A while ago, I read Alissa Quart's excellent analysis of the "child-enrichment business" which she calls the "Baby Genius Edutainment Complex" (subscription required). Quart asks, "Whose purpose does all of this aggressive early learning serve?" and comes up with exactly the right answers: the stuff in the Baby Einstein/Leapfrog aisle at Target is for parents, not kids; a child's boredom is actually a valuable inducement to the development of new interests and motivations which are otherwise squelched by constant stimulation; perfectly adequate and often excellent learning can easily be found good old-fashioned, no batteries required toys and books; and above all, there's scant science to show that any of this stuff "works" - but lots of business models to show that it sells.
In short, I'm persuaded, and I'm looking forward to Quart's book, Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child. I'm always game for a good critique of how capitalism drives social engineering. I'm also eager to find a deeper ground for my own loathing - or at least dislike - of these kinds of products. Not to say that they're always and everywhere useless: a borrowed Leapfrog "music table" undeniably was the single most important aid to Julia learning the whole alphabet, including the mystery letter "quar," which comes between P and R.
But that example notwithstanding, I'm also surprised by the sheer shittiness of many "baby edutainment" products, especially from Baby Einstein. My key example is a B.E. bath book, What Floats? It's only ten pages long, but it rankles me to no end. The first four pages are bad largely because of the crummy versification:
I float beside my mommy/As quiet as can be/Beside me floats a bubble-/Now what else can I see?/There's a froggy on a lily pad/A turtle on a log/A long-nosed alligator, green/All floating in the bog
An alligator in a bog? Did anyone at Baby Einstein do ten seconds of research into bogs? They're usually found in temperate and alligator-free places, like Michigan or Finland. What's more, you can more often walk on a bog than float on it. But no matter, because on pages five and six we suddenly shift venues:
I look around the quiet lake-/Who's paddling two by two?/A kitten and a puppy dog/Aboard a red canoe!
Alas, the illustration does not show a "kitten and a puppy dog" "paddling two by two." Sitting front and back in a canoe are one cat and one dog. That's not "two by two." This is "two by two," and so is this. Anyhow, I substitute "paddling right on through." I'm not going to teach my kid to incorrectly use a phrase like "two by two."
Abusing a phrase with a fixed, conventional meaning to achieve a poor rhyme isn't bad enough, so on the very next facing pages we go straight into tautology:
All these things are floating/But basically, I think,/Shells and stones and rocks and sand/Don't float because they sink!
You think they "don't float because they sink"? With that kind of education in clear reasoning, our kids have absolutely no chance, twenty-thirty years from now, of reducing the budget deficit, ending the 40-year occupation of Iraq, or figuring out how to impeach Jenna Bush. My substitute for this crap line scans badly, but at least it's physically accurate - more or less: "Don't float because their weight is greater than that of the water they displace."
Given the foregoing intellectual flaccidity, the last pages are especially rankling:
It's curious how a ship floats by/As heavy as can be/While a pebble drops with a little plop/And sinks beneath the sea!
Yeah. Thanks for that. If it didn't suck harder than a barnful of milking machines, the book could have actually helped a kid understand why a ship floats but a pebble doesn't. Instead we get mangled English, worse rhymes, and bad science. For $6.99 (US).
The near-total inability of Baby Einstein products to actually teach what they claim to teach is awful, and maddening. Reading tripe like What Floats? makes me long for the relative simplicity of the bath-book reprint of a Golden Book like The Fuzzy Duckling Quack, Quack! Then again, the first two lines are
The fuzzy duckling went for a walk/Who did he meet?
Whom! "Whom did he meet?"! Geez. Subject, verb, object.