Weekly Parenting News Roundup

Cross-posted at Daily Kos.

Good morning fellow moms, dads and caregivers! How are you this morning?

I am about to run errands in preparation for Ari’s birthday party. He turned 6 on Monday, but we are celebrating with our closest family and friends today.

In the meantime, here is some news we discussed here at MotherTalkers:

When is it appropriate — if ever — to stop hovering over your children’s finances? Excellent financial columnist Michelle Singletary wrote about this topic over at the Washington Post.

I recently asked for advice on potty-training. Eli is 2.5, will start preschool in the fall and I am unsure when or how to start. A father over at the Daddy Dialectic blog used stickers as an incentive.

Newsweek published a couple of studies on parenting. One had to do with how reasoning with your children as opposed to barking commands gives them cognitive advantages. The other one showed that children do indeed make married couples happy.

Our brave reviewed the memoir Lucky Girl and interviewed author Mei-Ling Hopgood.  

If you can stand another tawdry health insurance story, a toddler was denied healthcare coverage because she was too small, according to the TODAY Show.

We had a long discussion about the mom who was booted off a Southwest Airlines flight because of her rambunctious toddler. The airline later apologized to the mother, but many commenters in threads across the blogosphere were sympathetic towards the airline.

Disney is offering a full refund for its Baby Einstein DVDs. It has been accused of overselling the products as “educational.”

Finally, we checked in with each other to see how the school year is going. Ari likes kindergarten most of the time so no complaints on my end. How is the new school year going for you?

What else is in the news? What’s up with you?


Baby Einstein Refund

In case you missed it, Disney is offering a full refund or exchange for the Baby Einstein DVDs, which some parents believed boosted babies’ intelligence. (They don’t.)

From the Mommy Files at the San Francisco Chronicle:

The most recent research indicates that screen time isn’t educational for babies and it might even be doing harm, setting back development.

A research team at Washington University found that for every hour per day infants of 8 to 16 months spent watching educational videos, such as Baby Einstein, they learned six to eight fewer words than other babies not exposed to such videos.

Consumer advocacy groups declared victory against Disney who they said mislead the public on the educational merits of their products. This, in turn, brought a harsh reaction from Susan McLain, the general manager of The Baby Einstein Company.

Unfortunately, with Susan Linn’s latest stunt, we cannot be silent any longer. Linn’s obvious dislike for Baby Einstein has now turned into a sensational, headline-grabbing publicity campaign that seeks to twist and spin a simple, customer satisfaction action into a false admission of guilt. This is clearly not the case.

Linn’s moves are carefully crafted to prey on parental guilt and uncertainty. This time, she began by asking the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to go after Baby Einstein because, she said, we claimed that Baby Einstein was educational. But we do not make any such claim – and the FTC brought no action.

Not content to rely on the judgment of the federal government, her attacks continued and escalated despite the fact that her assertions have no merit.

What do you think? Do you let your babies watch Little Einstein? Have you asked for a refund?


UPenn Expert: TV is Good for Babies

For those of you — like me! — who feel a pang of guilt every time an expert comes along to poo-poo television for young children, here is a small piece of welcoming news. At least to Deborah Linebarger, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, some programming in moderation can aid children’s language development, according to a story in Newsweek.

Even though the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero television for children under the age of two — and another expert quoted by Newsweek echoed that — Linebarger said she has allowed all her children to watch television from the time they were babies and offered some guidelines of her own:

Ages 0 to 2…Last year (Dr. Dimitri) Christakis, (a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and co-author of “The Elephant in the Living Room: Make Television Work for Your Kids”), coauthored a study that found a correlation between baby video and DVD viewing and poor language development in babies ages 8 to 16 months. But Linebarger says to follow your kid’s cues. If your child seems interested in TV, an 11-to-12-minute episode of a commercial-free show like Nickelodeon’s “Blue’s Clues” or PBS’s “Arthur” is unlikely to do harm and could help him learn new words. Preliminary research by Rebekah Richert, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, shows that babies as young as 18 months are capable of learning new words from DVDs like Baby Einstein’s “Baby Wordsworth” as long as “parents direct their children’s attention to the screen and label particular words.”

