Creator stands behind arts, cultural value of products


The mother who launched the Baby Einstein child video empire by making videos in her basement for her own children says she's stung by a controversy over whether the videos help babies learn or get in the way &

and insists they were never designed to make infants smarter, only happier.

Julie Aigner-Clark sold her company to Walt Disney Co. five years ago. But the suburban Denver mother of two has been personally targeted by criticism after a University of Washington study suggested baby videos may hinder infants' vocabulary development.

She woke up to find the mailbox outside her Centennial home vandalized with the words, "Baby Dumb," spraypainted on it after she did television interviews about the study. She's also received e-mails from angry and concerned parents who'd bought videos for their children.

In an interview, Aigner-Clark said she stands behind the videos and that they were never designed to make children smarter. The point, she said, is to make them happier by exposing them to "beautiful things" like art, music and poetry.

Along the way, she thinks babies who watch the videos with their parents will probably learn things about words and numbers as their parents talk to them about what they see &

just as they do from reading a book with them.

"I believe we've done what we've always set out to do &

expose kids to great things. And when used the right way, by interacting with a parent or a guardian, they're positive ways to engage your child," said Aigner-Clark, who has returned to work as an English teacher.

The Web site for Baby Einstein, one of the most successful lines of baby videos, states that its products, which also include books and puppets, aren't designed to make babies smarter. The company was named after Albert Einstein because he "embodied a love of the arts, simple curiosity, and a passion for discovery."

The company's DVDs feature pleasurable images like undersea footage on "Baby Neptune," or nuts-and-bolts learning tools. The Language Nursery video, for example, features words pronounced in English, Spanish, Japanese and several other languages. Other DVDs and CDs feature classical music by Beethoven and Bach and are named after luminaries like Galileo and Van Gogh.

The university survey, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, found that watching an hour of baby videos a day was associated with a 17-point decrease on a language assessment test in children 8 to 16 months old. It said that meant those children knew about six to eight fewer words out of a list of 90 than other children that age.

But the researchers acknowledged they couldn't say for sure what was causing those decreased scores without further study. And they found no difference in scores for toddlers 17 to 24 months who watched videos or television.

They said it's possible heavy watching of the videos hurt children's language development but also proposed other possibilities &

that some parents of children with poor language skills expose them to more videos or that some parents leave their children watching the videos by themselves.

The university on Thursday refused Disney's request to retract a press release summarizing the study results, saying it correctly summed up the findings as well as the researchers' interpretations of the findings.

Last week's university press release said parents who want to help their baby's language development should probably limit the amount of time spent watching "Baby Einstein" and other baby videos.

Disney said that wasn't fair since the study didn't reach a final conclusion. University president Mark A. Emmert said the release summed up the study's results and included researchers' interpretations but wasn't a substitute for reading the actual survey. He acknowledged, as the researchers did, that more study was needed to determine the reason for the lower test scores.

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