New parents are perhaps the most stressed shopping demographic in the world. Not only are they sleep deprived, but they are instantly worried about how to help their new babies in every way. Products that aim to make a baby smarter are a particular trap for parents. Who wouldn't want to help their baby get smarter, particularly if it doesn't require a lot of effort? DVDs that aim to teach babies new words fall into this category. Parents spend millions of dollars each year on products like this that might help their babies get an advantage when they reach school age.
But do they work?
This question was addressed in a paper by Judy DeLoache, Cynthia Choing, Kathleen Sherman, Nadia Islam, Mieke Vanderborght, Georgene Troseth, Gabrielle Strouse, and Katherine O'Doherty in the November, 2010 issue of Psychological Science.
They gave an educational DVD that aims to teach 25 words to babies to a number of families. The babies in this study were all between 12- and 18-months-old. Some families were told to watch the DVD with their babies at least 5 times a week for 4 weeks. Other families were told to let their babies watch the DVD alone (while they were still in the room). These two groups used the DVD similarly to the way many new parents use them when they buy them for themselves. A third group was not given the DVD, but was told to try to find ways to teach their babies the words for those 4 weeks. A fourth group was a control that was given no instructions.
After four weeks, the babies were tested to see how many words they had learned. The two groups of babies who watched the DVD knew about the same number of these words after 4 weeks as the babies in the control condition. That is, the DVD did not seem to help them learn the words at all. The babies whose parents tried to teach them the words knew about 10% more of the words at the end of the study. That is, the babies whose parents played with them and taught them words learned more than babies who watched the DVDs.
The babies did find the DVDs interesting. The authors report that parents said that their kids were riveted by the DVDs. In fact, one parent called them "Crack for babies." Even though they watched the DVDs intently, they did not learn words from them.
Why do parents think the DVDs work, then?
For one thing, the authors asked parents to rate how much their kids had learned after watching the DVDs. These ratings were unrelated to how much the babies actually learned. However, when parents believed the DVDs would work, their ratings were much higher than when they did not think the DVDs would be that effective.
In addition, as the authors of this study point out, between 12 and 18 months, babies learn a huge amount about the world. It is hard to disentangle all of the factors that drive this learning. If you are showing your child an educational DVD every day, then it is easy to think that the DVD is the cause of all of this learning. As the results of this study demonstrate, then, the DVDs are not helping kids learn.
So how should parents spend their money to help their kids? One possibility suggested by this study is to spend money on things that might help free up time so that parents can spend more time with their kids. These interactions between parent and child are a powerful source of learning. The DVDs don't hurt learning, so parents shouldn't feel bad about using them, but they are not helping the way that direct teaching does.
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