Teach Your Children Well | Teen Ink

Teach Your Children Well MAG

January 9, 2009
By Laura Chicoine, Arlington Heights, IL

I love running. Some days I struggle up Mount Everest and other days I sprint across the Great Plains. It’s how I learned the names of streets. It’s how I exercise. It’s how I stay sane, or at least try to. It’s an endorphin therapy, my lactic acid antidepressant. As I ran around Lake Arlington for what seemed like the five thousandth time, nearly stepping in yet another pile of goose poop, the song “The ­Pretender” by Jackson Browne blasted in my headphones. Realizing that I had grabbed my dad’s MP3 player instead of mine, I navigate around a pair of walkers, almost tripping over a stroller the size of my bed, and begin listening to the words. “I’m going to be a happy idiot/And struggle for the legal tender/ Where the ads take aim and lay their claim/To the heart and the soul of the spender.” I couldn’t help but wonder, where have all the pretenders gone?

Although I occasionally played on the computer (when I could unseat my older sisters), I spent the majority of my childhood outside. I was a princess; the backyard was my kingdom, the swingset my castle, and the neighbor’s dog a fire-breathing dragon. Today, pretending gets cut from the team. Dress-up clothes, dolls, and building blocks that served as toys since before King Tut, have been tossed aside. Zapf, creator of the pooing-peeing-crying-sleeping-teething Chou Chou dolls, states on its website, “Playing with dolls also addresses and supports social skills such as loving, caring, empathy, and accepting responsibility.” Apparently, parents no longer possess the ability to teach such lessons.

LeapFrog provides an in-depth and profound explanation of its products: “Interactive toys that teach children basic skills.” My seven-year-old cousin could supply a more sophisticated definition! Scientists have discovered that during the first three years of a baby’s life, the brain forms many synapses (intersection points between neurons). Proper stimulation contributes to better brain development.

As a result, companies like Leap­Frog have created learning toys ­specifically for children under three. They include learning laptops, inter­active puzzles, and lifelike dolls. ­Fisher-Price sells the Songs & Smiles Discovery Gym (when did two pieces of plastic, a mat, and a few stuffed ­animals constitute a gym?), the Laugh & Learn Learning Home Playset (saying it twice doesn’t make it more educational), and the Smart Bounce & Spin Pony (preparing children for their first drunken mechanical bull ride?).

Despite the ridiculous names, ­parents sprint toward these toys. ­According to Fortune, Americans spent $2.5 billion on “learning” toys in 2005. Corporations simply put the word learn in the name and the toys fly off shelves. Walmart and Target sell them at relatively low prices, so even Joe the Plumber can afford them.

The learning toy producers deserve a prize for their online advertising methods. In addition to statistics, diversions, and testimonials, their websites include a plethora of information about the benefits of their products, the Howard Gardner model of Multiple ­Intelligences, reviews, and articles. Companies convince parents that in ­today’s fast-paced society, learning toys provide the only way for parents to work, cook, or even relax for a few minutes. Before parents realize it, they’re convinced that their child needs one (or the parent needs a Valium).

Fisher-Price groups its toys into educational categories like Laugh & Learn (infant role-play), Fun 2 Learn (preschooler role-play), Smart Cycle (active learning), and Computer Cool School (computer-based learning). The company ­describes the Smart Cycle as “a stationary bike, a learning center, and an arcade game system – all rolled into one!” The child pedals and moves the handlebars to steer a car onscreen, stopping at locations such as Math Mountain, Shape Lake, Number Fields, and Letter Creek. (Why wait until 16 when kids can have their first driving lesson at age three?) The unit costs $100 (of course, batteries aren’t included), which might seem like a good investment if it benefits the child. No pain, no gain.

However, cheaper and more effective methods of exercising children’s brains exist. Parent and child can take a walk together and count the number of speed limit signs in the neighborhood, or point out the colors and shapes of road signs. This encourages parent-child interaction and, for the environmentally aware parents, ­doesn’t involve the manufacture of toys in pollution-producing factories.

I have a confession. I fell for the marketing ploys of the toy companies just like those gullible parents. In fifth grade, I became convinced that the LeapFrog iQuest would help me with my schoolwork, improve my grades, and make me the smartest girl in my class. The handheld electronic game, the size of a disposable camera, had study guides and quizzes for a fifth grade curriculum. I spent $60 of my own money to buy the iQuest and an additional $5 million on cartridges ­specific to the textbooks I used at school. While it initially entertained me, it didn’t do anything except increase the amount of time I studied the information. My test scores didn’t break any records or even improve. Me is a happy idiot.

Recent studies show that no lasting damage occurs if parents neglect to “properly stimulate” their child’s brain before the age of three. Sara Mead, a senior policy analyst with Education Sector, states there is no evidence that the first three years “are a singular window for growth that slams shut once children turn three.” A government-funded two-year study by the University of Stirling found that electronic learning toys had no recognizable benefits, inhibited creativity, and even led to shorter attention spans. Not really sterling results. Additionally, children often had trouble transferring the knowledge gained in a game to pencil and paper at school, which led to confusion and more time spent on basic concepts. Electronic toys short-circuited the learning process.

