Farewell Britannica – End of Empire

In an inevitable yet still somewhat shocking move, Encyclopedia Britannica has announced that they will no longer be issuing their encyclopedia in book form.

I don’t have any fond memories of leafing through the actual Britannica as a child – our shelves were inhabited by the more prosaic World Book Encyclopedia…


The Lorax Wants You to Test Drive a Mazda

I had no high hopes for the movie version of Dr. Seuss’s Lorax, I had a feeling it would be a depressing dud and paid no real attention to the hoopla surrounding its release… Until I saw this on the internet: Stephen Colbert takes on the Lorax’s commercial tie-ins in this great rant from his show.

It’s just so bizarre I couldn’t believe it was true – I actually went online this morning to double-check that the Mazda/Lorax ad was real and not a spoof. Oh, I am so naïve to the bizarre ways of the world! Yes, of course the ad is real, not to mention surreal. The Lorax marketing team, spectacularly blind to the irony of it all, has indeed signed up 70 product tie-ins for the movie, most noteworthy among them an SUV. The little orange fellow who railed against Over-Consumption and Rampant Resource Extraction is suddenly blissed out over the fuel efficiency of the Mazda CX-5. The press releases trumpeted the fact that the commercial tie-ins were for eco-friendly products and green companies, though how far that goes I’m not sure.

Impostor! He doesn't even look like me!

This Mother Jones article by Kate Sheppard speaks to the concerns that many have with the Lorax marketing campaign.

And here’s a good Atlantic Monthly article by Jordan Weissmann about what the heck a ‘hybrid crossover SUV’ even is.  (Check out the embedded Mazda Lorax TV ad if you haven’t seen it.) The author also makes a good point about how testy we get when someone messes with our classic childhood heroes.

The whole situation, however, didn’t actually make me feel ill until I read this report from the Washington Post about Mazda taking its ad campaign right into schools. Using the desperation of underfunded schools as a crowbar to get their advertising message into the classroom is bad enough, but using Seuss-loving youngsters as shills for the automotive industry? We’ll give you money for books if you get your mommy and daddy to test drive a Mazda??

Oorg. Bad on so many levels.

Right at the end of the Mazda ad the Lorax prompts the narrator to plug his movie. Between the lines reading: “I flogged your car, now tell people to go to my movie!” I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine. Deee-pressing, not the least because an entire marketing team did not foresee any of this backfiring on them. Has the world gone mad?

POSTSCRIPT: The movie is in theatres today and I have no idea about its worth. Here’s a scathing review.

Here’s the Commonsense Media review – they rate this film suitable for age 5 and up.


Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss, and my Deepest Sympathy.

Jan Berenstain, RIP

Jan Berenstain, co-creator of the Berenstain Bears with her husband Stan, has died at the age of 88.

When she was 3 and 4 my daughter couldn’t get enough of the retro-Berenstain collection at Grandma and Grandpa’s, the books I read long ago in the 60s and 70s. Even though she asked for them a gazillion times, even at my weariest I appreciated how zippy these books are – not too many words on a page, and lots of action. At nearly-six the boss is still quite entertained by them, though these old titles are a lot more alarming than the newer ones. (Papa Bear gets banged up pretty good, thanks to his own boneheadedness!)

    Actually, Homer Simpson, the quintessential dufus dad, has a definite predecessor in Papa Bear, and his habit of carelessly endangering everyone around him. (Check out The Bike Lesson, wherein Papa rides down the wrong side of the road and causes a hilarious multi-car pileup.)

The later books and cartoon series, which added a girl cleverly named “Sister”, dialled down Papa’s recklessness and amped up the educational content. (Previously the main lessons to be learned were things like “don’t stick your hand into a beehive” and “don’t ride your bike off a cliff”.)

    When Stan died in 2005, the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi wrote a rather negative article about the legacy of the Berenstain Bears:

The Berenstains’ rigid problem-solution plots, and problem-solving prescriptions, are straightforward and without nuance, cut and dried, spinach with a dash of sugar. … Where is the warmth, the spirit of discovery and imagination in Bear Country? Stan Berenstain taught a million lessons to children, but subtlety and plain old joy weren’t among them.