Ages 2 to 5. In Linebarger’s research, watching such programs as Nickelodeon’s “Dora the Explorer” and “Blue’s Clues” and PBS’s “Arthur,” “Clifford” and “Dragon Tales” was linked with increased vocabulary in kids ages 6 months to 2 ½ years, while such shows as PBS’s “Teletubbies” were linked with decreased vocabulary. Choose programs with a linear plotline, as opposed to a variety-show format, because they’re easier for toddlers to follow.

Ages 6 to 10. “There’s not as much programming for kids once they start school that’s of high quality,” says Christakis. But kids in this age group are not yet ready for prime-time TV, and parents will need to hunt around for more-appropriate content. Prescreen as much as possible to make sure the show  you’re watching is teaching your child the same values you are, and check review sites like parentschoice.org or commonsensemedia.org. Linebarger also recommends documentary-style shows on the History Channel and the Discovery Channel. Michael Levine, executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, a new organization dedicated to improving the educational content of digital media, says to limit screen time to one hour per day, discuss TV shows and games with your kids after they’ve viewed them, and read daily with them for at least 20 minutes. As with nutrition, a healthy media diet is all about balance.

I agree that balance is in order, especially in our fast-paced and media-saturated environment. I know I cannot adhere to a “no-TV” rule. But unlike Linebarger’s justification for babies watching television, my gut tells me it is best to limit it as you would sugar in your diet.


Does Your Toddler Know the Mona Lisa?

This Sunday’s Boston Globe Magazine had an exposé on the Better Baby Institute, which claims to have created a method for accelerating babies’ development. Physical therapist Glenn Doman founded the Institute to help brain-damaged children recover function, and he (along with daughter Janet) is now applying his findings to well infants and toddlers. “We are persuaded that every child born has, at the instant of birth, a greater potential intelligence than Leonardo da Vinci ever used.”

It’s a statement full of promise, but when it leads to three-year-olds being drilled with flashcards of the Mona Lisa, Maria de Medici, and other famous works of art (or animals like the two-spotted ladybird beetle and the periodical cicada), or a one-year-old wearing a pedometer so her parents can see how her daily distances match up to the Institute’s benchmark of half a mile in 18 minutes, one wonders if the supposed boost is worth the cost.

In contrast, Globe author Neil Swidey cites a number of studies showing that children with the earliest letter, number, and word skills are not necessarily those who do best in the long run. Pushing too hard can in fact hinder development. If we ask children to do something for which their brains are not ready, says Maryanne Wolf, professor of child development at Tufts University, “You run the risk of making a child feel like a failure before they’ve even begun.”

I’m a skeptic when it comes to special “methods” for improving a young child’s intelligence. Titles like the Domans’ How To Multiply Your Baby’s Intelligence, How To Give Your Baby Encyclopedic Knowledge, and How To Teach Your Baby To Be Physically Superb make me cringe. Read to a child. Expose them to a variety of objects and experiences. Incorporate letters, numbers, and music into your daily activities, but don’t obsess about it. Make sure they play and socialize. Beyond that, I don’t think there is much we can do to stack the deck.

One of the many other things that bothers me about programs like the Domans’ is the focus on rote identification and a selectivity about what constitutes intelligence. Is a child who can identify Claude Debussy really any smarter than one who can identify Cinderella or Thomas the Tank Engine? Does it matter that the child can’t put the former into any kind of context, but can relate to Cinderella or Thomas as characters in stories they’ve heard? In a toddler, knowing Debussy or the Mona Lisa is not intelligence, but mere parroting. Yes, they’ll learn some language skills through that process of parroting, but unless they also have a Mona Lisa doll and friends with similar toys, they’ll get a lot more practical use from knowing Thomas or Cinderella. (I hate the whole mass-marketing approach to children’s toys, I really do—but I also realize there’s social value in being able to talk about these characters with the kid next door.) In some ways, Doman’s method is the memorize-for-the-test approach engendered by No Child Left Behind, taken to its early extreme. If your children memorize enough, they will pass. If they start early, maybe they will even become geniuses.

What say you? Are intelligence-improvement programs like the Domans’ (or the Baby Einstein DVDs) worth it? How can we make reasonable efforts to ensure our children are learning, and challenge them to fulfill their potential, but not push them beyond where they are mentally and physically ready to go?

(Crossposted at Mombian.)


