A few nights ago, while flipping channels in a hopeless attempt to find something to watch while ironing (yeah, I actually do iron), I stumbled across the most bizarre thing: an educational program for babies.
I'm not talking Barney or some other inane but essentially harmless drivel. No, this was an infomercial for a special series of videos designed to teach babies --little bitty infants who can't yet turn over or utter a coherent thought-- to READ.
Dr. Robert Titzer, the inventor of this product --not-so-inventively called Your Baby Can Read-- waxed poetic to viewers about how much babies can learn while they're just, well, sitting around doing nothing all day. He stumbled onto this discovery after making a video to entertain his own infant daughter while she was in daycare. To his utter astonishment, she began to recognize the words he held up in the video. Even more surprising, she recognized 100 words by age one, and could read at a first-grade level by age two.
Of course, when we told his friends about his uber-baby, they wanted one of their own and begged to borrow his videos to use with their own children Dr. Titzer quickly decided that all parents should have access to his amazing system. Indeed, according to the website, "...Dr. Robert C. Titzer, Ph.D., has a grand vision of making the world a better place by allowing children greater opportunities and successes throughout life by developing reading skills earlier."
This would be commendable if it weren't so utterly ridiculous.
Dr. Titzer allegedly received his Ph.D. in Human Performance, so perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that he's attempting to build a better human. But as someone who also claims to have studied human development, he ought to know that there's a time and a place for everything.
The whole point of infancy --and, some would argue, life in general-- is to absorb vast amounts of information so that you understand how to process things later in life. Which begs the question: should we really be replacing the necessary learning of babyhood with...reading?
Please don't misunderstand: I think reading is a necessary skill that should be encouraged in all children from an early age. I read to my kids from the time they were born and now my 8-year-old daughter zooms through door stopper-sized books like they're candy and my 4-year-old son literally cries when I limit him to four books at the library each week (if he gets more I forget about them and end-up paying a huge fine).
But should we really be plopping (or propping up, as in the infomercial) our babies in front of television sets to learn this skill? Aren't we robbing our children of something essential to their development when we substitute television for real-world experience?
I'm not suggesting, by the way, that it's any better to stick your kid in a bouncy chair and do flashcards with him, either.
Rather, I'm asserting that it would behoove us --and society in general-- if we stopped trying to create The Perfect Child. Whatever happened to allowing children to be... kids? Heaven forbid we descend into the Brave New World of infant conditioning, although that seems to be the route many of us are going in our quest to construct this ultimately unattainable fantasy.
I have no doubt that Dr. Titzer's "educational program" probably works. But just because we CAN do something doesn't mean that we SHOULD. Sure, it's a really neat parlor trick to have your two-year-old read Shakespeare to fascinated dinner guests -- who doesn't want to be the proud parent of the next Einstein? But remember: Einstein didn't acquire his vast knowledge and supreme creativity by sitting in front of a television from the time he was born.
The human brain is a miraculous thing, designed to soak up information and make connections faster than the blink of an eye. Should we really waste the important developmental moments of infancy on something so mundane as reading?
Frankly, I find the Your Baby Can Read concept disturbing on a very deep level. Not only that someone created it, but also that so many parents are plunking down money for it and subjecting their babies to two video sessions a day plus additional flashcard work. And in a quest for....what, exactly?
As Einstein is reported to have said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Sadly, too many parents lack both and are dooming their kids to the same fate.