Pretty harsh, with some truth to it, but this same criticism can also be levelled at many (all?) of the major children’s book/cartoon franchises around today. As he thoughtfully puts it, shows and books of this nature are more successful at reassuring anxious parents than kids.

Another point he makes is the undermining of parental authority with the old dad-as-dummy plots, which I don’t quite buy. When the first books came out, in the early 1960s, dufus dad wasn’t quite the cliché that he is in today’s sitcom culture. He was probably even a bit of a new thing back then. And besides, children have been entertained for decades by stories about adult authority figures who are dumber than the kids. In these early books little cub manages just fine despite his dad’s ineptitude, even rescuing the old man from time to time, and that only heightens the delight of young readers.

Whether or not you agree with Farhi, his article is aimed squarely at the latter books and tv series. My recommendation is this: for sheer Roadrunneresque anarchy, dig out the old books! Whether stealing a boat, getting struck by lightning, or breaking nearly every bone in his body at scout camp, Papa Bear is always good for a laugh.

As a parent I’m not a huge fan of the Berenstain Bears, though I do remember finding those old books pretty funny. These days my favourite title doesn’t have much to do with the iconic bear family at all. Bears in the Night features a family of numerous small bears who sneak out of bed to investigate a mysterious noise and get a good (harmless) scare. A great ‘first reader’ with a repetitive pattern that kids will enjoy (“out the window, down the tree, over the fence, around the lake, through the woods…”, that kind of thing).

Another BBC Radio Essay – Michael Rosen

This is a really good one! Former British children’s poet laureate Michael Rosen talks about what children’s literature tells us about parenting through the years. From The Essay series “Happily Ever After”, looking at the changing portrayal of the family in children’s literature.



Radio essay on Dahl’s Matilda

Thanks bundleofbooks for this one, via Twitter – a BBC Radio series called Happily Ever After, all about the portrayal of family in children’s literature. I just listened to Anthony Horowitz talking about the horrible Wormwoods in Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Very interesting and with a thought-provoking finish: should Matilda have chosen to go with her parents at the end?

To listen online, click here. (The audio file is 24 min long, but Horowitz’s essay is just the first 15 minutes.)

To read my review of Matilda, click here.

Why I Don’t Hate the Rainbow Fairies

Fairyland is home to seven colorful sisters. Together, they are the Rainbow Fairies! They keep Fairyland dazzling and bright. But when evil Jack Frost sends them far away, the sisters are in big trouble. If they don’t return soon, Fairyland is doomed to be gray forever!      (blurb for the first series-of-7, The Rainbow Fairies)

The Rainbow Magic books are an addictive, seemingly endless series of early chapter books, written to a precise and repetitive formula, and certain to drive parents up the wall. Amazingly bland and devoid of character development – the two heroines are interchangeable – this franchise should incur my wrath and derision. And it did, at first.


Moral Lessons in Fairy Tales

I am delving into the world of fairy tales again, drawing primarily from Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales

As a young child struggles to make sense of the bewildering world around him, he also strives to understand and gain control over his own emotions and desires. He needs “a moral education which subtly, and by implication only, conveys to him the advantages of moral behavior.” ¹

One of the most basic goals of literature written for children is to impart moral lessons and encourage moral behaviour. Because the ethical lessons in fairy tales are understated and at times even buried, these stories were widely accused in the 18th and 19th century of being amoral, or even immoral and thus unsuitable for children. Fairy tales don’t beat you over the head with the lesson, like other chidren’s literature of the time (and our time as well).

Le Chat Botte by Gustave Dore

It’s true that there are a few stories within the fairy tale tradition which seem rather obviously amoral – “Puss ’n’ Boots” and other ‘trickster’ tales. Bettelheim believes that these stories serve an entirely different purpose than the majority of fairy tales, that of “giving the child the hope that even the meekest can succeed in life. … Morality is not the issue in these tales, but rather, assurance that one can succeed.” ²

As well, in most fairy tales there is a definite sense that, yes, bad things can happen to good people, which in its own way may be a useful lesson for children to learn.

