Betsy Hart

I like classical music. Not as much as I like Rod Stewart classics, mind you, but well enough.

But I never bought into the notion, prevalent throughout my four children's babyhood, that there was a small window of time to really shape a baby's brain. And that flooding that brain with Mozart or other classical music during those years was one key way to make a baby smarter. That understanding was based on "research" in the 1990s that just always seemed ... a little too easy to me.

Though apparently not to a lot of people. In the late 1990s, then-Gov. Zell Miller mandated that every new baby leaving a Georgia hospital be given a classical-music CD.

He said, "Listening to music at a very early age affects the spatial-temporal reasoning that underlies math and engineering and even chess."

Really? States started pouring millions into baby education and resources, with the hope that reaching babies in the first months and years of life would help them do better in school later on. Whole companies developed "brainy baby" products that teased parents out of untold amounts of money in the belief that just the right educational toy, CD or gadget in those all-important first three years of life would give their baby that all-important leg up on ... everything.

Well, finally somebody is showing a little smarts here after all. Sara Mead, a senior analyst at Education Sector, an education-policy think tank based in Washington, released her analysis this week, "Million Dollar Babies: Why Infants Can't be Hardwired for Success."

Mead writes that "there's a problem ... with the new conventional wisdom about building brighter babies: it's based on misinterpretations and misapplications of brain research."

She points out that the real evidence is that there's no magic "brain development window" that closes after the first three years of life. That, in fact, focusing on that "magic" window may let us parents and our communities off the hook later on when what we do for our kids really matters. And so, for instance, she recounts director _ and so-called child advocate _ Rob Reiner arguing: "If we're going to have a real impact on societal ills _ crime, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, welfare _ we're going to have to focus in on the first three years of life. It's problem-solving through the prism of zero to three."

Like I said, some folks sure want it to be easy.

Mead goes on to lay out the overwhelming science for dumping the super-baby approach. But, she's not the first. In 2005, Marina Krakovsky reported in the "Stanford Report" from Stanford University that while scientists had discredited the claims that Mozart affects babies' brains, the belief in the "Mozart effect" had still exploded in popularity over the years, becoming a myth that couldn't be dislodged.

As Krakovsky points out, the original Mozart-makes-baby-smarter theory came from a 1993 Nature journal report. It found a small and temporary (15-minute) increase in a college person's IQ after listening to classical music. Babies were not studied.

Still, the Nature report _ along with other research that showed some major growth in a baby's brain in those early years of life _ essentially ignited the "baby brain" rage. The "findings" made the cover of Newsweek, and were the basis of countless news articles.

I know, because my mother used to send them to me.

Unfortunately, I don't think the baby-brain "wave" will end anytime soon. A new mom and dad don't want to hear: "Trust your instincts, and just enjoy your baby. Your natural, loving interaction with him in those first years is all the stimulation he needs."

Too many parents want to build a "better, stronger, smarter baby," and they believe there is an expert out there who can help them do it.

Sadly, it seems many of today's moms and dads want to believe that it takes an expert to raise a child _ maybe because, in a lot of ways, that's just so much easier than believing it takes a parent.


Betsy Hart

Betsy Hart is a nationally syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service. Her column on cultural and family issues, “From the Hart,” is distributed each week to hundreds of newspapers cross the country. Betsy’s first book, "It Takes a Parent: How the Culture of Pushover Parenting is Hurting out Kids – and What to do About It," was released in September, 2005, and was a top seller for its publisher, Putnam Books.