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Baby Einstein no make smart? Uh oh.

By Alice Bradley

This week, researchers at the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital Research Institute sensed that parents were starting to feel good about themselves again. Luckily they’re putting a stop to that, with the announcement that Baby Einstein HAS RUINED CHILDREN EVERYWHERE. Okay, not that. Actually, they published a study that showed that Baby Einstein and similar videos that purport to educate don’t actually help children develop at all. In fact, they may even hurt their development. Whoops!

The scientists discovered that that younger infants—ranging in age from 8 to 16 months—understood six to eight fewer words for every hour of baby video they watched a day. (Infants older than 16 months were unaffected; apparently they had long ago ceased listening to their parents’ constant prattle.) They determined this via telephone survey, which begs the question: doesn’t it seem like there’s a better way to determine how much an infant understands? Like, say, observing them, instead of taking the parents’ word for it? We’ve all been around parents who say, “He looked right at the remote control when I said ‘clicker,’ did you see that?” when all we can see is an infant with drool puddling in his neck folds.

Every other category of television they listed in their survey—educational children’s programming, non-educational children’s programming, and non-children’s programming—didn’t show any negative (or positive) effects. So why does Baby Einstein get a black mark? Perhaps, the researchers hypothesize, because the videos “[show] linguistically indescribable images such as a lava lamp.” Now, can I point something out, here? There is nothing linguistically indescribable about a lava lamp. Lava Lamp. There, I just linguistically described it. Now, if these videos actually showed linguistically indescribable images, that would be something. Maybe if they showed the FACE OF GOD. The boundaries of the infinite. The ineluctable modality of the visible. Baby Joyce! I would totally buy that one. Gaze in your omphalos, kids!
Henry occasionally (okay, daily) watched these videos way back when (okay, he still likes them when he’s sick), so I asked him if he believed that they hampered his intellectual development. He shook his head. “Puppet stealing balloon,” he said. That means he’s sad at the thought that babies are being deprived of Baby Einstein, just because of some silly study.

“Rubber Ducky floating across screen. Baby reaching for blanket? Toy UFO floating into space!” Then he imitated a Moog synthesizer playing “Ode To Joy” for five or six minutes. He had a lot to say on the subject.

Seriously, now: did anyone ever think they were helping their kid develop a bigger vocabulary, watching these videos? First of all, there aren’t many, you know, words. Baby Galileo was Henry’s favorite, and it was twenty minutes of pictures of space with a kid occasionally shouting words like PLANETS! and GALAXIES! while toys meandered across the screen. Does anyone think that’s teaching? Planets come in toy form as well as in giant real-life size! Feel your mind grow, my child!

Why do we need the pretense that these videos are educational? Parents put their kids in front of them so that they can get things done. Take a shower. Boil water for pasta. Floss. And there’s nothing terribly wrong with that. An hour (or more) of Baby Einstein at a time, okay, that’s a bit much. Unless you desperately need a nap, in which case it’s perfectly fine. Don’t look at me like that.

Isabel actually covered this study today in her column, and she made some trenchant points regarding flaws in the researcher’s methodology. (Thus sparing me a great deal of mental effort. Thanks, Isabel!) This point, especially, stood out: the researchers themselves admitted that people who park their kids in front of videos for hours a day might also be neglecting their development in other ways. Maybe they don’t talk to them at all. Maybe they despise books. Maybe they put a nipple on the sweet vermouth, tape it to their children’s faces, and call it a day. We will never know.

Published August 10, 2007. Last updated April 22, 2017.
Alice Bradley
About the Author

Alice Bradley

Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.


Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.

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