In the old European fairy tale … [v]irtue and hard work are punished as often as they are rewarded and, in some perverse way, this knowledge absorbed from the old tales always proves exhilarating, even liberating, for children. Such stories tell us that the future cannot be read with certainty … Capricious events may well bring unexpected alterations, for good or evil. The fairy tale’s ultimate message is that there is a magic to existence that defies charting.” ³

Amoral tales and general capriciousness aside, fairy tales do teach moral lessons. (When all is said and done, and Red Riding Hood has escaped the wolf, doesn’t one come away with the conviction that she should have obeyed to her mother and not loitered about talking to strangers?) Other ancient literary forms may be more obvious with their moralizing, but it is this obviousness which Bruno Bettelheim believes makes them far less effective when it comes to instilling moral behaviour in youngsters.

For example, MYTHS deal with ethical dilemmas but they are faced by superhuman heroes and gods. Myths are epic in scale and include a touch of the divine; they exist on a plane above that of earth.

“… the dominant feeling a myth conveys is: this is absolutely unique; it could not have happened to any other person, or in any other setting; such events are grandiose, awe-inspiring, and could not possibly happen to an ordinary mortal...” ⁴

In contrast, fairy tale heroes are Everyman. So much so that they are almost never given names, other than ‘the Woodcutter’, ‘the Old Woman’, ‘the Swineherd’, ‘the Youngest Daughter’, etc. An Everyman is someone we immediately identify with, because he or she is ordinary, just like us. And if we identify with them, we learn from their mistakes and are lifted up by their successes.

FABLES are the most moralistic story form, for they tell us directly, in no uncertain terms, what we should do. Aesop’s Fables in particular have certainly lasted through the centuries, but they don’t exactly hold the warm place in the hearts of children that fairy tales do. For example…

Pig by L. Leslie Brooke

“The Three Little Pigs” (fairy tale) and “The Ant and the Grasshopper” (fable) both attempt to teach us not to be lazy and take the easy way out, for if we do, we may perish.  The fable explicitly tells us what to do:

Moral: We should always make plans for the future.”

The fairy tale, on the  other hand, tells an entertaining story and leaves all further interpretation up to us. In doing so, the “Three Pigs” is able to win over the listener first and let the moral sink in afterward. (Unless you are reading a modern variant of the tale, in which the author is compelled to be preachy.)

The Ant and the Grasshopper by Charles H. Bennett

Another reason the Pigs are more effective than Aesop’s tale is that the Ant is such an a**hole. He has no compassion for the suffering grasshopper, no generosity of spirit, no forgiveness. The Ant is not in the least bit admirable, and it’s a rare reader who doesn’t feel sympathy for the Grasshopper instead.

Bettelheim writes that, in a child’s mind, the likeability of the hero or heroine is key:

It is not the fact that virtue wins out at the end which promotes morality, but that the hero is most attractive to the child, who identifies with the hero in all his struggles. … The child makes such identifications all on his own, and the inner and outer struggles of the hero imprint morality on him. … a child’s choices are based, not so much on right versus wrong, as on who arouses his sympathy...”  ⁶

And finally…

“The question for the child is not ‘Do I want to be good?’ but ‘Who do I want to be like?’ “


¹ Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment; The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. (New York: Random House, 1975) p. 5

² Ibid., p. 10

³ Selma G. Lanes,  Down the Rabbit Hole; Adventures and Misadventures in the Realm of Children’s Literature. (New York: Atheneum, 1971) p. 94

⁴ Op. cit., Bettelheim, p. 37

⁵ Aesop, Aesop’s Fables. (New York: Macmillan, 1989) p. 24

⁶ Op. cit., Bettelheim, p. 9

⁷ Ibid., p. 10

What Scares Your Child?

