Methinks They Doth Protest Not Enough: Were All Parents Truly Fooled by Baby Einstein?

The wildly popular videos/DVDs known as Baby Einstein were pitched by their manufacturer as a learning tool for infants, and were even endorsed in the State of the Union address by President George W. Bush.

But as I wrote about at the time, there was no basis at all for the claim that watching these videos made infants learn anything.

An advocacy group successfully sued the manufacturer, Walt Disney Corporation, forcing it to agree to take back Baby Einstein videos for the original purchase price. Up to 4 videos/DVDs could be returned to the manufacturer for a refund of about $65, regardless of their condition or whether the owner had a receipt.

There are few things that make Americans angrier than the thought that their children have been exploited or harmed by a big corporation. One might expect therefore that millions of outraged parents would have flooded Disney with old Baby Einstein videos both to pocket the $65 and to teach Disney a lesson.

Yet 6 months after this rebate program ended (and from what the Internet Wayback machine tells me, also during it) Ebay is carrying countless used Baby Einstein DVDs/videos selling for as little as two bucks. Why didn’t the people who unloaded these videos take the bigger payout and express their righteous outrage at the same time?

Some of this may be put down to parents not knowing about the rebate (although it got extensive media attention), but I suspect that another reason is that many parents didn’t feel ripped off at all. That is, they wanted a break from their kids and the videos gave it to them, and they never really believed that their children were becoming little Einsteins.

But the product did deliver something better than free television, and hence was worth the investment from one perspective. What I observed in the hyper-achievement-oriented Bay Area is that the purpose of these videos for some parents was to advertise their putative superiority to other parents, i.e., “You may flip on some crap on the TV when you are at our wit’s end with your kids, but I, who never get overwhelmed or need a break from parenting, have decided solely for my childrens’ benefit to give them an enriched educational experience. Sad that you don’t care as much as I do, but not everyone can raise future Harvard graduates….”. In short, these parents, whose sanctimony exceeded that even of the most self-congratulatory Prius drivers, didn’t ask for their money back because they were in on the con.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

8 thoughts on “Methinks They Doth Protest Not Enough: Were All Parents Truly Fooled by Baby Einstein?”

  1. I never heard about the lawsuit myself, and we had a number of those videos.

    Even if I did hear about it, it's not a lock I would have returned them.

    1) hassle – how much work for 65 bucks?

    2) value – yeah, I never really saw them as educational – the music side was nice, and we got our money's worth. Would feel like cheating to return them.

    3) where are they?

    That said, I expect parents who thought it would make their babies into Einstein were not parent-Einstein material…

  2. I'm another one who has a kid who watched those videos. No, I didn't have him watch them for educational purposes and we never bought any, that's what the public library is for (though I suppose if I had found one for $1 or less at a yard sale, I'd had bought it). My kid just found them calming and mesmerizing and all around enjoyable, and that was enough.

    There's an Arthur show (that's a kid's cartoon on PBS) where Arthur, who is in third grade, gets stuck watching his baby sister's TV show (it's her turn) and while I don't remember the name they gave to the TV show for babies, I always thought it was based on Baby Einstein. There's soft music and lots of pretty pictures, one fading into another, and Arthur finds himself hypnotized. He's hooked. He runs home every day after school to watch and lives in fear his friends will find out.

    And Mobius Klein, who doesn't know if he/she could find their old Baby E. videos: have you tried walking around in your bare feet in the dark? After you step on every loose lego, maybe you'll chance upon one of the videos…

  3. "there was no basis at all for the claim that watching these videos made infants learn anything."

    "What I observed in the hyper-achievement-oriented Bay Area is that the purpose of these videos for some parents was to advertise their putative superiority to other parents"

    How about rebranding The Teaching Company DVDs as Baby John Stuart Mill? If baby is going to watch TV anyway, and pick up English from what he hears about him anyway, why not have him spend his time listening to "History of Tudor and Stuart England" or "Ideas of 20th century Philosophy" rather than this low-end pre-K crud?

    [I am actually interested in this idea. Was Mill a fluke, or is it generally the case that baby's brain can handle vastly more complex material than is usually presented to it?

    More seriously, the little I know of this is that feedback is very important, so that, even in the case where we know baby is remarkable, namely picking up language, simply having baby hear a foreign language on the radio, or even see foreign language on DVDs, is not enough — some sort of feedback appears to be required to get the language acquisition to work well. The interesting questions are

    (a) could this feedback be done by computer ala "A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer"

    (b) do we have to limit ourselves to language? If the conversation baby hears teaching him English consists of discussion of world history rather than a million repetitions of basic colors and barnyard animals, will baby get anything useful out of it?]

  4. I am wondering about a different afteraffect that we'll be dealing with for a long time. Actual reputable studies suggested that early TV watching for kids is associated with higher incidence of ADHD. One of the effects of the Baby Einstein flood was that kids were being forced to watch videos at an age where they would never have been forced to stare at a TV screen under other circumstances. This behavior was certainly encouraged by both the original Baby Einstein company and its eventual Disney parent. Now, extrapolating from this, it is easy to suspect that we'll be dealing with an increased number of hyperactive kids for years to come, even if Baby Einstein video were to completely disappear from the market.

    There is nothing surprising about this. Things happen on screen, in some sense, a lot faster than they happen in reality. Even when pieces of video are recorded at real speed–as they usually are–the scenes change instantaneously–an option normally unavailable in real life. So kids expect a sudden end to "scenes"–when they get bored, they want an instant transition to something else. That doesn't happen, so they move on to something else on their own. Baby Einstein was particularly egregious at this. Not only were scene changes very choppy, despite smooth, calming classical "music" in the background (never mind what that did to the appreciation of classical music at a later age), but some motions of toys on the screen were intentionally jerky and sudden. Whether it's a puppet popping up with a belching sound or a toy tractor creeping into the screen and then disappearing, there is no object conservation in these videos–nor should there be, except that most videos are not targeted at 4-6 month-olds. I would be curious if there are any studies comparing the rate of reading difficulties in the late 80s-early 90s to the same rate now. Or, for that matter, if there is a survey of ADHD rates. The kids who used to be subjected to Baby Einstein are now 5-12 years old.

  5. The real story behind this is that early childhood development has everything to do with socioeconomics. The way the child is spoken to, how frequently, what language is used, and what activities are encouraged, all represent the real stimulus over the course of the early years. The effects of any supplemental resources are going to be marginal to the adult-child interactions that truly build vocabulary and critical thinking skills.

  6. I'm with MobiusKlien and OhioMom: since I viewed these as entertainment for my son, not instruction, there was no harm done and no occasion to seek compensation for fraud.

    Buck: the "reputable studies" that I've seen are very shoddy work by any but education-school standards: they use aggregate-level data with no instrumental variables or such to control for obvious selection effects (e.g. the ones noted above: the parents most likely to show their kids lots of TV are least likely to do the other things parents should do–even controlling for income and so on). It's a nice story about unintended consequences, but not necessarily a true one. Besides, BabyEinstein is actually fairly slow and understated compared to most TV.

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