Peer pressure. An ugly term invoking visions of teens making bad choices: beer in middle school, drugs at the party hosted where parents are out of town, mocking the new kid, wearing silly hairstyles or fashion statements to be like everyone else. TV in the bedroom. Most of us grew up to a steady refrain that it is to be avoided at our peril. As grownups, we know better.
Maybe not. Memory is short, it seems. Something happens during the metamorphosis into parenthood that brings back that teenish peer pressure tendency. It manifests in different ways: alpha leaders, anxious followers, “corporate parents,” all with common motivation: to be cool via the coolness of our children.
Our drug of choice isn’t alcohol or anything illicit, however: it’s learning. This is how, in an academic stupor, peer pressure invades the nursery, the car, the dinner table, everywhere e-media can go – which increasingly is everywhere. It is an uninvited play date dictating how and why our children play, driving us all batty.
At the recent Learning Through Play Conference here in town, I was approached by parents who sheepishly asked my opinion about “Smart Baby” products (learning drugs) such as Baby Einstein and Your Baby Can Read!. These were smart, well-meaning parents, many of them teachers, who sensed that I would not approve, yet hoped for reassurance. Everyone uses them, after all – shall we say, all the rage? – so they must have some value.
“Four out of five pediatricians surveyed…”
Reasons for owning “smart baby” products ranged from cuteness, to popularity, to gift from grandma, to, most often, a desire to keep up with other families. Most sensed that they were not ideal learning tools – kind of annoying, even – yet didn’t see any other choice. They had to buy them. Again - everyone has them. They wanted the best for their kids, and their kids needed to learn.
Put another way: they feared their children falling behind.
In teen terms: they didn’t want theirs to be the uncool kid at the party.
Statistics bear this out. By 2 years old, 90% of children are regular e-media users. The primary driver is “education.” Most parents believe this to be a good thing. According to a recent survey, 70% believe their infants are “less fussy” when viewing, 55% find them “more focused,” and 30% believe viewing is “good for their brains,” an essential nutrient.
The notion of babies and toddlers falling behind is a strange, recent, and incredibly common one. It is evidence of the marketing power behind “smart baby” products and media – Baby Einstein logs hundreds of millions in annual revenue and Your Baby Can Read! has sold over a million copies despite FTC complaints – creating competition where it doesn’t belong. Worrying about babies walking, taking, or learning faster is akin to awarding prizes for fastest stroll on the beach, or competitive finger painting.
Early childhood is a time of incredible learning, but this is a natural byproduct of play – a process best savored, not rushed. Every moment of every day offers an opportunity for something amazing. Seeing each as just another bubble to be filled in on a young child’s SAT is unfortunate. Switching metaphors: subjecting babies – and their already-stressed parents – to an academic olympiad is not only not fun, it is madness.
It helps to pause and ask a question: “How far behind academically could a normal baby fall?” Technology is easier to use every year, so there is no advantage to babies “learning computer skills.” Ditto things like geography and rote memorization – young children first and foremost want to learn that they are loved and secure. And if there are bone fide delays, these are best handled by experts, not a video bought online.
A pause to let this sink in: to date none – NONE – of these “smart baby” products have been proven to promote learning in any way. Quite the contrary – they tend to interfere with parent-child and reality-child interaction, which is an impediment to learning. Despite their expense, jazzy packaging, and commercials, they are poor surrogates for the real world and its people.
Science time: A 2010 study of 12-18 month olds viewing a popular DVD marketed to develop language found that after a full month, no new words were learned compared to controls who did nothing. Parents of viewers, however, believed that their children did learn, illustrating the self-deceptive power of marketing.
If backyards, snuggling on laps sharing a story, or bonding with the family dog could be packaged and sold, they would be best-sellers. These are the robust, open-ended experiences that unite children with the world and others. These actually work. They are genuine developmental catalysts, no batteries required. Best-selling author and natural play advocate Richard Louv has said the same about going outside. The problem is, dirt, pets, boxes, crayons, and the backyard don’t have marketing teams. There are no infomercials for gazing out of a window. Minimal peer pressure potential.
As with most unhealthy peer pressure, who is really at risk of problems, or falling behind? Followers. Plugged-in children are at documented risk of language delays, obesity, sleep problems, and others, with more screen time and flashy button banging increasing these risks. Unplugged babies and toddlers, on the other hand, are more likely to be strong, confident, and connected, their ability to focus and harness imagination providing a foundation to tackle any academic challenge that awaits them.
And let it await them. School, and its ABCs, 123s, and learning about the rainforest, comes soon enough. It’s not going anywhere. Let academics be something to look forward to.
This post is not to downplay the anxieties of parents who want the best for their children. Peer pressure and the marketing that fuels it are incredibly difficult, even if the choices it inspires are not the best ones. The mission of Baby Unplugged is to reassure parents and caregivers that it’s OK to resist and chart a different course. ”Old-school” activities such as going outside and finding fun in everyday materials are more than good enough. In fact, they are far better than the dubious screen-based stuff that dominates the market.
Young children, analog mammals that they are, need real experiences in the real world, with real people and creatures, using all of their senses. They need human experience, attention, and love. One of the best ways to show it is to take a deep breath and resist the hype. Ignore peer pressure. Be the bold parent who makes a commitment to maximal real-world engagement in those critical first three years. If it helps, here’s a marketing pitch:
Amaze your friends!
Raise a strong and healthy, butt-kicking baby!
Learn! Learn! Learn!
I’m even willing to make a prediction, if not money-back guarantee: in our overly wired world, unplugged children, especially during the first 3 years, will have major and sustained advantages over their wired peers. They will be more confident, more connected, and healthier, and with deeper senses of curiosity, focus, and motivation. They will thrive. They will win. And their parents will be grateful for the opportunity to let them.
Share tales of smart baby peer pressure! What stories or claims have you heard? What are some weird ones?