Monday, May 3, 2010

You don’t need baby genius products either, but unlike my blog, they can actually do damage

I was lucky enough to learn way before I had children that earlier is not always better.

I went to Tufts University for undergrad, and was a child development major (shocker, I know). My Introduction to Child Development course was taught by David Elkind, a neo-Piagetian protégé, and first to credibly decry the concept of “the hurried child” – the title of his now classic book, published in 1981. (As an aside, I have to share that the look on Dr. Elkind’s face was priceless, when after just having explained that a person learns 50% of what they ever will by age 4, a student raised her hand, saying, “But that can’t be, because then we’d learn everything else by age 8, and I’m learning right now.” I’ll say.)

Dr. Elkind and all other Tufts professors pretty much drilled into my head that a child’s development unfolds at a natural, yet variable rate from child to child. There is no life advantage, and many distadvantages, to forcing concepts and activities on children before they are developmentally ready for them.

Enter the field of developmental cognitive neuroscience from the 1990’s and 2000’s. Suddenly we have sophisticated research methodologies and brain imaging technologies that appear to debunk Piaget (at least in terms of the ages at which certain skills, such as object permanence, supposedly appear) and send the message that maybe infants are, in fact, “geniuses” who can detect patterns,
do statistics, and even predict the future! If infants are a lot smarter than we once understood, this certainly implies that we should capitalize on this potential, by directly teaching such skills – doesn’t it?

Understandably, parents are confused. If the message of the new brain science is that we have tremendous influence over the architecture and functioning of our children’s brains, and that this has lifelong implications for a child’s success in life, clearly we should find the cleverest ways of shoving the most possible information into that infant brain while we still have the chance, right? What parents need to know is that good parents are already, instinctively, doing just that. All the baby genius products you’ll ever need are wrapped up in the combination of your baby’s biology (e.g., his rapidly developing brain), and lots of lots of:

-eye contact (with you)
-interaction, including loving touch and holding (with you)
-talking (with you)
-freedom to explore the environment with the security of a “base” to check in with and return to (you guessed it: YOU).

But some of us went wrong. By “us” I mean people with some supposed expertise related to babies, and by “went wrong” I mean that they cottoned on to the facts that:

a) Our culture is competitive, comparative, and doggedly committed to the success of the individual over the success of the collective, and;
b) Parents in our culture are both and over-anxious and over-busy, and thus would likely be a good target market for quick fixes that could shoot their baby to the top of the heap.

Admit it: Something in you was jealous when you learned that your friend’s baby walked at 10.5 months, and something in you wanted a piece of the action when you learned about your friend taking her baby to baby sign language classes, and something in you worried if you were doing enough when you learned that your friend’s child knew how to use a mouse by age two. Oh, sorry – I lapsed into projection mode there. OK, so the model for those statements was me – yes, even I cannot fully escape the anxieties thrust over my evolutionary instincts and good child development knowledge.

So target us, they do. Theys such as Robert Titzer, founder of “Your Baby Can Read”. In addition to the episode of Penn and Teller’s “Bullshit”, which
pretty much says it all if you don’t mind a little cursing, I did a little digging on Dr. Titzer. His Ph.D. was in Human Performance (???), and he has not a single juried piece of evidence having anything to do with reading. The Psychological Review article he mentions on his commercial website bio was unrelated to reading and he was the third of four authors (which, in the academic world means that you played a more assistive than creative role).

But most importantly, when forced to give a direct answer, Dr. Titzer himself admits that the skills in his videos are not reading, but rather, memorizing shapes of words. Just like 6-8 month-old babies can learn a few baby signs, they can learn to memorize a few shapes and perform a corresponding parlor trick. But unlike baby sign language, which seems to help some babies get their needs met before they can verbalize, fake baby reading doesn’t seem to help babies with much at all and may do the opposite. The jury has decided definitively on the side of phonetic processing (decoding parts of words) as being the key to successful reading. Because memorizing shapes flexes different brain muscles than decoding phonemes, a child who receives a high dosage of “Your Baby Can Read” could possibly be in for a shock, or even a delay, when it comes to real reading. Of course I’d need empirical evidence to test my hypothesis – at least I say so.

But the thing that gets me the most about someone like Dr. Titzer, honestly, is how he can live with himself, knowing he is profiting from the anxieties of parents by twisting facts about child development. His promotion says that “the best and easiest time to learn a language is during the infant and toddler years.” – but notice how he does not specify spoken or written language. Then he cites statistics about the poor average reading skills in our country, leading parents to believe that if they don’t teach their infant to read now, they too will be just another statistic. When real early childhood researchers criticize his work, he says they are being ridiculous because “babies gain by learning new words, and learning new words helps their thinking skills.” Notice how he plays fast and loose with the words “reading” and “words”. Yes doctor, WORDS are great for babies, when they come from the vocal chords of an invested social partner, not when they are written on a non-responsive TV screen.

