Inside Out

The best head start in life for babies is parental interaction, not spurious educational tools or toys

Scientific American’s advice is simple: “If you must buy educational toy, find one that you want to play with, because the time a baby spends hearing you talk and watching you interact with the world is the best education the baby can get.”

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 May, 2018, 3:10pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 May, 2018, 9:36pm

It is not just at Yale, in Singapore or in Hong Kong, that Tiger Mums reign, and fortunes are spent on often-spurious strategies to super-charge your baby towards Harvard or Oxford or Fudan.

Nor is it surprising that marketing products to anxious and besotted parents begins the moment sperm meets egg, including large numbers of snake-oil merchants making claims that range from the unsubstantiated to the preposterous; from foods that make the brain flourish, to educational toys that put your baby Einstein at the top of the class.

Take for instance the company that claims it can teach children of Cantonese-speaking families more than 500 English words and 100 phrases before they reach the age of three. Or articles in parenting magazines about feeding the baby’s brain during pregnancy, or books that sell recipes for brainy kids.

Take the “Babypod”, examined by science writer Erik Vance in this month’s Scientific American, which is among dozens of devices that plays music to your still-unborn child with the aim of giving the fetus a head start: “Our initial hypothesis suggests that music... activates the brain circuits that stimulate language and communications. In other words, learning begins in utero,” Babypod’s website says. And they mean that quite literally: it is a bulb-shaped silicone speaker that is inserted inside a woman’s body.

As Vance observes: “It is true that babies learn while in the womb and that music is enriching to young children. But there is no evidence that music enriches a fetus.”

While marketing groups make it hard and expensive to know just how large the world’s toy market is, there is no doubt it is huge. Research group Statista says global toy sales last year were almost US$90 billion, with around 30 per cent of those sales in the US. China seems to account for a further 30 per cent, after more than doubling in the past four years.

Research firm Technavio says the educational toys market amounts to about US$4 billion in the US – about a sixth of sales overall. If that applied worldwide, we are talking about global sales worth US$15 billion. The Scientific American says the global market for education apps for kids aged 0-4 is US$2.8 billion, and that the average 18-month-old kid already “owns” seven DVDs.

The work done by Vance and an army of academics wrestling to understand how kids’ brains develop suggests that beguiling and ingenious as many of these products are, these toymakers’ claims beyond helping kids to play are “based on either questionable science, or none at all.”

For all the toymakers’ claims, academic success still seems to depend overwhelmingly on what country you have the luck to be born in, how wealthy and well educated your parents are, where you live, who your friends are and what school your parents have been able to afford to send you to.

“Mental stimulation for young children is like vitamins,” says Barbara Sarnecka at the University of California, Irvine, who studies language and maths acquisition: “Enough is important, but more is not better.”

At the University of California, San Diego, David Barner notes that although US toddlers are intensely trained to count, they are quickly passed in maths skills by children in places such as Asia.

Note that in the widely respected global Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests in academic achievement, Singapore kids regularly head the rankings, with five other Asian economies – Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and China – all in the top 10.

This would of course imply that Amy Chua and her famous and controversial 2011 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has something going for her. And while comparison with many of the claims made by educational toymakers may be favourable, Chua’s “No TV, No play dates, and Must be No 1” disciplines continue to give heartburn to many of those who are professionally working on child development and how we optimise the way they learn.

Why China’s Tiger Mums (and dads) are resisting its ‘less homework’ policy

Chua’s own personal story remains positive. Despite teenage protests against their mother’s ferociously disciplinary educational regime, her two daughters have both gone to Harvard, and by most media accounts appear to be balanced, charming girls.

But stories from those societies like Singapore, Japan and Hong Kong where Tiger Mums abound are rather more troubling. Recent Singapore research shows that over-weaning parental intrusion has created “maladaptive perfectionism”, in which many kids are chronically insecure, and overcritical of themselves, and show high levels of anxiety and depression. The research also shows a high price paid for ignoring social and physical accomplishments.

Although parents across Asia are willing to spend a fortune on their children’s education (Hong Kong is by a large margin the most expensive place in the world with costs mounting to US$132,000 from primary through to graduation, HSBC said), a recent Chinese University survey alarmingly suggested that 14-20 per cent of children across all education levels had conversations with their parents less than once a week.

The anti-Tiger mum: watch Chinese mother’s ingenious technique to appease upset child as she tells him to ‘cry it out’

A study by Hong Kong’s Institute of Family Education found in 2016 that almost half of the parents with primary schoolchildren said they spend less than 7 hours a week on family time.

And here, for most educators and child development experts, is the crux. As Dimitri Christakis at the University of Washington, who heads a children’s centre at Seattle Children’s Hospital, notes: “No matter how interactive a game or show seems to be, it is not as beneficial as a live human being. The key for nutritious play is another human who interacts with you in a normal way.”

So the advice from Scientific American’s Vance is simple: “If you must buy some cool educational toy, perhaps find one that you yourself want to play with. Because experts agree the time a baby spends with you – hearing you talk and watching you interact with the world – is the best education the baby can get.”

David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view