They Might Be (Intellectual) Giants

Kid Vid Promises Big Brains

Perhaps some of you new parents out there are planning on piano lessons and S.A.T. preparation. But why wait until Junior is two to begin the betterment process? Why not strike while you still have a chance of rescuing the wee one from mediocrity? Just pick up a copy of Baby Einstein, an educational video aimed at children in their first year of life, and you can help your infant start crawling down the path to greatness. Or so goes the thinking of Julie and Bill Clark, creators of Baby Einstein.

The couple began work on their psyche-shaping project when their own daughter was an infant. While little Sierra (now four) sucked on rattles, her parents videotaped some of her favorite toys in the basement of their Maryland home. In the name of prodigy preparation, they pranced stuffed ponies and popped jack-in-the-boxes in front of the camera. Their audio specialist recorded "moo" sounds.

The result—which features the toy footage set to a soundtrack of mothers counting and reciting nursery rhymes in seven languages—has the potential of developing a serious following among the very stoned. But Baby Einstein was created for a higher purpose.

The tape—close to 200,000 copies of which have sold since its release in 1997—is designed to expose infants and toddlers to the sounds of foreign languages, which create "dedicated nuerons [sic] in the auditory cortex, resulting in greater brain capacity," according to the Clarks' Web site, www.babyeinstein.com. "Baby's [sic] are born natural linguists," continues the promotional site, but "by the age of 12 months, the brain's 'receptiveness' to all phonemes disappears and the unconnected neurons die off. A great opportunity has been lost."

Baby Einstein is meant to guard against this tragedy—and presumably to leave the door open for exposed little ones to someday speak Russian without an accent. Julie Clark tells parents not to expect their babies to start talking in foreign languages, but promises the video "will stimulate your child in a way that even the most caring parent probably cannot duplicate."

The $16 tape will also "stimulate your baby in your absence, allowing you time to take a shower, make a phone call or do other brief chores baby-free," according to the Web site. But, despite the fact that some parents have told Clark their children watch the half-hour video as many as four times a day, she told the Voice that Baby Einstein was not intended as an infant-geared electronic babysitter.

Can Baby Einstein really push baby toward cerebral heights? Might it be worthy watching for infants when a caretaker has to go to the bathroom? Body Politics assembled a panel of viewers—okay, just two—to explore these questions. Both girls, Panelist One was three months and one day old at the time of the viewing, while Panelist Two was three and a half months old. Testifying to their lack of bias, neither had ever before heard of the Clarks, Einstein, or videos.

Unfortunately, just moments after the start button was hit, the elder panelist fell asleep in her mother's arms. (Perhaps she was soothed by the introductory segment in which Clark appears with her daughter to encourage viewers to "laugh, dance, and have fun.")

Number One, however, assumed the position recommended by the video makers: sitting on her mother's lap, looking screenward. According to babyeinstein.com, this perch allows one-on-one interaction with the baby, "an important part of using Baby Einstein to its fullest effect." With his or her hands free, the baby-holder can point to objects and move the baby to the cheesy synthesized rendition of "Old McDonald Had a Farm." Number One chose to gnaw on her own free hands.

As she chewed, Number One did gaze a few times in the direction of the video. Indeed, for a little while she appeared interested in the red, white, and black shapes on the screen. And, though her look suggested a certain amount of incomprehension, Number One was clearly entertained by the shots of a toy pig ascending a moving, plastic stairway.

Her mother, meanwhile, mused that Number One would no doubt have preferred playing with the toys to watching someone else do it. And even as her mother was marveling at the ridiculousness of showing infants video images of toys, Number One's eyes shifted downward, moving from the screen to the knees of a nearby viewer. By the time the cow began jumping over the moon (or rather "la vaca brinca sobre la luna"), Number One had become fixated on the quilt on which she and her mother sat.

By then, Number Two was waking—unhappily. As a German mother started counting from one to 20, she began to wail. Tape was still rolling, however, and as pictures of vegetables, cats, and plastic choo-choo trains passed by, both panelists gradually regained their composure. Their focus, however, shifted to a loftier subject: the fan on the screening-room ceiling. Apparently it was stimulating—or at least pleasing—to watch, as it held their gazes during the remainder of the video.

We may never know which was more edifying—Baby Einstein or the fan. Those betting on the video might also be interested in the Clarks' other infant improvement tapes. Baby Bach and Baby Mozart are meant for the musically inclined genius baby. And Baby Shakespeare, a video for the incipient poet, is due out in time for Christmas.

slerner@villagevoice.com

 
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