Baby Einstein Smackdown

Cross-posted at Fussbucket

Remember last month’s story about how Baby Einstein videos were bad for babies? Well it turns out, I missed the boat on the follow-up. One week after the news media had a ball with a University of Washington study that showed videos such as Baby Einstein can inhibit language acquisition in young children, The Walt Disney Company (owners of Baby Einstein Inc.) wrote a pissy letter to the president of UW demanding a retraction of its news release.

The letter was penned by Disney CEO Robert Igar to UW president Mark Emmert.

Dear Dr. Emmert:

On behalf of The Walt Disney Company, and our subsidiary The Baby Einstein Company LLC, I write to demand the immediate retraction and clarification of a misleading, irresponsible and derogatory press statement issued by the University of Washington on Monday, August 6, and thereafter posted on the University’s website, regarding the publication of a study by three University researchers entitled “Associations Between Media Viewing and Language Development in Children Under Age 2 Years.”

This should be fun.

At the outset, let me make clear that we have no quarrel with the notion of conducting research into how infants respond to media products in general or “Baby Einstein” videos in particular. We welcome well conceived and well executed research of all kinds, particularly involving media products and children. We are always seeking to improve our products as we continue The Walt Disney Company’s proud tradition of providing wholesome and enriching experiences to children and families.

Well isn’t that grand. He goes on to say the study’s “methodology is doubtful, its data seem anomalous and the inferences it posits unreliable.” Here’s one thing to consider. The study was published in the highly prestigious journal Pediatrics. That means it was peer-reviewed and that issues such as its methodology and the reliability of its findings were assessed by people who don’t have a billion dollar stake in the findings.

Then there’s a long blah, blah, blah section which I’ll spare you here in which he tries to prove that the study is poor and that the press release issued by the university overstated the results.

Whether your University is comfortable associating its name with analysis of this quality is, of course, your decision. And I would not be reaching out to you if all that was at stake was a poorly done academic study. But the actions of the University have caused much more to be at stake. Wholly apart from the merits of the study, the press release issued by your University blatantly misrepresented what the study was about, distorted the actual findings and conclusions that the study purported to make, and ignored the study’s own explicit acknowledgment of its limitations and shortcomings. And even worse, the University issued the release and triggered the fully foreseeable press cycle before the study itself could be analyzed. In short, the University’s press release was grossly unfair, extremely damaging, and, to be blunt, just plain wrong in every conceivable sense.

That Walt Disney guy must be hanging around too many kids. He sounds like he’s having a temper tantrum.

Following the letter, the two spoke on the phone, according to this article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The conversation was reported to be “cordial and amicable” and Iger did not threaten to sue.

After discussing the matter with the study’s authors and reviewing the disupted press release, Emmert replied in a letter to Igar.

The paper set out to “test the association [italics added] of media exposure with language development in children under age 2 years.” It did not purport to establish a causal relationship, as the authors explicitly state in the article. The authors found a large and statistically significant reduction in vocabulary among infants age 8 to 16 months who viewed baby DVDs or videos, compared to those who did not view them. They also concluded that more research is needed to determine the reasons for this statistical association.

The authors of the study and I believe the news release reflects the essential points made in the research publication. The news release clearly is not intended to substitute for a reading of the research paper, which was made available to all the reporters who contacted our news office. The news release briefly summarizes the methodology of the study and includes the researchers’ interpretations of the findings, something in which most news media are interested and one of the reasons for issuing the release. The researchers find no inconsistencies between the content of the news release and their paper. They believe the release accurately reflects the paper’s conclusions and their commentary. For these reasons, the University of Washington will not retract its news release.

I guess all that heavy-handed bullying didn’t really get Disney anywhere. Except that now all of us parents know that Disney really doesn’t care if Baby Einstein videos might make our children stupider instead of smarter. I think this is an interesting view behind the curtain. Giant corporations act like they can just roll over academic institutions and government regulators. But in the end, what matters is whether or not consumers believe in their image. And after seeing this letter, Disney doesn’t seem quite as wholesome anymore.


Buy Buy Baby

Salon has an interesting interview today with Susan Gregory Thomas, author of Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds.  (The Salon article will require you look at an ad before you read it, if you don’t have a subscription – how ironic!)

Thomas examines the rise of educational consumer products aimed at ages 0-3 years.  I am very interested in this book, because she finds, among other things, that the studies that some of the toys or programs are based on are faulty.  She also notes that some of the products and programs are more effective at creating consumers than in developing cognition, through encouraging things like character recognition: “Sponge Bob, mommy!!!”