Now, before I even get started, before any of you jump on me for being overly protective and censorious, I’m not talking about little scares here. I’m talking about the kind of fright that can cause sleepless nights or change behavior patterns. And these serious kinds of scares are more common than you’d think. As Joanne Cantor writes in “Mommy, I’m Scared”: How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We can Do to Protect Them:

“If your child has a severe fright reaction, you are certainly not alone. Your child is not odd, unstable, or otherwise unbalanced, and there are good reasons why the reaction occurred. Sharing your experience with others will no doubt be therapeutic for you, and it’s important to warn other parents about potential effects on their children.” ¹ More

The Thing About Disney…

It doesn’t matter whether it comes in by cable, telephone lines, computer or satellite. Everyone’s going to have to deal with Disney.” – Michael Eisner, former Disney CEO

Oh, Disney, Disney, Disney… You simply cannot be a parent today and not have an opinion on it. Some of us love Disney, some of us hate Disney. (Some hate it so much that they try to ban Disney product entirely from their children’s lives, though I’m not sure this is the right way to go… even if it was possible… which it isn’t.) Many, many of us love and hate Disney at the same time.

The hate is well deserved. Disney the Corporation has set new standards for rapacious capitalism. Its aggressive marketing is impossible to escape – the vast resources of the conglomerate can easily clobber us into submission. And the shameless nature of the conglomerate allows it to do the clobbering without hesitation. Disney product is promoted so relentlessly that it’s well-nigh impossible to escape it. Your child doesn’t even have to see the latest movie or tv show to be intimately acquainted with every character – their friends will be wearing the underwear, T-shirts, hats and socks, carrying the backpacks and lunch boxes, and will eagerly fill them in on the details. You can have a TV-less, computer-less home off the grid in the back forty of nowhere, but around the age of three your daughter will – as if by magic – know exactly what colour of dress each Disney princess wears.

Beyond the annoying ubiquity of it all, Disney the corporation has been guilty over the years of countless egregious practices, from sweatshop labour on its merchandise to (and yes, this is true) actually suing small-town daycare centres who paint Mickey Mouse and Goofy on their walls. And there’s the racism. And the sexism. And the drive for worldwide cultural domination. I could go on and on, but further information, argument and analysis can be found in many places, at the New Internationalist for a global perspective, Wikipedia for an overview of various controversies over the years, or the excellent book by Richard Schickel, The Disney Version, for a film critic’s take on the history of the company.

Okay, so that’s the ‘hate’ part of the relationship. How about the ‘love’?

Like it or not, especially when you go back to the early films, Snow White, Pinocchio and onward, the sheer quality of them is outstanding. Walt singlehandedly invented the genre of feature-length animated family film, and set such high technical and artistic standards that other companies are still scrambling to keep pace. He personally insisted on such perfection and care on his films in the early days, often taking huge financial risks to do so, that he was able to create the sterling reputation for his company that allowed it to survive many a storm over the decades and grow to the behemoth it is today.

I still appreciate that he cared enough, and spent the time and money to make very high-quality entertainment for children.

Many of his films (and again, I tend to prefer the older ones) are cinematic treasures, part of our cultural language. Artistically and technically his films are great accomplishments, but Walt’s real talent lay in his instinctive knack for giving the American public exactly what it wanted and needed, exactly when it wanted and needed it the most.

Walt Disney operated not only as an entertainer but as a historical mediator. His creations helped Americans come to terms with the unsettling transformations of the twentieth century. This role was unintentional but decisive.” – Steven Watts The Magic Kingdom ¹

In the 1920s and 30s, when Hollywood was beset by scandal and the American public began to worry about the decadent effects of movies on its youth, Walt Disney was a reassuring figure, a middle-class paragon of industry, modesty, and thrift. He grew up on a farm in the mid-west and created a business empire from nothing. He was a rags-to-riches hero for Depression-era audiences. He was also a purveyor of wholesomeness – his studio was widely publicized as having a “family atmosphere”, over which Walt exerted a kindly, avuncular authority. (Not entirely accurate, but this was the general impression.) He was good for the business of American movies in general, a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant to appease all who grumbled about the corrupting, ‘foreign influences’ in Hollywood. As Schickel puts it, he was an Everyman, so absolutely normal that he was a success “by virtue of being uniquely average”.²

In every way Disney was able to perfectly dovetail the fortunes of his company with the tastes and values of mid-twentieth century American culture, most especially in its concerns about children. The young nation was eager to carve out its own character and culture in contrast to that of Britain and Europe, and America’s anxieties about modernity – industrialism, urbanism, immigration, overcrowding and social unrest, the declining influence of the church – all came to the forefront in debates about how best to raise the next generation of good American middle-class citizens.

