Toddlers and TV sets don't mix

The house that Mickey Mouse built is taking a hit. The Walt Disney conglomerate that spans from Hannah Montana to most of Hollywood and from ESPN to sprawling worldwide resorts is giving up ground. It is minor turf, but still Walt and Team Disney’s lawyers are not used to losing.

Since 1998, Disney’s "Baby Einstein" videos and DVDs has been aggressively marketed to parents of young children intent on increasing Junior’s intelligence. For ten years, children from three months to three years (the target group) have been glued to screens and the Disney Empire has raked in millions. A 2003 study found that one-third of all American babies aged between 6 months and two years had been exposed to a Baby Einstein video. Disney’s success has spawned several competitors who promise to give Junior a leg up in the music world, the sports world and maybe even the world of making millions with phony promises.

But the spurt in grey matter hasn’t materialized. Folks at the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood have been pressuring Baby Einstein for evidence that their materials were anything more than electronic baby sitters. Turning up the heat, the American Academy of Pediatrics, concerned with all the time infants are spending transfixed before television sets, has recommended no screen time. Under pressure, then, the Disney marketers are dropping the word "educational" from their advertising and providing refunds to disappointed parents.

While the $15.99 cheque from the Disney empire may appease the saddened parents of dull-eyed, TV-addicted kids, will this sop solve a larger problem? Will it lead parents to get more balanced goals for their children?

The quest to increase one’s IQ or intelligence quotient has been the goal of both serious scientists and scammers for some decades. By and large, the scientists have given up on IQ quick-fix increases, but the scammers are still roaring around. IQ, the measure of our capacity to learn, appears, however, to be quite stable, and while very poor nutrient and lots of screen watching can suppress it, there is not much parents can do to boost Junior’s score.

Unquestionably, it is a worthy goal to want one’s offspring to be knowledgeable and have a head full of useful facts, theories and ideas. So, too, is the parental desire that their children attend the very best schools and become truly educated adults. The Baby Einstein route and its cousins, the increase-your-IQ-in-ten-easy-lessons course, sadly will not get us there. They are bogus elixirs for anxious and perhaps lazy parents. Even worse, they distract attention from the royal road to improving a child’s chance to become educated: developing his or her CQ.

CQ stands for Character Quotient, a scientific term especially ginned up for this article. While it admittedly reeks of ersatz Baby Einstein-like promotion, CQ actually is a stand-in for one of our world’s most enduring truths: character is destiny.

Each of us has a character and each character is different. Our characters are the sum totals of our habitual ways of response to life’s events. They are the totality of our good and bad habits, our personal virtues and vice. As we ramble and shamble through our days, we develop patterns of waiting until the last minute to get things done. Or of never failing to pass on a juicy piece of gossip. Or unreflectively stepping in to help someone in need. Or of telling the unvarnished truth even when it hurts.

These habits are the markings on our character by which we are known. Rarely do we recognize our own character, but it is all too apparent to our spouses and co-workers. "He’s a generous guy, but he just can’t finish a task!" "She’s a toothache to be around, but she is the go-to gal when you want something done."

Each of us is ruled by and defined by our habits. However, while the habits of our adult years get increasingly resistant to change, the habits of childhood and adolescence are quite plastic. While this statement may seem like a magnificent platitude, the question remains, why do so few parents and educators focus their attention on habit formation?

Instead of anxiously planting Jack and Jill in front of the television screen, the good parent should help them acquire habits such as persistence, self-control and diligence. These are the habits which define good students and treasured employees. A character marked by these habits knows how to set a goal and get a job done, whether it is acing an exam or getting a scholarship.

The root of "character" is the Greek word "to engrave." Parents can do a great deal to help a child groove good habits, but at a certain point the job of engraving a character must be shifted to the young person. Convincing a young person of the significance and importance of crafting his or her character is, though, the central duty of parents. The work of character building is slow and long, but the rewards for both parent and child are monumental.

The key to how to increase one’s CQ has been known by wise people throughout history. Aristotle told us that a man becomes brave by doing wise acts and honest by doing honest acts. However, before Aristotle, Confucius captured the essence of character formation in a short poem:

Sow a thought. Reap an action.
Sow an action. Reap a habit.
Sow a habit. Reap a character.
Sow a character. Reap a destiny.

Kevin Ryan founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University, where he is professor emeritus. He has written and edited 20 books. He has appeared on CBS's "This Morning", ABC's "Good Morning America", "The O’Reilly Factor", CNN and the Public Broadcasting System speaking on character education. He can be reached at [email protected].


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