I have to admit we haven’t cracked open any of our Mozart CD’s.  Our kids hear lots of music, and I have a hard time believing Mozart or Beethoven are the only musicians to provide the kind of arrangements that stimulate their minds.

What do others think?  Has anyone read this book?


Every Word Counts… so count every word?

DH and I got a good laugh in the mail today. An advertisement for the LENA Baby System.

I’ll let the brochure speak for itself:

Several thousand research studies over the last 50 years document the importance of talking to and interacting with your baby, especially during the first three years…When you talk with your baby, every word counts.
Talking is simpler and more powerful than any combination of flashcards, computer programs, television shows, or DVDs.
The LENA System, a remarkable new technology, identifies and analyzes adult words and child vocalizations, and provides you with critical feedback reports on your child’s language environment. So you KNOW your baby is on the path to success.

Talking is simpler… so let’s make it complicated! Won’t you learn more?

With the LENA system, you can have every word your baby hears ANALYZED. By a COMPUTER SYSTEM. Because, as the brochure is certain to point out, your child’s FUTURE is at stake! Little Suzy’s IQ will be lower if you don’t make sure she hears the appropriate amount of words in a day!

Children who heard an average of 30,142 words per day had IQ scores up to 149. Generally, the greater the amount of language experience, the higher the IQ.

How does this amazing system work?

Slip the LENA Recorder into your child’s comfortable, stylish LENA Clothing — and forget about it.
At the end of the day, plug the LENA Recorder into your PC. The audio data will transfer and analysis begins.
View your reports to analyze your conversations and quantify words spoken throughout the day.

Special clothes that hold a recorder that tapes everything that’s been said to your child (Alec Baldwin would not be a fan). How much for this revolutionary software and recording device? Only 12 easy payments of $65! Or pay $780 in advance! But really, how much is $780, really, when your CHILD’S FUTURE is at stake?????

Ugh. Could you imagine?


Baby Einstein and other baby health news

A recent report came out in the press this week telling us what many of us have already figured out; all of those toys and DVDs that claim to boost your baby’s brain power aren’t all that powerful:

“While neural connections in babies’ brains grow rapidly in the early years, adults can’t make newborns smarter or more successful by having them listen to Beethoven or play with Einstein-inspired blocks,” says Sara Mead, a senior policy analyst with Education Sector, a centrist Washington think tank.

Plenty of people have bought into the hype, including politicians:

In 2005, the market was $2.5 billion, according to Fortune.

In 1998, Georgia Gov. Zell Miller persuaded hospitals to send home classical music CDs with every newborn. Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt persuaded lawmakers last year to spend $2 million to support Parents as Teachers, a non-profit that publishes a curriculum for children as young as newborns.

Someone might want to let W. in on this news, as he chose to honor Julie Aigner-Clark, founder of the Baby Einstein Company at the State of the Union this year.  This was along with possibly the bravest man in the world, the one who saved a person having a seizure from a moving subway train in NYC.

I admit, I have a few of Ms. Aigner-Clark’s DVDs around.  I remember the first one I played, Julie herself gave advice on how to use the DVD.  She advised that parents sit with their children and watch it and talk about the toys on the screen.  I had a good chuckle at that one.  While I certainly put my hours in playing with my baby on the floor, I needed her DVD to entertain my child for 20 minutes, so I could go to the bathroom and grab some lunch.

In other baby health news, researchers have found that how responsive a baby is to their name by age 1 can be a warning sign of autism:

A new study suggests that some babies who fail to respond to their name by one year of age may be at heightened risk for an autism spectrum disorder….This cue could represent an easy way to spot the disorder early on, experts said.

“One of the challenges has been finding an early exam in the general practitioner’s or pediatrician’s office that can serve as a warning sign or diagnostic indicator,” said Andy Shih, chief science officer for the nation’s leading advocacy group, New York City-based Autism Speaks. “That’s what this paper is getting at. It doesn’t mean that [a non-responsive child] is destined to become autistic, but there seems to be a higher proportion who later go on to develop autism.”

Being the worrier that I am, I’ve been calling my baby’s name all day.  While sometimes news like this can be overkill for someone like me who already worries too much, I think it’s great that such a simple test has been proven to be a useful warning sign so early on, for both parents and first-line healthcare providers.