I was wondering about this when looking at some American
products that involve playing videos to babies as young as one month to bathe them in Shakespeare and speeded-up Mozart.
Is it a feeling of guilt, that you are letting your offspring down if you leave the Merchant of Venice or the Magic Flute until their first birthday?
As the father of three children, I remember the competitive conversations well.
"Oh yes, our Samantha was walking at 10 months and knew all her letters before she even started school."
"Really, a bit slow then was she? Our Jason could walk at nine months and was reading when he was three."
I always wanted to join in with: "That's nothing. Our Josie was doing triple somersaults, with pike, in the womb. Then she emerged, at birth, reading Wittgenstein's Tractatus, singing arias from Le nozze di Figaro in Italian." But I never had the gall. And even if I had done so somebody would have trumped it.
The keenest "hothousing" fans really do start when the baby is still in the womb. To give your offspring the best launch, you talk down a speaking tube attached to the mother's abdomen. It's true, they actually do it. I wonder what they say.
"Hello there, it's me, your mumdad. Just a few more snippets before you pop out. Battle of Waterloo, 1815, and we beat Napoleon - that's capital N and then lower case a-p-o-l-e-o-n, by the way. Oh, and don't forget, six sevens are 42. Byeee. Talk to you tomorrow, when we'll be doing the eight times-table and discussing John Donne and the metaphysical poets."
I suspect that by the time the human voice has struggled its way through the abdomen to the baby, it probably comes over as: "Flubba lubba lubba rub a dub dub", so they might as well just listen to the Teletubbies.
From the age of one month conscientious parents are supposed to be playing Shakespeare to their newly-bon.
"But 'tis a common proof that lowliness is young ambition's ladder ... pay attention when I'm talking to you ...
"Whereto the climber-upward turns his face ... look, stop breaking wind and spitting raspberry delight down your chin and listen to the greatest poet England has ever produced ..."
One of the baby genius videotapes has syllables and odd words from various foreign languages. Listening to this is supposed to facilitate language-learning in later life.
Babies do indeed reproduce all the sounds of which the human voice is capable, and some of these fade away later, through disuse. But that hardly seems a reason for playing them out of context to an uncomprehending infant. We learn our own or a second language because it is real and means something.
Imagine the situation in reverse. What good would it do to soak some hapless Russian infant in detached globs of English?
"... shed ... hat ... parsley ...
hedgehog ... ig ... ag ... bum ..." I cannot see any point to it.
What are we doing to ourselves as a society when many people feel they must try to turn their infants, as soon as possible, not just into grown-ups, but into adult geniuses?
Is childhood itself now regarded as a luxury, a phase only permitted by parents who don't care?
There is a balance between being a conscientious parent, giving your children the best start in life, and hovering anxiously over them from birth in case they fall short of genius. Too much time spent at the latter end of the scale may throw the delicate switch that separates curiosity from boredom.
Family games, conversations, story-telling, rolling around the floor, hugging, playing peek-a-boo, having a laugh, singing, are not just old-fashioned pastimes, they are biologically and psychologically effective ways of developing the body and the intellect.
Put the baby genius kits in the bin. The real world is much more fascinating than its synthetic equivalent.