Friday, April 15, 2011

Your baby cannot read

"Your baby can read!" If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you.

In a bit of rare good news this week, the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood asked the Federal Trade Commission to halt deceptive advertisements for a video and flashcard program aimed at anxious wanna-be alpha parents who somehow missed the memo that their newborns are, for lack of a better word, babies.

The complaint states that ads for Your Baby Can Read are false and misleading because the products do not teach babies to read.

The company, Your Baby Can LLC, hawks its products with claims that the optimal time to learn reading is during infancy. It urges parents to start the program with three-month-old infants. "Seize this small window of opportunity!" the website says. Or what? If you don't overstimulate your infant with videos and numb their nascent brains with flashcards they won't grow up to be readers?

Anyone else smell something really, really rotten?

Seriously: Is the way to make someone excited about reading to plop them in front of the television? The Your Baby Can Read video is thirty minutes long; the instructions tell parents to have the child watch it twice a day for several months. (Yes, that's what it says. My eyes were not playing tricks on me.)

Pediatricians around the developed world are stunningly unanimous in their belief that any screen time is less than ideal for the under-two-year-old set. Dr. Stephen Novella, a clinical neurologist at no less a university than the Yale School of Medicine, reviewed the Your Baby Can Read program. Here's what he had to say:

"Forcing children to learn a task before their brains are naturally ready does not have any advantage... The whole 'baby genius' industry for anxious parents is misguided. This [the Your Baby Can Read product] is just the latest incarnation of this fiction."

Indeed. And I love the phrase "baby genius industry." Years ago, a friend who teaches violin and viola at the New England Conservatory told me, "If you have to ask if your child is a prodigy, he isn't." Obviously everyone doesn't become a world renowned violinist, but most of us learn to read. Still, his basic point that geniuses are born and not forced resonated with me.

I don't fault parents who pop in a video show for the kids once in a while so they can get some household tasks accomplished. If a half hour of Curious George or Sesame Street means the family gets a home cooked dinner, or the bills get paid, or mom gets to shower, then I say go for it. We all do what we need to do.

But going out and spending money on a program that mandates hundreds of hours of television time for a baby seems like half witted parenting. At best.

So what about the kids in the advertisements? Or the sleep deprived saps who swear it worked for their babies? Memorization, says Dr. Nonie Lesaux, a child development expert at Harvard University. "It's rote learning, it's memorizing words... It's a very clear misuse of the term 'reading.'"

Is that so bad? Yes it is. Some things in life must be memorized. One's address. The order of the alphabet and numbers. The names of one's immediate relatives. In my view, context-free words on flashcards don't make the list.

I wrote recently about the folly of pushing early reading on toddlers and my belief that little kids should be allowed to be little kids. Their job as pre-schoolers is to play and learn life skills, such as lining up for the bathroom and not biting other people. Most children still learn to read in early elementary school, and I see nothing wrong with that. Before that stage, the majority of toddlers are too busy discovering the world (including books) at their own pace.

The Your Baby Can Read products also do nothing to foster intellectual curiosity or imagination - the two absolutely necessary attributes for any lifelong voracious reader. I'm hopeful that the FTC will shut their ad campaign down soon.

Robert Titzer, the founder of Your Baby Can LLC, which produces the products and sells them for about $200 a pop, defends his company's claims. He's just like any snake oil salesman in the history of free enterprise. He will swear his special tonic works, grudgingly admit that it won't work for anyone when cornered, and wave his credentials like a banner professing his legitimacy. And he's laughing at parents' idiocy all the way to the bank; he's sold more than a million of the videos.

For the record, Mr. Titzer holds a Ph.D. in something called human performance. Not from an especially auspicious academic institution. Maybe if his parents had forced him to watch more "educational" television as an infant, things would have been different for him.

You can support the complaint against Mr. Titzer's company here:


  1. Yeah, teach your baby to read so they can go to public schools, most of which are woefully underfunded and failing our children daily. Yes, let's focus our efforts on teaching infants to read by watching TV, while our public education system goes to hell in a hand-basket.

    We do have our priorities wrong.

  2. Thanks for reading, Victoria. You are singing my song.

  3. This is a fabulous post, Mari. I couldn't agree more. It's all about consumerism, really. What intrigues me the most, though, is what, exactly, is driving this hysteria to "make better kids?"

    You might be interested in a semi-related post I'll have coming out next week, on the University of Life.

  4. @sharon - it's the Race to Nowhere. Have you heard of this film?

  5. Thank you for sharing! I completely agree. I have always thought those commercials a bit creepy anyway!

    We just signed up for a cooperative playgroup for my son, Henry. He is 21 months old and we got in through a lottery (we live in Capitol Hill in DC). The group has no curriculum, but offers free play and gives parents some mornings off while their kids make some friends.

    I just found out some parents have been interrogating the volunteers running the group on the curriculum. They have been appalled that the group lacks a formal curriculum. Oy!

    I have seen Henry develop fascinating ways to use his toys because he explores them and finds out all they can do...I love this. I also love that he creates his own stories as he looks at the pictures. Books are fun for him, and this type of regiment seems to promise to divorce books from fun--not a great prescription to create life-long readers...

    You might like this article: I am so glad some people still share my ideas of childhood.

  6. @Rebekah, a curriculum for a 21 month old? That just hurts my head. It is also the main reason the Grape won't start school until he is at least three. I did another post a few weeks back about how I suspect that all this pushing of toddlers will backfire for most people.

  7. @Mari, I agree. I have heard of people in the neighborhood over-scheduling their children with classes or setting too many rules and limits and all that results is chaos. The children (under two) act out--they are fussier, more tired, and stressed out--and probably do not learn as much because they cannot explore their surroundings