According to Saturday's New York Times (Oct. 24, 2009), the Walt Disney Company is offering refunds to parents who bought "Baby Einstein" materials to make their kids geniuses, but guess what, the kids did not become geniuses (whatever geniuses are). The Times article did not make clear what evidence showed that the children did not become geniuses, or, indeed, what evidence could be put forward either to support or to reject this claim. However, there seems to be some agreement that however entertaining the videos may be, and however much they may keep young children from demanding their parents' attention, they have no real impact on cognitive development.
Disappointing, isn't it? But what if I told you that parents can help their children become academically successful (geniuses? I wouldn't know about that)-- pretty much for free? Here are some factors that are somewhat under parental control and that are well known to affect children's school success:
1. Prenatal health care: make sure that the mother's diet and health care are up to standard. Avoid smoking, alcohol, recreational drugs. If the mother has a mood disorder, make sure it is treated carefully.
2. Well baby care: Monitor the baby's weight gain and achievement of developmental milestones, and seek intervention if there are early problems. Immunize against disease. Provide protection against abuse and neglect. Make sure hearing and vision are normal, and seek treatment like hearing aids and speech intervention if they are not.
3. Emotional regulation: Be sensitive and responsive to the baby's communications of distress. Comfort and soothe an uncomfortable baby; when you do this, you are helping the baby learn to self-regulate and calm down from an upset. At the same time, though, remember to help the baby find interesting events to experience. Just being calm is not the whole answer--- happy excitement about interesting things establishes habits of curiosity and learning.
4. Developing communication: Pay attention to all the baby's signals, including "flirtatious" bids to socialize with you by looking and smiling. Don't expect prolonged "eye contact" or try to make the baby do this, but watch how the baby shows you his or her interests by looking at things. Notice how the baby averts the eyes from a person or thing when the stimulation is too intense-- then looks back again after a little rest. (The same thing will happen if you are depressed or pre-occupied and the baby sees your blank face.) By ten months or so, the baby will "catch your eye", look over at an interesting thing, then look back at you until you also look at that thing, just as an adult will do to another adult. All these are beginnings of communication and underlie language learning. Parents don't teach these things by direct instructions, but they help the baby by participating and following baby cues. The key is to follow the child's lead.
5. Providing a secure base: Older babies and toddlers explore and learn best when a familiar person is nearby. Sometimes these children need to return physically to the familiar person to "refuel" and get ready to explore some more. Other times, they can do their refueling over a distance, by exchanging looks with the adult or by calling out to each other. Toddlers who show this behavior should not be ignored or scolded for being wimps; it's a normal built-in part of young humans that helps keep them safe. In child care settings, it helps to have assigned caregivers that children can become familiar with, because it's harder for the children to feel secure and to explore effectively when an adult is only one of many semi-strangers who come and go.
6. Language: Talk, talk, talk, and read, read, read aloud. Don't try to correct or instruct the child's speech, but model language and engage in the conversations that provide practice. Be patient with the tag ending stage ("Right, Mom? Right? Right?") that sometimes feels like parent torture--- you might as well answer right away because you'll have to eventually! Don't get those 1-minute story books; 15 or 20 minutes now may save a lot of trouble later on. It helps a lot if you enjoy reading aloud, but even if you don't like it to begin with, you may learn to enjoy it with practice, and that models something important for your child. By the way, the library story hour is not really the same thing as parent and child reading together.
7. Don't forget math: Counting, adding and subtracting, and assigning objects to categories are part of cognitive development too. Include the child in simple tasks of this kind-- how many cans of tuna do you need to put in the grocery cart, for example? (By the way, I'll bet one trip to the grocery store outweighs a dozen videos in potential educational value.)
8. Manage your marriage and other relationships: Observing domestic violence is almost as serious a risk factor for children's development as experiencing abuse. A dysfunctional household distracts parents from engaging with children, and distracts children from learning.
Good school performance is based on good language development and good quantitative skills, but above all it requires abilities to become interested, to calm down from over-excitement, to feel confident, and to seek security and help from adults when unable to solve a problem. These skills develop gradually through affectionate interactions with caregivers. They can't be duplicated by videos. And one very nice thing is that they don't cost any money--- although it's true that parents living in poverty may have to overcome many barriers in order to foster their children's abilities.