As mass consumer culture increasingly came into conflict with an ideal American culture, the child became the focal point in the struggle to preserve those American ideals and enforce their inclusion in mass-mediated products.” ³

Science provided new tools of psychiatry and data research to analyze family life, and the business of parenting advice literature boomed.

… in a very real sense twentieth-century child-rearing manuals may also be read as manuals for entering the middle class.” ⁴

Disney’s singular success was due to instinct and strategy but also to dumb luck and demographics. Just as he was aligning his product with what was popularly thought to be beneficial for children, between 1940 and 1965 the number of children in the U.S. aged five to fourteen doubled.⁵ Parents grew to trust movies and books with the Disney logo unquestioningly. Disney had achieved “brand recognition that did not require assessment of individual products.” ⁶ This frankly brilliant positioning persists to the present day, as parents make assumptions about Disney excellence despite wildly inconsistent product: badly written books, merchandise that falls apart as soon as you buy it, and knock-off subsidiary videos (ie. Sing-Along series) with incredibly inept, off-model animation. Apparently total market dominance requires more than a few corners to be cut.

Indeed, everyone has to deal with Disney. It has the power to compel one’s attention to any product it wants to push:

All its parts – movies, television, book and song publishing, merchandising, Disneyland – interlock and are mutually reciprocating. And all of them are aimed at the most vulnerable portion of the adult’s psyche – his feelings for his children. If you have a child, you cannot escape a Disney character or story even if you loathe it. …  The machine’s voice is so pervasive and persuasive that it forces first the child, then the parent to pay it heed – and money. In essence, Disney’s machine was designed to shatter the two most valuable things about childhood – its secrets and its silences – thus forcing everyone to share the same formative dreams. …  As capitalism, it is a work of genius; as culture, it is mostly a horror.” ⁷

That’s the ‘hate’ side of the coin, certainly, and while I agree with much of what Schickel has to say, I still find a surprising spark of fondness in my cynical brain for individual movies, scenes and characters, if not for the twelve tons of crappy plastic toys that accompany them.

I may wince from time to time, raise an eyebrow at Disney excess, or resist buying everything they push at me,  but my daughter and I will continue to watch the films. I’ll try to address issues as they crop up – consumerism, racial insensitivity, sexism, body image issues, and the general blinders-on limited vision of society – but I’m not going to deny my little girl the accomplished, beautiful and funny movies that give her so much delight.

Everyone has to deal with Disney – she is her own person and she will deal with Disney on her own terms as she grows up, just as I have tried to do.


¹ as quoted in Nicholas Sammond, Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-1960 (Durham/London: Duke University Press, 2005) p. 13

² Richard Schickel, The Disney Version: the Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney (Revised and Updated) (New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1968/1985) p. 30

³ Op. cit. Sammond, p. 7

⁴ Ibid., p. 7

⁵ Op. cit. Schickel, p. 19

⁶ Op. cit. Sammond, p. 74

⁷ Op. cit. Schickel, p. 18

TV for Babies

I’m wading into somewhat controversial territory here, but I just wanted to talk a bit about TV and babies…

There is a myth out there, an enormous behemoth of a myth, regarding babies and their brains. The myth incorporates concepts both uncontroversial (talking to your baby is good) and unsubstantiated (showing your baby the right video will make them smarter). The basic idea is that in the first three years of life important learning and brain formation is taking place and if capitalized upon in this crucial period, your baby will have a ‘leg up’ on learning later. Indeed, infancy may be such a ‘critical window’ that your child may not be able to learn certain things later if they don’t learn them right now. This is the basic premise that ensnares unwary parents, enticing them to buy all manner of products, books and videos, from baby sign language flash cards to early reader videos and classical music mobiles.

