The booming business of crib videos for newborns (aged three months to three years) burped last week with a report from Seattle that baby videos not only don’t make our youngest citizens smarter, the TV shows may actually impede vocabulary development. The industry (with lead products such as Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby) immediately challenged the report. All this is against the larger backdrop of the American Academy of Pediatrics which “does not recommend television for children age two or younger” regardless of content.
I recall having to devise an educational content strategy for my own newborns who arrived a generation ago. Mercifully, this was years before Baby Einstein and its peer videos targeting offspring before they can talk or walk, and even well before the surreal Teletubbies, who you may recall were caught in a firestorm some years ago when the late Reverend Jerry Falwell declared Tinky Winky gay.
Back in my early parenting years the gold standard for older preschoolers was (and I suppose still is) Sesame Street. Truth is, I was determined at the time to raise my children without Sesame Street. I had nothing against the program, but had heard a kindergarten teacher interviewed on NPR who noted that having a new student who was not a Sesame Street alum was “like a breath of fresh air.”
Can young ones learn, and learn well, without TV? Make a list of the 10 greatest authors of the English language and chances are none is young enough to have watched Sesame Street (unless you were to include, say, Paris Hilton). Likewise, get a list of all Nobel Prize Laureates. How many watched Sesame Street as infants? (It has been 20 years since my children were born, so I fact-checked on the 785 Nobel Prize winners. The youngest two, Rigoberta Menchu Turn of Guatemala, ’92 Peace Prize, and Andrew Fire of Stanford, ’06 Medicine, were each born in 1959, which means they were 10 years old when Sesame Street debuted in 1969. Turn and Fire may have known about Sesame Street, but presumably were already way beyond its curriculum level when it arrived on PBS.)
I have to admit that eschewing Sesame Street did not mean that my children were without TV. In the earliest years, night after night my sons and I would fall asleep on the big white sofa watching two scratchy six hour VHS reels of Victory at Sea episodes I had taped. Why? I vaguely recall watching the same program with my father at age three when it debuted on NBC. (Wikipedia notes that NBC thought the documentary was so important that they aired it without commercials, which may explain my lifelong aversion to TV commercials?) Also, with its compelling visuals, astounding music from Richard Rodgers and terse but inspired dialogue, I felt (and still feel) that Victory at Sea best captured an exuberant America at the zenith – a huge tribute to “The Greatest Generation” about two decades before Tom Brokaw coined the term.
If juvenile content TV was out for my preschoolers, literature was in. After all, most of the great writers’ and Nobel Prize winners’ childhoods predated television. Presumably literature was their key to early learning and, accordingly, my standing rule was to read written content to my children that was 50 years and older. That meant lots and lots of nursery rhymes – Bo Peep, Jack Sprat, Jack B. Quick (for obvious reasons) and the moon-jumping cow. (I hoped the cow might inspire astronaut careers, but no such luck so far). (Occasionally I would read newer books – gifts from the grandparents, etc. – but I insisted on reading every word, starting with the often lengthy legal paragraphs on contemporary properties asserting worldwide literary rights on the inside of the front cover. This bored my children and may explain why neither is targeting a law career?)
So how did the Quick kids turn out with lots of Grimm and without Big Bird on their daily diet? I am pleased to report that they are both doing well in their higher education pursuits. But then so are many of the kids my sons grew up with – one fellow is off to Oxford to get a PhD in nanotechnology and another is off to Yale for an advanced business degree. And these kids were no doubt watchers of Sesame Street!
Perhaps the central message is that there are many paths to success and it is easy to over-think the parenting assignment. That said, common sense needs to prevail. I noticed that among the Baby Einstein series is a “Van Gogh World of Colors” video. If the largely unmapped brains of eight-month-olds are truly imprintable by video, then one might want imprint role models with far happier lives. Among other things, Van Gogh cut off his left ear in a spat with Paul Gauguin, fought severe bouts of mental illness and died penniless. Might I suggest an alternative role model for drooling scholars in Bo Peep? While she lost her sheep, as far as we know she recovered, lead a normal life and died with positive net worth while surrounded by family and friends. For all we know, Peep’s enduring rhyme may have been inspiration to an infant Einstein – the frizzy-haired guy with the theory of relativity, not the video.
Postscript: Last Christmas, my sons gave me the newly released and digitally re-mastered Victory at Sea Collectors Set featuring all 26 episodes. At my age, it sure beats getting a comparable Big Bird anthology.