Books beat TV for babies

“Read book?” Lilia, 2, carries her stuffed monkey to a comfortable chair and sets it down. She toddles to the coffee table and chooses Corduroy by Don Freeman. Climbing up in the chair, arm around Monkey, she opens the book and begins to chatter.

My granddaughter doesn’t read words. But she’s heard the story about a bear named Corduroy who goes on an adventure in search of a lost button and ends up in the loving arms of a girl named Lisa.

“Cord’roy and there button one,” Lilia reads. “Button an’mals one two Cord’roy Lisa.”

She reaches the last page where Corduroy finds himself home.

“Cord’roy hug.”

Lilia hugs Monkey.

“All done,” she says and heads off to find another book.

Did you catch the news that pricey Baby Einstein DVDs don’t help kids learn? Or the study that relates attention deficit disorder to parking babies in front of TVs?

In August, a University of Washington study showed infants who watch “baby DVDs” had smaller vocabularies than infants who didn’t watch the videos. In a study of 1,000 families, researchers found that for every hour spent watching baby DVDs, infants 8-16 months understood six to eight fewer words than those who didn’t watch.

In 2004, an American Academy of Pediatrics study linked TV viewing by babies to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Watching TV rewires an infant’s brain, said Dimitri Christakis, director of the Child Health Institute in Seattle. And not in a good way. Quick scene changes on TV overstimulate young children—and make life seem abnormally fast-paced.

When a TV is left on, its insistent noise can interfere with what psychologist and child brain expert Jane Healy calls “the development of inner speech by which a child learns to think through problems and plans.”

Surveys show that about a third of U.S. families leave the TV on in their house even when no one is watching. About 26 percent of infants and toddlers under age 2 in the United States have a TV in their bedrooms. Many watch from the crib.

Pediatricians recommend no TV for infants under 2. It’s not teaching babies. And it might be doing harm.

When my kids and I were young, I used TV as a babysitter for all the wrong reasons.

But we read plenty, too. Seuss, Sendak and Frog and Toad—then J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, read aloud in the evenings.

The habit stuck. My 17-year-old reads an hour or two each night, seldom watches the Tube and eschews commercials. (During The Simpsons, he turns the TV off a dozen times. “You can’t tell me what to think,” he tells the dark screen. “I’m not going to buy your hamburgers.")

Writes Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451: “Maybe books can get us half out of the cave.”

The Significant Republican and I started reading to our grandbaby, Lilia, as soon as she could sit upright. Her first favorite book was Dr. Seuss’s One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, a surreal collection of Western values. In one bit about sleep-walking sheep: “By the light of the moon, by the light of a star, they walked all night from near to far. I would never walk. I would take a car.”

Raising a “baby genius” requires human interaction. I bought the Usborne Children’s Book of Art this summer. Lilia and I look at paintings together, from Sondro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (1485) to Claude Monet’s The Water-Lily Pond (1899).

Lilia likes the lily pond. She can name the Mona Lisa. When we come to the page with Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting, The Scream, we hold our faces and holler.