So why do parents buy learning toys? They want their kids to have a successful future and by ­purchasing these toys, they hope to give them an advantage. So they spend hundreds of dollars on Chou Chou dolls, Fisher-Price Learning Kitchens, and LeapFrog merchandise. Einstein didn’t have ­Baby Einstein tapes but his theories did relatively well.

But what really motivates parents to buy learning toys? Maybe they simply wish to avoid the responsibilities that parenting entails. A flashing-blinking-sparkling-spinning-beeping-singing educational toy gives the parent a break for a cup of coffee, a chat on the phone, or a date with Jerry Springer. Do parents hand off the baton to LeapFrog just as GM, Chrysler, and Ford want to hand it off to U.S. tax­payers? Perhaps they secretly desire Chou Chou doll children with on-off switches. Maybe these toys assuage parents’ guilt for not spending time with their children. An educational toy compounds the relief of this guilt. But ultimately the responsibility of teaching young children lies with parents – not toys.

The song continues as I round the ­final curve of the lake. Browne sings, “And believe in whatever may lie/In those things that money can buy.” If learning toys fail, look for something else. Maybe a steroid-charged baby formula that ensures a 36 on the ACT, or fortified carrot sticks that morph children into the next Barack Obama.

Are learning toys the PowerBars of education, or the steroids of parenting? I’m not sure, but right now this is a ­social experiment without a control group. And we’re running on empty.



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This article has 41 comments.


on Jul. 26 2010 at 9:39 am
sydneeharris16 DIAMOND, Auburn, Maine
76 articles 4 photos 32 comments

Favorite Quote:
we the willing, lead by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. we have done so much for so long with so little, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.

I had those flashing toys, so did my brother. He is ahead in not just reading; but math. I am an excellent reader,writer and speller myself. Just because it's true for you,doesnt mean it's always true!

on Jun. 12 2010 at 5:12 pm
imperfection GOLD, Gilroy, California
17 articles 9 photos 45 comments

Favorite Quote:
"Dream as though you'll live forever, live as though you'll die today."
~James Dean (1931-1955), American Motion Picture Actor, symbol of rebellion

Completely correct. I didn't have any of the flashing, electronic baby toys when I was little, but my parents read to me at least once a day and I read the first Harry Potter book in kindergarten.

on May. 21 2010 at 12:16 pm
Viva_Mexico_21, Caddo Mills, Texas
0 articles 0 photos 4 comments
yall say this because it is yall not because you believe it is true

on Feb. 22 2010 at 8:13 pm
literaryaddict PLATINUM, Albuquerque, New Mexico
23 articles 3 photos 157 comments

Favorite Quote:
"We're almost there and no where near it. All that matters is that we're going." Lorelai Gilmore, Gilmore Girls
"The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound." Lady Bracknell, The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde

this is so, so true!!! i'm glad someone finally addressed this topic. i did a project in 7th grade about advertising to children and the multiple bad things that it caused: low self-esteem, superficiality, etc. it's not exactly the same as this article, but many of the points are similar. advertisers manipulate children (not to mention their parents!) and make millions of dollars for it. that's not really ethical, so why do they feel good about getting their paychecks after manipulating and ultimately harming the child? again, this is really, really great!!

on Feb. 22 2010 at 3:19 pm
SBloodClassicAlice BRONZE, Butler, Pennsylvania
3 articles 0 photos 9 comments

Favorite Quote:
"Truth passes through three stages:
First, it is considered absurd and is ignored or ridiculed.
Next, it is considered dangerous to the status quo, and viciously attacked.
Finally, it is considered wholesome, indeed, self-evident."
-Arther Schopenhau

Totally. This was a Very good, interesting article. If anything, your first few sentences might be a little more catchy, to draw in the reader, but maybe that would just make it seem too drawn out.

Either way, it's really fantastic, and it Does get across a hushed, but very important topic. Fifty gazillion stars, lol.

mads942 SILVER said...
on Jan. 31 2010 at 2:07 pm
mads942 SILVER, Houston, Texas
6 articles 0 photos 24 comments
Wow! This is such an interesting and usually ignored issue. I love how you had your facts and ideas clearly stated but wove in your own feelings through humor and the story about running. Great job!

on Jan. 31 2010 at 10:41 am
CatherineS BRONZE, Charlotte, South Carolina
4 articles 3 photos 13 comments

Favorite Quote:
"Don't be ridiculous. You have no right to barge into people's castles and take their guitars." -Howl's Moving Castle

Very good! I must say that I've never come across an article like this before! Great job! My mother started reading to me when I was a baby and continued until I was about 7. (When I started wanting to read exclusively on my own) When I was 18 months old, I knew the alphabet (could point out a letter written and say the sounds). I never went to preschool or anything, and now I'm reading at a college level in 9th grade. I never had any leapfrog, special learning whatevers.... Is this coincidence? I don't think so! Reading is my life, and I have my mom to thank for that. Wonderful article.

