Pots, Blocks &Amp; Socks

THE BABY IS DUE SOON, SO you're out buying the normal stuff--diapers, receiving blankets, towels, powder, creams. Think you're done? Only if you're immune from guilt. Nowadays you'd be hard pressed to call yourself a conscientious parent unless you've also laid on black-and-white toys, flashcards, "scientifically designed" playthings and at least a dozen Mozart CDs--thereby supposedly guaranteeing a life full of ivy-covered diplomas and other accouterments of success.

Does any of this really make a difference? Can you stimulate your child into becoming another Einstein? Not likely. All of this obsessive parenting is based on the notion that a baby properly stimulated will develop faster, learn languages or music better and all in all be a smarter kid. The key phrase here is "properly stimulated," which is not the same as expensively stimulated or the worse fate, overstimulated.

Most experts advise parents to calm down. Sure, a baby requires certain stimulation to learn basic tasks, whether to speak or to use motor skills to build Lego bridges. But short of being raised in isolation, a baby will encounter enough stimulation in most households to do the trick-anything from banging pots and pans together to speaking to a sibling. There's no evidence that specific kinds of toys or environments will somehow speed up skills or groom a child for the Olympics. "You could stimulate until the cow comes home and it's not going to make any difference," says David Henry Feldman, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University. "Evolution has made sure that the baby's brain is going to develop certain neural pathways."

Researchers also caution parents against expecting that they can make their kids smarter. "The fact is, it's very, very hard to raise anybody's IQ," says Edward Zigler, a Yale psychologist and a founder of Head Start. And even if a child learns to read early, there's no evidence that that accomplishment translates into higher grades, intelligence or later success, according to John Bruer, president of the James S. McDonnell Foundation, which studies cognitive science. Besides, he says, trying to determine a child's right age, or "critical period," to learn a skill is futile--no one agrees on when or even whether such windows occur in the brain.

If any stimulation is effective, it's plain old talking. Language development results from a child's talking to a mother or other caretaker-not from flashcards, says Zigler. Mothers worldwide naturally pick up a way of speaking that Zigler calls "motherese." They pause between words so that babies can concentrate on language sounds. Their voices rise in pitch and their cadence fluctuates almost melodically. There's nothing fancy about this.

To be fair, there are some experts who say kids can be specially stimulated into success. One of the more controversial is Glenn Doman, head of the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential, also known as the Better Baby Institute, near Philadelphia. His theory-strongly disputed by most experts-is that babies can learn anything and it's easiest to start at birth. "Every child has the potential to be the next Leonardo," he says. His technique,embodied in the book "How to Teach Your Baby to Read," first published in 1963, exposes babies to flashcards of words and phrases. Doman concedes he's gained little scientific recognition but says he has 20,000 supporting anecdotes. One of them is from Jo Ann Loeliger, a 48-year-old Philadelphian who began teaching her three children to read at the ages of 3 years, 9 months and at birth. She says her older kids were reading difficult books early, and her youngest could read single-word flashcards at 9 months. The older kids also started learning violin at the ages of 4 and 3. "It comes so easily to them," says Loehger.

Some researchers also think that particular toys are more effective than others in stimulating children. Dr. Richard Chase, founder of Child Development Corp., says his company's age-appropriate toys, like the Rattle Cat, which contains high-contrast colors with a simple face for babies, can heighten kids' development. "We can make most children smarter and more interesting than we make them now," says Chase, an adjunct professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University.

But most experts say that more important than a particular toy is that parents be attuned to the kind of stimulation that interests their child. Sue Cima, who lives in Orlando, Fla., found that when her daughter Niki was 3 months, she was fascinated by black-and-white cardboard flashcards. "She just loved them. She was mesmerized," Cima recalls. Pots and pans? Niki hardly looked. Beth Crim, a librarian in Manassas, Va., noticed that as a newborn her son David seemed intrigued by patterns of light. She would place him on his back where he could watch the sunlight making shadows through the trees. "That's about as low-tech as you can get," says Crim. So one kid will grow up to be a great blackjack dealer in Las Vegas and the other the next Claude Monet. But which one?

Parenting, even with the best advice, has never been easy. The Child-raising experts of one generation are often denounced by the children of the next. Here's a look at how much has changed since the beginning of the century.

1920s: Education pioneer Maria Montessori lets a child's own interests set the pace at her new schools; Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget rethinks how children learn.

1930s: The Depression forces kids to grow up fast. Behaviorist John Watson says stoicism builds character; never hug or kiss the child.

1940s: The war ends and a baby boom begins. Dr. Benjamin Spock's best-selling book on child raising advises a new generation of parents to replace schedules and scoldings with humor and hugs.

1950s: Nuclear families colonize the suburbs. Parents seek cues from science and monitor Johnny's progress against the development charts of Arnold Gesell, founder of Yale's Child Development Clinic.

1960s: The anti-establishment generation attempts to revolutionize nearly everything, including family relations.

1970s: Divorce divides a record number of families and the women's movement questions traditional parenting roles for both men and women.

1980s: More moms enter the work force than ever before, pushing some companies to provide day care. Feminists like Carol Gilligan ask why researchers largely ignore girls' development.

1990s: Researchers examining cognitive development tap new technologies to see the exciting world inside a child's brain.

Pots, Blocks &Amp; Socks | News