I’m not pointing the finger here – I too was hooked. I endeavoured to teach my baby sign language, though we got no further than “more” and “all done” for mealtimes, which was actually fairly useful. When I was slow to purchase a mobile for over the crib, I worried that I was losing valuable ‘enriched environment time’. And when I finally did acquire a mobile I congratulated myself on finding one that played classical music! So much better than childish jingles! I also fell prey to the Baby Einstein phenomenon. When my daughter was born everyone, and I mean everyone had these videos in their collection and we did too.

The reason that so many fall for this Big Myth and buy the products is that it targets the time right after birth, a time of maximum anxiety and minimum ability to do the research for ourselves. During pregnancy all thought and anxiety is placed upon the basic health of the mother, and looking ahead to childbirth. The books I had listed in excruciating detail every single little thing that could go wrong before and during birth. In the week-by-week guide I had they actually had a new health danger under every single week, just to spread the anxiety out over the entire gestation I suppose. At any rate I didn’t think much about baby’s first months before we were right into them.

And when the bundle of joy arrives is when things get really hectic. The lack of sleep and general weirdness of life with a new baby means that your focus narrows to just what is at hand. Crisis management. The only outside voices that cut through the haze and find their way into your brain are those that are giving you advice on parenting. And by ‘giving you advice’ I mean criticizing you. You have neither the time nor the energy to read deeply on any subject, never mind cutting-edge brain research. It is sufficient to glance at a headline telling you to ‘enrich’ baby’s environment as much as humanly possible. Or to play classical music to build up their brains. Or to expose them to foreign languages… even if you don’t speak them yourself. Parents are told they should:

“… make use of the windows of developmental opportunity nature has provided, applying a full-court developmental press every minute during the birth-to-3 developmental season. Failure to exert full-court pressure can have long-term consequences. …The implications are sufficiently dire to make most middle-class parents take notice. The advice provided is sufficiently vague to leave parents deeply uncertain and profoundly anxious about what they should do differently and about what does matter – other than everything – during the early years.” ¹

Doesn’t this sound painfully familiar? This type of advice puts the pressure on and gives you a deadline as well, asserting that by the time your child starts school, his best learning years are already over. If you miss the boat, it’s all over by age six.

Now the ‘experts’ have been telling parents what to do for a long time now. Thomas Cobbett in 1656 counselled parents to keep a “due distance” between themselves and their offspring, because “fondness and familiarity breeds and causeth contempt and irreverence in children.” ²  From the ancient Greeks and onward through Locke, Rousseau, Freud, and Spock, the winds of philosophic fad and scientific fancy have blown parental advice back and forth for centuries, but the current pressure placed on the narrow time span of age zero to three is unprecedented.

And we swallow it, hook, line and sinker. Why wouldn’t we? In the first year of our child’s existence biological imperatives are running our lives: the desire to protect and care for our child is overwhelming, and intense love and hormones are turning us into crazy people who cry whenever a child is hurt on tv. (And don’t tv shows love to push that button!) So when newspapers or magazines or advertisers trumpet that the latest brain science says you should buy a black and white checkered dangly squeeze toy for your stroller, or you run the risk of lowering your child’s IQ… you do it!

The problem is that the actual research is habitually twisted by the media, advertisers, and lobby groups into convenient but inaccurate conclusions.

Do you remember hearing about research proving that classical music makes you smarter? This premise inspired state legislators in Georgia and Missouri to spend taxpayer dollars on classical CDs for newborns. It also provided the impetus for many Baby Einstein (and similar) products with a soundtrack of Beethoven, Bach or Mozart.

Classical music to make your baby smarter. A gorgeous idea. (And one that feeds brilliantly into Western middle class cultural snobbery.) Borne out by the research? Nope. The research that prompted all this had nothing to do with babies – it looked at how listening to Mozart affected the reasoning skills of college students… for periods up to ten minutes! Another study was of preschoolers given keyboard lessons and showing improvements in spatial reasoning for several hours. That’s it. Nothing about infant development at all.³

Beyond that, the research that is said to support the idea of an enriched environment for baby (the nursery as a jungle of vibrant eye candy), actually deals more with a normal environment being better than a deprived one. In other words, it’s not a good idea to raise your child in a dark closet with no stimulus, and not speak to him.

