Hothousing: The Pros and Cons of trying to make a ‘Baby Einstein’

There's nothing wrong with wanting to give your bub a head-start in life, but stuffing their mushy little head full of maths, languages and other trivia might not be the best way to go about it.

baby einstein hothousing

Every parent thinks their kid is a genius. About 99.75% of us are incorrect – most of us woefully so.

I too got sucked into believing my babies were both budding super-brains, destined to develop a cure for cancer, in the middle of a high stakes poker game, while orbiting the earth in a spaceship they designed and built themselves.

All that stood in their way? The right nurturing from me.

As such, there have been times I’ve been guilty of what some might consider to be “hothousing”.

Not to be confused with “hotboxing” (which would surely have the opposite effect), “hothousing” is the practice of force-feeding your baby’s brain with information in much the same way you might stuff a sausage ­– a relentless torrent of facts rammed into a tiny fleshy space, in the belief that it will turn your child into a genius.

It’s something of a hot-button issue – with some very passionate people on both sides of the debate, and a lot of very wild claims being bandied about.

The arguments for…

Hothousing can take a number of forms – from the DIY “Baby Einstein” kits that parents can use at home, to a more structured program that involves intensive learning from ages 6 months to five years, before the child goes to school.

Researchers from the University of Alabama have found the latter can offer some benefit. They looked a program called the Carolina Abecedarian Project – that was started in 1972.

In it, 111 children from low-income families were divided into two groups; one group went to pre-school and did the normal pre-school things, like falling off slippery dips and eating paste, while the other half attended a nursery school dedicated to emphasising language and reading skills.

They then tested the kids again when they were 8, 12 and 15 – and found that the children who’d been given the hardcore learning experience were performing better than the ones who didn’t.

So far, so brainy.

But what about the other stuff – like those commercially available flashcards, books and multimedia iPad YouTube stuff you can use at home?

Wellll… the jury of “parenting experts” are still out on that one my friends – largely because it nowadays tends to involve subjecting your child to the Big Bad Bogeyman we call “screen time”.

Dad son iphone learning

It’s called the ‘idiot box’ for a reason

Whether it’s on the TV or the iPad doesn’t matter – it’s almost universally accepted that too much screen time is bad for kids.

So the idea of plonking junior down and subjecting him to 30 minutes of hardcore Cantonese grammar lessons delivered at lightning speed on the telly might not be such a good idea.

However… the old-school, non-multimedia aspects of these programs carry a very simple component of ‘good parenting’ – kids thrive on sharing experiences and spending time with their parents, and anything that can get dad to spend more time with their bubs will only be a good thing.

(There are several exceptions to that last statement, of course, but for the purposes of this article, I’m focussing on good things dads do.)

So there’s an argument for being a hands-on, educational dad – because father and child time is precious and lovely and completely necessary for bub’s development.

Dad and toddler play naughts and crosses

But what are the risks involved with this sort of thing?

Sometimes things go too far

The notion of hothousing has been around for quite some time – and over the years, it’s created an army of people who have risen up against it.

As far back as 1987, education expert Irving E. Sigel from Princeton University (it’s a fancy one in America) asked the question “Does hothousing rob children of their childhood?

Spoiler alert: he says it does, but he adds: “children should be offered learning activities which provide opportunities for intellectual exploration and flexibility”.

The key word there is “offered” – not forced.

More recently, Amy Chua wrote a book called The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which caused quite a stir – particularly because of what’s now known as “The Little White Donkey” anecdote, involving her daughter Lulu learning to play the song on the piano.

It goes like this:

“I hauled Lulu’s dollhouse to the car and told her I’d donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn’t have ‘The Little White Donkey’ perfect by the next day.

“When Lulu said, ‘I thought you were going to the Salvation Army, why are you still here?’ I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years.

“When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn’t do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.”

Amy then made Lulu practice right the way through dinner. The little girl wasn’t allowed a break at all, not even to get a drink or go to the toilet. But Amy says that when Lulu got it right, she was “beaming”, and “wanted to play it over and over” once she’d managed to get it right.

Yes, this is an extreme example (and yes, Lulu clearly wasn’t a baby when all this was going down).

But the good news is that, despite having a relentlessly aggressive sociopath for a mother, as far as I can tell Lulu hasn’t had a psychotic break and gone on a shooting rampage at school.


Finding the right balance

A lot of the examples in favour of hothousing children can be explained away by the very simple fact that some people are naturally smarter than others.

So it’s entirely debatable whether people like Ruth Lawrence, whose father began hothousing her when she was 5, would have turned out to be different to the people they are today.

Ruth was admitted to Oxford University when she was 10, and graduated with a degree in mathematics when she was 13, supposedly all thanks to her “domineering” father who home-schooled her.

She’s now a university lecturer in Israel, and a mum to four kids.

By comparison, I lecture at Sydney University, and I’m a dad to two kids. I was hothoused to a certain extent – I landed a place in an Opportunity C class when I was 9 years old.

I went on to get a TER of 43.15 in my HSC, and was thrown out of two different undergraduate degrees for underperformance.

Make of that what you will.

For the very, very occasional child prodigy that pops up in the media, there are literally hundreds of thousands of kids who’ve been hothoused by their parents, and haven’t turned out to have Large Hadron Colliders for brains.

Finding the balance in all of this is probably the key.

Kids love to learn – and even more so, they love to learn from their dads. In fact, researchers at Harvard University have found that when dads read bedtime stories to their young kids it is better for language and literacy development, than when kids are read to by their mums.

But it’s worth remembering we’re talking basic bedtime stories here, not hardcore science and algebra.

And it’s not just reading. A study of 11,000 UK adults by the University of Newcastle found that simply being a hands-on dad, being involved in your kids lives as they grow, could positively benefit their IQ.

Pushing your kids to breaking point, without any solid scientific reason to do so, is probably a bit too much. Read to them. Play with them. Be a good dad for them. And you’ll be right.

But if they spontaneously turn out to be better than you at advanced calculus when they’re 9 months old, by all means let someone know.

Related Reading:

If you don’t read to your baby, you’re a crap dad

How to talk to your baby and make brain magic happen

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