Building better babies?

How do you build a “better baby?” Flash cards, apparently. From the Philly Inquirer:

Angelo Calafati munches a fistful of Cheerios. Directly across from him, his mother, Dana, coos and smiles. She holds up a stack of 10 large cards with pictures of exotic flowers, and like a gunner who has found her target, she rattles off complex names for several seconds.

South African daisy. Feverfew. Greater stitchwort.

Angelo grins. He shows off his two front teeth. He gazes intently at the purple prickly pear. He furrows his brow. At times, he looks away.

Over the morning’s breakfast at the carriage house in Oaks, Calafati, 32, will present more large flash cards, many handmade, that cover a variety of subjects: European flags, mammals, forest animals, composers, even historical farm tractors and military helicopters with model numbers.

Sikorsky CH-53. Kamov Ka-25. Boeing CH-47 Chinook. . . . Henry Hudson. Marco Polo. Christopher Columbus.

“Christopher Columbus found the Americas while seeking a sea route to India,” Calafati, a gymnast by training, says, sounding peppy as she shares occasional trivia.

Angelo gurgles. At 13 months, he may not talk, but he’s an old hand at this. Like his two older siblings, he’s gone through these paces since birth.

Mom is using the Better Baby Program, which sounds like a complete crock. “Controversial,” says the Inquirer.

About Joanne


  1. I know tons of “trivia” type facts because I happen to have a brain that works that way. That knowledge is not nearly as useful to me as being able to connect information and synthesize it.

    And as much as I am pro-plant (being a botanist), I question the utility of “teaching” a baby “exotic flowers.”

    Heck, the mother could at LEAST do it right, and teach him the scientific names :^)

  2. Light a fire people, not fill a bucket!

  3. Silly, but probably harmless, and apparently entertaining to the baby. Much better than plopping your baby down in front of an ‘educational’ video and going away.

    My husband, a grad student at the time, used to read technical papers to our first baby. She though it amusing, and it gave him a way to study and keep the baby happy simultaneously. Though I don’t think he was under the impression that she was learning any of the material, she did pick up that books are for fun quite early….

  4. It can’t hurt if the kid isn’t stressed. Heck the kids at my school often come never having had a book even read to them. Or anything else. they usually have a vary limited vocabulary, and I’m not just talking about the second language kids.

  5. Walter Wallis says:

    One mother told me that once she had no kids but 5 theories on raising them, now she had 5 kids and no theories.
    Paying attention to children seems to have affirmative value, just as knowing when to let go also has.

  6. As a science chick, my toddler knows some fun science things (he only knows that the scientific name for ‘fruit fly’ is ‘drosophila melanogaster’ because he thought it was funny when I said it – I was a yeast geneticist and wanted to teach him saccharomyces or kluyveromyces just for kicks, but he couldn’t say them). But for the most part we do things that he finds interesting – he knows that animals with hair are mammals, so he can tell me if different zoo animals are mammals or not – or that when clouds get ‘full of water’ they turn black or gray and then the rain can come out. He recognizes tomato and pepper plants and knows the difference between flowers and leaves, etc. It’s fun and educational to inject a little science into everyday life, but really specialized ‘trivia’ knowledge isn’t necessarily useful for much of anything.

  7. From a June, 2005 post, The Privileged Perfect Child

    Once you have a baby, you can bend every effort to maximize his potential.

    There have been several fad eras, most notably the “better baby” or “superbaby” courses, of which the most famous (or notorious) is Glenn Doman’s Better Baby Institute, now (still!) doing business as the The Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential. I’m not linking to them, You go look if you want. Doman makes a great many claims, but none have been investigated or confirmed by research.

    There are those that are militating against the “superbaby” syndrome: One is a pediatrician, Dr.Lawrence Kutner, who asks parents to :

    Some unscrupulous people try to exploit the natural insecurities and desires of new parents. They’ll promise to turn your child into a prodigy if you’ll just buy their program or products and do exactly what they say.

    Dr. Spock wrote about the superbaby syndrome; his essay was later updated by Robert Needlman. Both warned against superbabyism:

    The discovery that so much important brain development occurs in the early years has led some parents to try to create superbabies–through relentless stimulation and education, starting right after birth… Yet the best experiences for an infant appear to be those she inherently enjoys–those that are rich with love and caring and security, and those that make sense to her.

    From the suspect classes, such as the Better Baby Institute, an idea has spread. Today if you walk into any children’s emporium–Toys R Us, say, you can find hundreds of products marketed to parents of infants and toddlers promise to promote intellectual development, from toys (black and white objects that will stimulate your newborn!) to videos to heighten your baby’s intelligence, as the Baby Einstein and Baby Genius lines seem to promise. Baby Einstein, since being purchased by Disney, has had a huge penetration into the households-with-kids market.

