As a first-time parent, nothing quite prepared me for 1997’s onslaught of well-intentioned advice and instruction about The First 3 Years of Life. I vividly recall lying in my hospital bed, nursing my hours-old son Rory and seeing Rob Reiner, President Clinton, and Dr. T. Berry Brazelton come on TV to talk about the “I Am Your Child” public education campaign on early childhood development. It turns out that the day Rory was born, April 16, 1997, was also the launch of this campaign at The White House, just blocks away from the Columbia Hospital for Women where I watched, elated, transfixed…and increasingly, desperately anxious.
As I listened to Reiner, President Clinton, Dr. Brazelton and others talk about the importance of stimulating infant brains and reading to children, the overwhelming sense of responsibility that I already felt as a new mother was compounded: I felt an immediate pang of guilt for not having packed any board books in my hospital overnight bag. Really. Sure, I was supposed to be focusing on recovering, and on diapering and nursing, and bathing my baby, but what about reading to him? What about stimulating him with black and white toys? This anecdote about my moment of panic in the maternity ward might well reveal a thing or two about me, but it exists in part because of the time and place in which I came into motherhood: late 20th century America. Brain development research that the “I Am Your Child” campaign referenced was emerging into a mainstream audience, and this created a popular, some would say anxiety-driven, demand for educational baby toys, products, and board books…
…and videos. 1997 was also the year that the Baby Einstein product line was launched with its first video focused on introducing conceptual knowledge and other material to babies and toddlers through classical music, art and poetry, and it was followed by a virtual avalanche of associated toys and copycat products and media. This was also the year that the Teletubbies show was first syndicated in the UK, with a US launch occurring in 1998. Since 1997 there have been numerous challenges to the supposed benefits of educational media for infants and toddlers. Most famously, an August 2007 study conducted by researchers at the University of Washington suggested that watching baby DVD’s could negatively impact language acquisition. "There is no clear evidence of a benefit coming from baby DVDs and videos and there is some suggestion of harm," said lead author Frederick Zimmerman. "We don't know for sure that baby DVDs and videos are harmful, but the best policy is safety first. Parents should limit their exposure as much as possible.” (http://uwnews.washington.edu/ni/article.asp?articleID=35898). The Baby Einstein brand, by then owned by the Disney Corporation, demanded a retraction of the statement, but the university stood by its research and the American Academy of Pediatrics followed up in November 2007 with a press release recommending “no television viewing for children under age 2, and no more than two hours of daily media exposure for ages 2 and older.” http://www.aap.org/advocacy/releases/oct07studies.htm
The University of Washington study specifically looked at hours that babies and toddlers spent watching baby DVD’s without a parent alongside them. In other words, it looked at the impact of passive, solitary screen time, and it didn’t like what it saw. Language acquisition seemed to suffer—perhaps because televisions can’t talk with babies, they can only talk at them. Of course, no one challenges the value of reading aloud with young children; the “I Am Your Child” made a point of promoting it, while the continued rise of the board book as a form of children’s literature emphasized the importance of shared reading with babies and toddlers as a foundation for early literacy skills. In fact, 1997 was also the year that the Dr. Seuss inspired book Oh Baby the Places You’ll Go: A Book to Be Read in Utero was released. While it’s easy to poke fun at this latter example of responding to the call “it’s never to early to read to a child,” reading aloud does afford parents and their young children a meeting place for interactivity and for talking with one another about a shared experience of words, pictures, ideas, and stories. While watching a video or television show together can also provoke conversations, it’s easier to pause in the reading of a book than it is to stop and start a program on the screen, and to flip back through pages to revisit favorite or puzzling images than it is to go back to scenes on a dvd. Books invite the reader to set the pace of the experience, while videos and television shows do not.
Rory and I managed to escape the deluge of baby videos and television programs that was born alongside him and his age mates, and all of the laundry, diaper changing, breastfeeding and sleep deprivation associated with parenting a newborn made me chill out a bit about never wasting one precious moment in which to educate and stimulate him. Of course, I did read to him, and not just from the board books that I had failed to pack in my hospital overnight bag. My mother and I joked that he was the youngest member of Oprah’s Book Club because I so often read novels aloud to him as I breastfed, just to connect with him through the sound of my voice and to provide him with the music of language. As he got older and more mobile and alert, we also had daily “book picnics” that involved spreading a blanket on the floor in front of a chair and hauling a basket of board books over, from which he or I would make selections. At first, lurching toward a book, drooling on it, or puking up organic strained carrots on a book all qualified as “selecting” in my mind, but he soon seemed to develop keen, deliberate preferences: books featuring cars, trucks, and babies’ faces were particular favorites.
Ultimately, I think a main reason we read with children, in addition to bonding with them while fostering language acquisition through conversations and exposure to text, is to help them become strong, independent readers down the road. In a sense, then, reading with children is a microcosm of raising children: we read with children so that they will one day read on their own, as surely as we raise children so that they will one day leave us to lead independent lives. I’m not at all saying that reading with children should stop as soon as a child can read by herself, but I do believe that moving from shared reading to private reading is a natural and exciting progression in a child’s reading life.
Furthermore, I think that in order to best support a child’s eventual movement into beginning reader books and the proud declaration of “I can read it all by myself,” early literacy experiences should support children’s opportunities to assert and develop individual taste in what they like to read and should allow them to actively participate in the reading itself, instead of being relegated to the role of listener/viewer. This is something I’ve written, thought and taught about extensively in my professional life as I’ve considered the difference between reading to children and reading with children, and it’s something I’ve valued tremendously in my life as a mother. As they acquire language and a love of books, children do say the darndest things about their reading experiences, things that stretch beyond the basic invitation extended by the reminder of “I am your child” and into to exciting realm of “I am my own person” as they claim their places in the world of books, language, art, stories and ideas.