“Brain science has not pointed to new ways of raising or teaching children that will really stimulate those synapses above and beyond what normal experiences provide. … brain-based parenting amounts to doing no more than what most parents do normally.” ⁴

Which brings us to the issue of tv for babies. This is where things get personal, because everyone has their own thoughts on whether or not television is a blight on society or a saviour. You can go out and find a book to bolster whatever opinion you already have. Right here I am just going to go with my reactions, as they developed over time. In a nutshell:

1. Trying out a Baby Einstein video on my one-year-old: “YAY! She loves it! Thirty minutes of blessed freedom!”

2. “I am such a good parent. Listen to that classical music. She is going to be a genius!”

3. (this was the film student in me speaking): “Hmmm… the cutting in these is awfully quick.” (“Look, honey, that’s a… oh, it’s gone now. But it was a cow.”)

4. when she could spot the Baby Einstein logo from a mile away, and was drawn to it like a moth to a flame: “My baby’s been branded by Disney! Aaarrrghhh!” ⁵

Allow me to share with you some information gleaned later from a book that takes into account all the research done to date on children and television: The Elephant in the Living Room: Making Television Work for Your Kids, by Dimitri A. Christakis, and Frederick Zimmerman, published in 2006.

First, regarding the rapid cutting of tv shows:

“… attention (or thought while looking) deepens as a child looks at an object. Children usually take a few seconds to grasp an object visually before they can begin to think about it. … Careful experiments have shown that engagement reaches a maximum after about 20 seconds of looking at an object or a scene. Shorter looks are less likely to produce thoughtful looking and more likely to result in rapid distraction. In this sense, rapid scene changes on television can keep a child looking but not thinking.” ⁶

And, regarding Baby Einstein videos in particular, which can have cuts, or scene changes as frequently as every 4 seconds:

“… babies are transfixed by these videos, and the rapid scene changes are a big part of the reason … Young infants aren’t capable of understanding the content, and they don’t try to create a narrative from these images. For them, it isn’t a day on the farm at all; it’s just a series of stimuli coming at them full throttle. They will sit in front of the 30-minute feature not because they are interested in the content but because they are biologically programmed not to look away.” ⁷

They also point out that when an 18-month old looks at a book, they control the pace, and look at each page from 15 to 30 seconds on average. Whereas:

“… television shows change images every 7 to 8 seconds on average for educational shows … and every 3 to 4 seconds for noneducational shows… rapid scene changes may keep children’s focus, but they don’t allow them to devote their full attention to the scene.” ⁸

(I timed shot lengths for three Baby Einstein videos. Results at bottom of page.)

In the end Christakis and Zimmerman conclude that “you should avoid letting your children under 2 watch TV. There is no proven educational value at this age, and … there is considerable cause to be concerned about potential harm.” ⁹

This is not an isolated opinion. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics offered this recommendation five years earlier, in 2001:

“Discourage television viewing for children younger than 2 years, and encourage more interactive activities that will promote proper brain development, such as talking, playing, singing, and reading together.” ¹⁰

Indeed, this recommendation provided the backbone for an ongoing battle between Baby Einstein and researchers (including Christakis) regarding the products’ educational claims.

Most recently: “Baby Einstein Creators Challenge Research Anew”¹¹

So in the end I feel that it might have been better not to turn on the tv at all until she turned two, but I’m not overly concerned. The thing to remember, I think, is that the zero to 3 age range is not as ultra-crucial as we’ve been led to believe. Infants take in all stimuli, good bad and indifferent, and learning continues on… even into adulthood (!). There are no critical windows slamming shut on your child’s third birthday.

Above all, if the information here (or elsewhere) makes you feel like you’ve been doing everything terribly wrong for your infant’s brain development, as long as you haven’t kept your baby in a sensory deprivation situation, just take a deep breath and repeat after me: “Brain plasticity. Brain plasticity. Brain plasticity.”

