Balancing Intellectual Learning And TV

Ah, parenthood, and all of its emotions. Things like love, joy, and then guilt, worry, and that sickening fear in the pit of your stomach that you're doing it all wrong, and your child is going to end up like a cross between Dennis the Menace and one of those 70s sitcom kids who ended up on the wrong side of the law. Minsun Park knows that no parent is perfect... and she proves it here in her column, Parental Discretion. Read on!
by Minsun Park

Baby Einstein or Baby Couch Potato?
My son Jonah has just turned five months old, and despite my hopes of raising a Baby Einstein, I fear that I am raising a Baby Couch Potato instead. If you're a parent, you probably know that I'm referring to those ubiquitous Baby Einstein videos. The name of the company "Baby Einstein" is a brilliant marketing ploy, calculated to alleviate any nagging parental guilt about plopping your bright bundle of potential in front of the idiot box. I'm reasonably sure that Albert Einstein would not have come up with his Theory of Relativity if he had grown up watching "Must-See TV."

The other day, I gazed lovingly at my own dear son -- all eighteen pounds of him slouching in his bouncy seat. His pot belly drooped over the waistband of his Huggies, where his little hand was firmly tucked. Drool ran down his chin as he gnawed on a teething ring, completely riveted to his beloved Baby Einstein video. Overcome with maternal affection swelling in my bosom, I swooped down to kiss his saliva soaked cheek. Jonah merely scowled and craned his neck to see around me. Apparently, I was blocking the TV screen.

I suddenly had a chilling fast forward to 50 years into the future. A vision of my middle-aged son vegetating on an overstuffed couch, looking... well, pretty much the way he looks now. Same thin hair, same fat paunch rolling over tighty whiteys and the same hand tucked into his waistband, lazily scratching himself. Although instead of a teething ring, he'll probably be stuffing his face with some futuristic snack food in the Doritos family. Still watching TV. His beleaguered wife saunters into the living room and stands in front of him wearing nothing but a teddy and he just gives her that same impatient scowl and growls at her to stop blocking the screen.

I shuddered and switched off the TV abruptly and began engaging Jonah in what passes for quality one-on-one interaction in our family. I waved a squeaky toy, sang a song miserably off-key and made a funny face or two. Jonah showed me his appreciation by howling inconsolably and looking back towards the blank TV screen longingly. Sighing, I turned the TV back on and Jonah was immediately all smiles again. Just what I needed, more grist for the parental angst mill. My mind raced and my stomach contracted as I tried to dissect how this could have happened.

You don't have to be an child expert to feel that modern children are way too sedentary and watch a deplorable amount of television. My husband and I were also raised on a steady diet of "Brady Bunch" and "Gilligan's Island." We can reminisce about our favorite episodes with the same nostalgia reserved for our fondest childhood memories. Except these are good times that never happened, at least not to us. During my pregnancy, I vowed that things would be different in our little family. There would be music, books, crafts, painting and sports to enrich our child's mind. In my hormone-addled mind, I envisioned the Von Trapp family from "The Sound of Music." Only a drastically scaled down, nuclear family version sans play clothes sewn out of living room drapes. (You see, another movie reference! It's a real sickness, I know).

Unfortunately, very young infants have a limited appreciation for all of the above things and trying to entertain and stimulate a colicky baby all day long proved to be a Herculean task that I was totally unprepared for. And Julie Andrews was not coming to my rescue anytime soon. Sure, I had conscientiously taken an infant care class, a breastfeeding class and even a cpr class and emerged with the grossly mistaken impression that I had covered all baby care bases. Why oh why was there no class offered on "How Not to Bore Your Baby to Tears?" Take 24 hours in a day and subtract 14 for sleep, another two for all the feedings, a half hour for a bath, and let's say another hour for diaper changes and clothing changes. That's only 17-1/2 hours of time accounted for, leaving a staggering six and a half hours to play with my baby!

Make no mistake, I love my son with a fierce intensity that startles me, but what the heck am I supposed to do with him for six and a half hours? Playing peek-a-boo and reading a ten-page storybook only gets you so far. I feel like a perpetually awkward cocktail party hostess with a restless party of one. I ply him with food and drink and desperately try to engage him in small talk and light diversions, but all the while, he is looking over my shoulder, hoping for someone more interesting to come to his rescue.

This baby entertaining stuff is a full-time job. No, it's way more grueling than a full-time job. At least there are long lunch hours, coffee breaks, gossiping around the water cooler and computer solitaire games to play while pretending to be hard at work. But goofing off on this job is not tolerated by my son. The fastest way to get his attention and incur his wrath is to appear as if I am relaxing. This includes furtively glancing at the paper, trying to eat lunch or even going to the bathroom. That's when the Baby Einstein tapes came to the rescue and taught me that this hands-on parenting stuff is strictly for amateurs.

Jonah absolutely loved Baby Bach, Baby Mozart and Baby Einstein from the tender age of six weeks. They're a form of visual heroin for babies -- cheap, easy to score and instantly addictive. Each tape is exactly 30 minutes long and for that precious half hour I am almost giddy with the possibilities: Do I shower, race around the house trying to do laundry, return phone calls or get something to eat? Usually they just keep Jonah from noticing that I'm lying in a crumpled heap on the couch at the butt crack of dawn -- when he gets up. My husband Teddy has even brilliantly managed to stretch this time to 33 minutes and 45 seconds by playing the credits sequence, the federal warning and the infomercial stuff at the very end with creator Julie Aigner-Clark, all of which Jonah is happy to watch. But then again, Jonah would be happy watching a Jerry Lewis telethon if it's on TV.

I tried this little trick one day and noticed that at the end of the tapes, Clark and her daughter are shown reading a book together. This idyllic scene is shot through a fuzzy lens that appears to be coated with an inch-thick layer of Vaseline petroleum jelly and the soft, ambient lighting makes their long, golden hair glow. When Clark looks up from her book and smiles, her over bleached teeth are even whiter than the glacier pantsuit she's wearing. Next, we cut to various scenes with her daughters playing the piano or exploring nature together. Basically, they're doing everything except watching television. The smug message: Watching TV may be good enough for all you other deadbeat parents, but hey look at me, I'm actually spending time with my children!

Finally, a stern brunette mother with a no-nonsense, PTA hairstyle and her baby are depicted watching the video together and Clark's breathy voice-over narrates, "We encourage you to use our videos as multi-media blackboards for your child. Point to objects and name them for your child." I snorted derisively and my morning coffee came shooting out of my nose. Jonah was way too engrossed with watching supermom Julie Clark to notice that his own mother was asphyxiating and turning purple. I mean, get real! If I wanted to spend quality time with my child, I wouldn't need those tapes. Besides, I already tried all that pointing stuff and I quickly learned that entailed partially blocking the TV screen -- something Jonah still didn't appreciate.

Although I loathe to admit that my son may be addicted to these videos, to tell the truth, so am I. Of course, I know it's a poor substitute for parental involvement and I don't delude myself into thinking that Jonah will be any smarter for watching them. I certainly haven't gotten any smarter by osmosis. But if relying on TV for 30 minutes a day so I can have that time to myself earns me the title of Mommy Dearest, then I guess letting him run with scissors and using wire hangers isn't far behind. I vacillate wildly on whether I think TV is the greatest discovery since fire (man's first entertainment) or the tool of benign parental neglect. Only time will tell, but just in case, I'd like to take this opportunity to apologize to the future Mrs.

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