    At the end of 2002, about 30% of households with children under four own at least one of the Baby Einstein brand videos. It is a robust moneymaker for the Disney label.

    The question is, however, are videos a responsible product for children under 24 months of age? The American Academy of Pediatrics hasn’t thought so since 1999, asking pediatriciants to:

    Discourage television viewing for children younger than 2 years, and encourage more interactive activities that will promote proper brain development, such as talking, playing, singing, and reading together.

    In October, 2003, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a study, Zero to Six: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers and Preschoolers:

    The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under two not watch any television, and that all children over two be limited to one to two hours of educational screen media a day. Despite these recommendations, in a typical day, 68% of all children under two use screen media (59% watch TV, 42% watch a video or DVD, 5% use a computer and 3% play video games), and these youngsters will spend an average of two hours and five minutes in front of a screen. Indeed, according to their parents, 43% of all children under two watch TV every day, and one-quarter (26%) have a TV in their bedroom. Seventy-four percent of all infants and toddlers have watched TV before age two.

    Teletubbies and Baby Einstein were particularly disparaged by the report. While millions of “Baby Einstein” videos are sold each year, several panelists pointed out they aren’t in the infant consumers’ best interest: the Einstein videos can be overstimulating and of dubious educational value, several panelists said.

    “They’ve been selling a bill of goods to parents,” said Alvin Poussaint, a Harvard professor and expert on adolescent psychiatry, speaking of the new products. Parents buy these products believing they can speed the development of their children’s brains, he says, though there is no empirical proof that they do.

  8. I was on the cafe deck at a local small airport; a family with a girl of 4 or 5 was eating there also. Following conversation.

    MOM: What makes an airplane fly?
    GIRL: Buh..buh..
    MOM: That’s right, Bernoulli’s principle!

    What on earth could be accomplished by giving this kind of “knowledge” to a 5-year-old? Knowing the *name* tells you nothing whatsoever about how the plane actually flies…it would have been more useful to something like say “the wind blows under the wings and holds the plane up,” even if this is not 100% correct, it at least gives you *some* idea what is going on. The “Bernoulli’s principle” explanation is like medieval schoolmen who said morphine makes you sleepy because it contains a “dormative principle.”

    These flash cards strike as a similar kind of thing.

  9. What David Foster said.

    I wonder what Mom would do if confronted with Bernoulli’s equation… on a flash card.

  10. David Foster asked,

    “What on earth could be accomplished by giving this kind of “knowledge” to a 5-year-old?”

    Similarly, I’ve long wondered … what on earth could be accomplished by things like “ALC’s Angel Course … originally designed for Japanese unborn babies and babies to develop their English listening ability”?

    ALC finally pulled this thing off the market. I can’t believe they were selling prenatal English with a straight face.

    Meanwhile, in Korea:

    Kim Sun-jung, in the sixth week of her pregnancy, starts the day by reading an English children’s book. She takes online English lectures for “prenatal education” and goes to English-language worship on Sunday. “I do this for my baby. People say if children are exposed to English earlier, they can learn it more easily.”

    In Korea, English-language education begins even before children are born: one online service for prenatal English education has gathered more than 50,000 subscribers over the last two years.

  11. Charles R. Williams says:

    Mrs. Calafati would do more for Angelo’s happiness (and her own) if she invested all this time and energy in bringing a baby brother or sister into this world.

  12. Well, I know that I was taking a college Spanish course when my oldest daughter was five. I used to practice while she was in the room.

    Didn’t think anything of it, until she took Spanish in high school, and became fairly fluent at it quite quickly.

    I doubt that prenatal exposure will be fruitful, but, early exposure (in the preschool days) has been shown to be beneficial in learning a foreign language.

  13. When I was on maternity leave, I took a conversational Spanish class. I took my daughter, who was a newborn, along for lack of child care. I wondered if the early exposure would help her learn Spanish some time in the future. The answer: Nope.

    Of course, while the teacher was a native speaker, my classmates and I were so awful that it may have served as a bad influence. She heard too much mangled Spanish in infancy to master it in later years.

  14. i read that you were supposed to play music for the fetus that you could use after they were born to soothe them. since i’m not very musical, i sang the “let’s go red sox” chant to my wife’s big belly. the chant definitely quieted him down when he was upset as an infant, although he now prefers sesame st to baseball.

  15. When my grandfather was in veterinary school, he would have his 2-year old son hold up flashcards and generally help out with the studying. Dad still knows far more about horse anatomy than is generally useful.

  16. I grew up with this program, and it was lots of fun for us (I’m the oldest of four). Our parents took a course at the institute in the late 70s and used the methods as ways to broaden our horizons. It’s actually very organic if done with the right spirit. I read the full article and felt the reporter had a really negative view of the whole thing, which is a shame.