That reminds me, real developmental researchers have shown that babies learn best when they have influence on the environment, meaning, the person or the object with whom/which they are interacting changes in response to things the baby does. This is why a video will never be as good as a person, and probably explains why many parents report children being bored or even distressed by “Your Baby Can Read” videos. Phew – I’m exhausted just thinking about the number of levels on which Dr. Titzer’s product is smoke and mirrors.

WE INTERRUPT THIS BLOG POST TO BRING YOU THE FOLLOWING: This is great. While I was on his website doing research for this post, a live chat agent tried to get me to stay:

Jenny Says: Please wait! We hate to see you go. So just this once we'd like to offer you $10 OFF for your Early Language Development System.

This is a chat only discount available today only. Simply CLICK HERE to take advantage of this limited time discount.

Jenny Says: Just type 'HI' or 'Hello' in the space below to let me know you are there.

Jenny Says: Based on the research of Robert Titzer, Ph.D., the Your Baby Can Read! program has been proven to help babies, toddlers, and preschoolers learn to read!

Jenny Says: Whenever you are ready, just type 'HI' or 'HELLO' and we can get started...

You: What do you mean? Dr. Titzer has never conducted empirical research on his product.

Jenny Says: Hi, thanks for chatting with me today... CLICK HERE to take advantage of this amazing offer.

Jenny Says: Your Baby Can Read! is a fun and easy-to-use Early Language Development System that was created by Dr. Robert Titzer, an expert of infant development and research.

Jenny Says: Your Baby Can Read! is designed for children 3 months to 5 years of age.

You: You so funny! Thanks Robot Jenny!

Jenny Says: Plus, studies prove that the earlier a child learns to read, the better they perform in school and later in life.

Jenny Says: My name is Jenny and I'm a live virtual agent.

Jenny Says: Research has proven that a child’s brain is nearly 90% developed by age 5.

You: Yes, true.

Jenny Says: Seize this small window of opportunity to enhance your child’s learning ability and order the Your Baby Can Read!

Jenny Says: Okay great. CLICK HERE in order to take advantage of this great offer. Your discount will be applied at checkout.

Jenny Says: Don’t wait any longer and remember when you order today you will receive 5% OFF! CLICK HERE to take advantage of this deal right now! Your discount will be applied at checkout.

You: But that is not Dr. Titzer's research, and that fact is unrelated to the supposed benefit of his product.

Jenny Says: This amazing 5% discount is only available through this chat and for a limited time. CLICK HERE to take advantage of this deal. Your discount will be applied at checkout.

You: Wow, well if you are not a robot, you should play one on TV.

Jenny Says: Keep in mind that if you order right now you will receive 5% OFF! CLICK HERE to order right now! Your discount will be applied at checkout.

You: You should be ashamed of yourself, praying on the anxieties of parents, and twisting facts about child development for profit.

Jenny Says: Your Baby Can Read! has been featured on CNN, FOX, ABC, CBS, TLC, Ellen and many more!

You: LOL!

Jenny Says: What's so funny?

You: Actually, I just assumed that once I revealed I was a hater, you'd give up on me.

Jenny Says: For more questions or information, please call us at (800) 741 8083 or email to contact customer service.

You: Love ya! (NOT)

Jenny Says: Fantastic... just CLICK HERE to get back to the order page.

You: I'm seriously cracking up. Okay, g'night Jenny.

Jenny Says: For more questions or information, please call us at (800) 741 8083 or email to contact customer service.

Well that was fun, sort of. Since my old pal Jenny brought it up, let me just address the whole “reading earlier is better” idea. I honestly don’t know what research they are referring to there – I haven’t seen anything like that, but that doesn’t mean no studies exist supporting that claim. But what I do know is that in Sweden (I know, the neutral countries are just a caricature of the-grass-is-always-greener), they don’t teach reading until age 7, and by age 10, Swedish children
have the highest literacy scores in Europe. Maybe this means there is something to be said for a brain being just ripe for a particular thing, and when the learning of something fits well with your brain, it goes more smoothly, and you feel better about it and want to do it more. Wow, self-esteem and learning in a mutually reinforcing positive feedback loop – oh, Swedies, you’re so cute!

It was actually Priscilla Dunstan who got me started on this whole idea of parenting “experts” needing to put a sock in it. Ms. Dunstan is not a researcher of any kind, but a singer who claims that her sensitive hearing allowed her to decode the five sounds that 0-3 month-olds make when they cry. She was on the Oprah show, and unfortunately, the part of the show that infuriated me the most can’t be found on YouTube. Aside from the ridiculousness on the face of it, aside from the fact that her “research” is 100% parent satisfaction surveys, aside from the fact that there are easier and faster ways of telling if a baby is hungry, tired, or needs a new diaper (Hellooo!) than trying to decipher ambiguous syllables (Hang on pumpkin, can you say that one again? I didn’t quite catch it… Was that “eh” or “eeehoowah”?), what made me mad, and sad really, was seeing Ms. Dunstan “work with” a roomful of moms and babies. At one point, Ms. Dunstan took a crying baby from its Mom and it stopped crying. The oohs and aahs, and where-have-you-been-all-my-life ‘s abounded. THAT was what brought a tear to my eye – that these moms were anxious, self-doubting, and sleep-deprived enough to believe that the “magic” of knowing their baby lay with someone else. Let that sink in for a moment. Please, please, never believe this. I was once a certified infant massage instructor, and the first rule we learned was to demonstrate the movements on a doll, and never on the baby, for even though it is not true, a parent might come to think that you are better at soothing her baby than she is. This is a good lesson for friends and grandmas too.