(And when my child does turn out to be a genius, I’m going to attribute it to her efforts, not Baby Einstein‘s, and not mine!)


¹ John T. Bruer. The Myth of the First Three Years: A New Understanding of Early Brain Development and Lifelong Learning (New York: The Free Press, 1999) p. 17

² Colin Heywood. A History of Childhood (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001) p. 85

³ Op. cit. Bruer, p. 63

⁴ Ibid., p. 66

⁵ Disney purchased 80% of the Baby Einstein company in 2001.

⁶ Dimitri A. Christakis and Frederick J. Zimmerman. The Elephant in the Living Room: Making Television Work for Your Kids. (New York: Rodale, 2006) p. 19

⁷ Ibid., p. 23

⁸ Ibid., p. 27

⁹ Ibid., p. 34

¹⁰ American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Public Education (February 2001). “Children, Adolescents, and Television (policy statement)”. Pediatrics 107 (2): 423–426. doi:10.1542/peds.107.2.423. PMID 11158483.

¹¹Donna Gordon, “Baby Einstein Creators Challenge Research Anew”, Associated Press, Seattle, June 30, 2011, accessed July 1, 2011, 8:00 AM.


Now back to Baby Einstein and the pacing of the edits. I did a little timing myself and found the following:

the original BABY EINSTEIN, aka LANGUAGE NURSERY, 1997
Video of the Year Winner – Parenting Magazine
“Visual and multilingual experiences to stimulate and delight your baby”
26:11 long (body of film, excluding head and tail credits)
72 cuts
average shot length: 21.8 SECONDS

Still shots of toys (nothing moving) are consistently 7 seconds long.
Shots with camera movement or toy movement are longer.
Motherly voices saying children’s rhymes, counting, etc. in various languages.

Short promotional video afterward emphasizes that this video will not teach child to speak foreign languages… “what the soundtrack will do is stimulate portions of your baby’s brain that are largely ignored. Research indicates that babies are born with the ability to respond to, and to produce, any sound. By six months of age this ability begins to fade as the child hears only one language, and by 12 months the ability is gone. So it’s pretty simple. BE is a unique means of stimulating your child’s brain during the critical first years of life. The natural window of opportunity…” is 1-12 months of age.

What the research actually indicates is that babies learn to differentiate between subtle sounds made in their own language and not in others. This ability can be learned later – it does not simply disappear at 12 months.

BABY MOZART; Music Festival, 2004?
“A vibrant, award-winning musical feast for little eyes and ears”
92 cuts
average shot length: 16.3 SECONDS

Still shots are now only 4 seconds each, though stills of animals are as long as 9 seconds.
Longest shots are generally :30, though there is one dizzying 50 second stare at a lava lamp. (Totally justified, in my opinion.)
More closeups in this one – wide shots, then cut close. These tend to be 20 seconds each.
Series of moving toys: 10 seconds each.
At the end there is a very fast sequence of moving toys, each shot is 3-4 seconds long.

Promotional short at end is much more cautious at this point, and does not mention brain stimulation. Videos are claimed to be suitable for infants from birth onward.  Creator says “the most important thing we’ve done is to encourage parents to interact…” – never mind that the vast majority put the video on so they can leave the room and get something done!

While promoting the extra merchandise now available, they exult that “Baby Einstein can be there all day long!” Yikes.

BABY BEETHOVEN; Symphony of Fun, 1999/2009
“Visual treats and musical masterpieces to stimulate and delight your baby”
118 cuts
average shot length: 12.5 SECONDS

Stills of baby faces are held for 6 seconds each.
Scenes of kids interacting with toys – 8 seconds each.
Reluctance to sit on a wide shot – many pans, zooms, cutting to different angles on the same toy (could be confusing).
Cutting to the music at times, which sacrifices shot length.

Promotional short: “Probably the most important thing that we’ve done is to encourage parents to sit with their children, to interact with their children, to dance with their children.” De-emphasizing educational claims, now merely claiming to expose your baby to art, music, science (?) etc. Plus the strange claim that they have “reorchestrated” Beethoven “in a way that is appealing to babies’ ears”.

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