothing else, it exposed them to classical music at an early age. Or so I said at the time. If I'm honest, it also kept them out of my hair for a few minutes, which made the videoes worth every penny. If most parents were as blunt, I'd think they'd concede the same thing.

 As for the 'rebates', argue an objection to “screen time” for infants, and I might concede your point. But to base the objection on a failure to make a baby  “smarter” strikes me as ridiculous. More so than even my thoughts that day at the bookstore. My goal wasn't to raise his intelligence, it was to jumpstart his education. Tomatoes/tomatoes? I disagree.

How do you define “smarter” in an infant? What standards constitute success or failure? And smarter than whom? Mom? Dad? The neighbor's cat? Remember, these are babies we're talking about. If you express  disappointment that they 'only' possess their native intelligence – to the extent you ask a corporation for a refund based on that fact -what kind of message are you establishing for the next eighteen years?

There will always be products that cash in on our desire to help our children. Some will be sincere, some will be nothing more than patent medicine. Shut them down when they encourage harm, but I'd  be careful about being smug when you do. Remember: in the end, they do nothing more than fill the need our own egos demand. 

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