I have yet to discover a single, credible commercial baby genius product or parenting magic video that lives up to its claims. So the answer is yes, if it seems far-fetched, it is. If they claim you have to BUY THIS NOW to make your baby smart or make you a better parent, don’t believe them. Your relationship with your baby is far more magical than anything that can be bought. But you knew that. See? I told you, you didn’t need this blog.


Anonymous said...

Love the last two paragraphs especially... jjam

Anonymous said...

So glad to be able to refer everyone I know to your blog. So valuable - thank you. -eam

Valencia Porter, MD said...

Thank you for providing this valuable and important information. It can be way too easy to get sucked up in the marketing of products to well-intentioned parents.

Anonymous said...

my friend recommended your blog and I'm glad she did. Could you comment on learning to read before kindergarten (not in infancy) We have a bit of a war in our household. One parent wants our daughter to have a "leg up" before school and "all the tools so she can succeed". The other parent isn't quite sure how/when to train the child to learn to read in the next year and is concerned that if school is too easy, the daughter won't be challenged and "will coast by" and no be able to handle future efforts/hard work.

Amanda J. Moreno said...

Dear anonymous - OK so I'm gathering your daughter is around 4 and has one more year before Kindergarten? And I'm also gathering that she is not in preschool and that you are talking about what to do at home? If she were in preschool, my answer would have a lot to do with what the preschool is like, (or should be like), so if that's the case, let me know. So assuming my assumptions are true :-) :
I would definitely not teach your daughter to read if I were you. I think teaching letters is ok, but in general, I would limit the time spent acting like a teacher and student. If you start to get into battles this will be the most damaging of all, and will not give her a leg up. I would think of it more in terms of helping your daughter establish a love of learning. So, when you go to the zoo, or the museum or even errands at Home Depot, ask lots of open-ended questions (not labeling questions like "What's that?" but more like "What do you think that giraffe is going to do next?" or "What do you think that is used for?"), and when she asks questions or makes comments, make sure that what you say keeps extending her interests for as long as she is willing. And of course, read lots and lots together. But don't ever push it - honestly and truly, once it isn't fun, it isn't accomplishing what you want and may do the opposite.

A good quality elementary school - and that's a big IF - should be able to challenge your daughter appropriately. These days, the "standards" are actually quite high - dumbing down is not the issue anymore. The question is, do we have creative and well enough paid teachers to help children meet the high standards. So far in my own experience (I have a first-grader now), it's been a real challenge. But again, the issue isn't being bored because she knew too much going in. A child who has a love of learning will get through the system well. Research now shows you should praise effort, and not intelligence. Check this link:

But the basic idea is, if children think "smart" is a characteristic, rather than something to work towards, they avoid challenge and start to think negatively about themselves once something actually is challenging for them. This type of focus should help your daughter on a great path for Kindergarten entry.

Let me know how it goes (and if I've started World War 3 among spouses!)


Anonymous said...

I'm a parent educator and grandparent. I like the common sense, back to basics approach intermingled with good research. David Elkind reminds us that children will do things when they are ready and the environment provides the necessary stimulation - not pressure - to get there when they are ready. There are aspects of Piaget's theory that I think definitely apply but need the necessary parental teaching and instinct. Parents need to understand that children learn in their own way and they need to assist that learning by smiling with encouragement, hugs and cuddles, and delighting in their child's developmental milestones.

Perhaps at some point you might blog about the many different parenting styles, the different parenting approaches (love and logic, STEP, 1-2-3-Magic, etc.) and the need for parents to be consistent with discipline.


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Be a calm mom too.

Welcome to my blog. This is an essay that I contributed to NPR’s "This I Believe" series back in 2007. It sums up my inspiration for helping my friends, and parents everywhere, to throw the parenting books out the window. I realize the hypocrisy involved in giving people advice to not follow advice, but stay with me – I really think there is something to this. Where modern parenting is concerned, people seem to need permission to do what their gut knows is right. I have seen people’s parenting self-efficacy (the fancy term for a parent’s belief that they know how to be a good parent) steamrolled by conventional wisdom, stupid Facebook posts of well-meaning friends, and ulterior economic motives (selling books, cribs, videos, drinking formula, magic formulas of all kinds) more times than I can count. Join me in bucking the system and getting back to common sense. Let’s discuss all the parenting techniques you have used that you wouldn’t tell your mother about, and why they worked for you. Permission granted.

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