Dear Straight Dope:
My wife and I are about to bring our first child into the world. The hype surrounding "superbabies" has died down, but I want to know if there was anything to it. Just in case I have the name wrong, let me describe what I mean. The idea is that children under six are total sponges, capable of all sorts of amazing feats of learning. An example of this was Rick Moranis's character's daughter in the film Parenthood. Does this stuff really work? Does it last? Are there negative consequences? Should we do it? If so, what are the good references?
First, let me say that I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV. That said, I am a parent, and went through the "superbabies" craze of the 1980s, when both of mine were born.
Whatever else may be said for the superbaby concept, advocates were right about the "tiny sponge" thing. Children pick up all their early skills quickly and with little prompting from us. Language acquisition is particularly astonishing. Children learn the grammar of their native tongue plus a sizable vocabulary solely by hearing it spoken and observing the reactions to the sounds. That’s one of the reasons they say "mama" and "dada" so often–it produces a response from you. The process has fascinated scientists. Linguist Noam Chomsky’s theory about the "deep structure" of language was prompted largely by the thought that children could not possibly learn language so quickly were not some primitive language-generating engine–a proto-grammar–already embedded in their brains. Deep structure, in Chomsky’s view, is essentially the same for all humans, regardless of culture. During their first years, children learn to generate "surface structure," that is, the words and sentences of their native language. Chomsky’s views remain controversial but have influenced the way we think about early learning.
The central tenet of "superbabies" theory is that since infants carry no baggage, and their neural pathways are still forming, you can get anything into their skulls with little or no problem. Up to a point this is consistent with Chomsky’s thinking. He posited that during the first three years of life, the child’s learning acquisition faculties were particularly active. Learning is far more difficult later in life.
But Chomsky’s ideas also suggest why the ability to create "superbabies" is more limited than advocates would have you believe. The behaviorists who preceded Chomsky argued that the mind was a blank slate. Not so, said Chomsky. He argued that the deep structure of language was innate–we’re born with it. What’s more, the process of early learning acquisition to a considerable extent is automatic. Children learn what they’re genetically programmed to learn. That’s not to say parental input is unimportant, but what we provide in the way of stimulation is mental food–the child processes it in his own way. You can’t just open up his skull and pour learning into it. Research has tended to bear this out. Children in all cultures become competent in language, regardless of how active a role the parents take in the process.
In short, parents need to approach their role with a certain humility. You’re not going to teach the child so much as the child is going to learn. This next is from Dr. Benjamin Spock, a good guide in all things baby:
. . . 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.
(How can you tell if something makes sense to an infant? Easy: They smile, they laugh, they coo.)
The best learning occurs when an infant is happy, relaxed, attentive, and actively involved, not when she is being oppressed with cold, unwanted, and unnatural stimulation.
So read to your child (in fact, I recommend it), but to the tiniest of infants, it’s the tone of voice and the involvement that are most important–in other words, it’s the medium, not the message.
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