on Jan. 31 2010 at 9:28 am
Dandelion PLATINUM, Franklin, Massachusetts
20 articles 8 photos 173 comments
This was a very well-written and well-researched article. I can't tell you how much I agree. I grew up with three older siblings, and that was enough to teach me everything I needed to know. I remember dancing in front of my sister singing the ABCs and counting to 100 for the very first time with my brother correcting me every few numbers. Every night, before I went to bed, I would pick a Dr. Seuss book and my dad would read it to me every night until I thought I could recite it alone. I have my box of old toys; the contents were magnetic writing pads and tablets that contain the alphabet and a corresponding picture for each letter, and other toys to that affect. I was reading chapter books by the first grade, without the use of electronic "learning" toys.

on Jan. 9 2010 at 9:18 am
CuteCourt101 SILVER, Newark, Delaware
9 articles 1 photo 64 comments

Favorite Quote:
"Acting like someone else is a waste of who you are!" ~Unknown

I babysit little children (like in their three's or four's). There is one thing about them that makes the so much fun. You can give them all the toys in the world, but it doesn't relate at all to the joy they get knowing that you spent time with them, or the smile on their face. They may be young, but children are smart. I have a baby cousin and I cannot wait to see how she grows up. She isn't going to have all the toys, just all the attention. :)

Snow!!! said...
on Dec. 18 2009 at 7:55 pm
Oops. just looked back at that comment. Spelling mistakes= bad. Sorry. I meant 'real' and 'truly'.

Snow!!! said...
on Dec. 18 2009 at 7:52 pm
Wow! I was so glad to learn that there were studies behind some of this stuff.. it's always interesting to see whether the claims of commercials and the reald data match up. Thanks so much for the insight. And on a deeper note, while I get that three year olds can be exhausting (I spent all of Thanksgiving w/ a 3 yr old cousin, I understand) there is truely nothing better than seeing them smile at you because you gave them some small amount of attention. If all our parents remember that, I think our country and world could be a much better place.

on Oct. 13 2009 at 3:09 pm
Inkspired PLATINUM, Whitby, Other
26 articles 0 photos 493 comments

Favorite Quote:
"If one will scoff at the study of language, how, save in terms of language, will one scoff?" - Mario Pei
"I write for the same reason I breathe - because if I didn't, I would die." Isaac Asimov

I totally agree! Really well written, and like everyone else, I love the satire! Brilliant! You just personally proved you don't need educational toys.

on Oct. 13 2009 at 8:04 am
Mystery_Girl SILVER, Lake, Michigan
8 articles 6 photos 86 comments

Favorite Quote:
"Love me or Hate me"......"Me Vs. The World and the World is Winning"......"When the going gets tough the tough get going".

WOW!!! I loved it how much I agree and how true it is. I however, think that these toys are okay for once in awhile. But they don't teach the kids much they just are fun. Kids need to get out with their parents and have fun and breath. I so agree with you...and my Mom who used to teach parenting would also agree! IT IS SO TRUE AND GREAT!!!!

on Sep. 21 2009 at 12:39 pm
livinglaughingloving SILVER, Clermont, Florida
5 articles 0 photos 15 comments
This was so good, I laughed a couple of times, in a good way of course

AmnyR BRONZE said...
on Aug. 9 2009 at 5:22 pm
AmnyR BRONZE, Clifton, Texas
4 articles 0 photos 134 comments

Favorite Quote:
To the world, you may be just one person, but to one person, you may be the whole world. ~unknown

like the sarcasm. "Me is idiot"... great line!

fanfan BRONZE said...
on Aug. 9 2009 at 3:31 pm
fanfan BRONZE, Gaithersburg, Maryland
3 articles 0 photos 1 comment
This is truly wonderful, I've agreed with the basic premise of this article for a long time now and haven't been able to put it into words as well as you did. Being a car guy though, I have to point out that Ford hasn't accepted any taxpayer money.

on Jul. 31 2009 at 7:45 pm
AquariusSunandMoon SILVER, Sublette, Illinois
8 articles 17 photos 69 comments
This is wonderful! Well written and thought provoking (even though I don't hold with the electronic teaching devices for young children anyway).

Five stars :)

on Jun. 11 2009 at 5:12 am
Laura Chicoine BRONZE, Arlington Heights, Illinois
2 articles 0 photos 1 comment
Thank you so much for the comments! I will definitely check out that book "Me talk pretty one day".

rubiesrrare said...
on May. 29 2009 at 9:41 pm
loved the article, esp the satire in it...if you like things like that you gotta read "me talk pretty one day" by david sedaris...great and sounds like you!

on Apr. 3 2009 at 4:03 am
Rebecca Heilweil BRONZE, Not Your Business, New York
1 article 0 photos 7 comments
I can relate to the statement about parents being unable to stimulate their children. Now our society is so busy with computers and work and money we are unable to fully contribute the energy required to consistently stimulate the minds of three years old. Therefore, we rely on electronics that will do the work for us.


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