Wednesday, March 4

In Search of Shared Vocabulary

Here's what I don't get: Smart.

(Warning: Child Development Geek Rant)

Today, in my meanderings online, I happened upon an article on CNN about the findings from a new study that found that (contrary to popular belief??) watching tv does not make babies smarter. Aside from the overwhelming impulse to shake my head and say "Duh!" ad infinitum, I found myself wondering (as ever). There was so much not to get in this article.

First, the title: "Study: Want a smart baby? TV's not going to help". This is where the "duh's" began. The study it cites, out of Harvard Medical School (so it must be good), has shown that Baby Einstein and similar products are not, in fact, beneficial for infants (more duh, even if only because these findings have already been well documented). It says that children under six months are watching .9 hours of TV a day. Best yet, they quote a child development expert from UCLA (who is---surprise!--a consultant for Baby Einstein) as saying that the material in educational baby DVDs is similar to what is in books. Yeah, but books don't read themselves--there has to be a real, live, three-dimensional adult, complete with capacity for emotional response and shifting inflection. It's a key point.

In the end, what really bothered me the most was the baseline idea--the goal of having a "smart" baby (or more accurately, a "smarter" baby, since the most important thing is not for your baby to be smart, but to be smarter than the other kid at Gymboree, who you can tell already is not going to go to Harvard). There are some real problems here.

First off, the strongest predictors of children's intelligence are their parents' intelligence and education level a (if intelligence is, in fact, what we mean by "smart", which may not be the case). Today's article reminds us that "parent perceptions [are] that TV viewing is beneficial to their children's brain development". This is powerful irony at work. If their parents really believe that having their four month old baby watch Baby Einstein is beneficial, then those children are already at a genetic disadvantage, no? (assuming biological parentage, which I acknowledge is not a given).

And the second, and more pressing question (for me) is: given that we all want our children to be "smart" and do well in school and life, what does "smart" mean? Does it mean that we think that their IQ, as measured on standardized instruments, will be higher? Does it mean that they'll do better in school (hint: school success is not so much about being "smart")? What sort of school? Smart in one school might be not-so-smart in another school. Does it mean that they can recite facts? Does it mean that they can say clever things at an early age to impress the neighbors and grandparents? Does it mean they perform better on standardized, mulitple-choice tests than 90% of the other kids? Does it mean that they will think critically and divergently, making them the leaders of the 21st century? Does it mean that they can read six months before the kid next door? If we don't agree on what "smart" means, then how can we even discuss what makes or does not make kids "smart"?

Here's the thing. We SAY that it helps kids to be smarter. We say that to make ourselves feel better about sitting a baby in front of a TV so that we can make dinner or go to the bathroom (a sling will take care of that, too, just fyi). We say they're interested. Yes, the light patterns as the picture shifts mesmerize young minds (have you ever watched the expression of an infant/toddler watching TV? If not, you should. It's telling), as do any pattern of designs and shifting light. We recoil with offense when someone tells us that we're using TV as a babysitter, defending the"educational" choices we have made for our childrens "benefit", not for our convenience.

I'm a big believer in the truth. Honesty is the best policy and all that. Let's just admit what we're doing. Of course parents use TV as a babysitter. Yes, it's not the best idea. There are surely better ones. But, as the article points out, it's reality. So let's just say it. I bought Baby Einstein so I could have a cup of coffee in silence. Good for you. You get what you need to keep you sane (a key feature of the ability to parent well), and the baby is "kept occupied". As long as its not done to excess, who cares. Having a baby (or two) is a big job, and everyone needs a break now and again. We all get that. So stick that DVD in there, and have a half hour to yourself. Just don't tell yourself and others that you're doing something great for your child. You are doing something great for yourself (maybe) without leaving your child to watch reruns of CSI. There's nothing the matter with that.

Best of all, we don't need any fancy studies to show us it works. We have the clean hair and paid bills to prove it.

No comments: