Stop Trying to Teach Your Baby Stuff

baby in box
The best toy ever!
Recently, I was looking around at the hurricane of stuff my 11-month-old babies had scattered all over our den, and thought to myself, without a hint of irony, "Maybe they need more toys." Hear me out: They have links and books and balls that rattle, but I wondered if maybe they should have more stimulating, animated toys. They're at the age now where they're pulling levers and opening lids to elicit that high-pitched, battery-operated, "tee-hee" sound or carnival-style music. They'll push that big orange button like ten thousand times, bopping every time the creepy elf-like songs start. So are those blocks boring, old news to them now?

As it turns out, no, not at all. In a recent study, researchers determined that infants seek out information on their own, without the need for fancy toys or "educational" tools. If you give a baby an interesting environment to explore, they'll learn from that more than any toy.


I decided to test the theory the other day, trying to figure out what toys they may or may not need. Would they spend more time on the musical toys with all the bells and whistles or a long chain of plastic links? Well, they seemed sort of drawn to all of them, but what did they find the most fascinating? Let's see: One boy found the dog's pink Frisbee and spent a long time banging on that, clapping it together in his hands, putting it in his mouth, dragging it around the room with him. And then, my other boy, spent a good amount of time over by the heating grate (don't worry, it wasn't hot), just clanking on that and making sounds. I think at one point, the boys both wanted my water bottle, first sucking on it and then rolling it across the room. They picked up a book or two, not even looking at the pages, just flipping them around. A few times, they took a break to crawl over to the sliding glass door and look outside.

So what did I learn? Well, first off, I figured out that they probably don't need more toys if they find a wooden spoon and a catalog to be wild entertainment. But I also realized that I don't need to worry so much about whether or not I'm giving them the right "tools" to learn -- they're doing just fine on their own!

As parents, I think we often feel guilty, like we need to be giving our babies more, more, more stuff. We see some cool thing that a friend has and feel like maybe our baby just has to have that too. Or, that we're doing our child a disservice by not utilizing the baby piano that both plays music and teaches them their Spanish.

Every now and then though, my babies gesture or make a sound or reach for something that reminds me that they're little sponges, picking up on everything. It's not words I've taught them or anything I've encouraged -- it's just what they've discovered for themselves. For example, I noticed the other day that when my dog barks, one of my boys responds with his own "oof oof" grunting sound, smiling away. I didn't teach him that, I didn't ask him what a dog says, he just felt the need to imitate it, to make the same sound with his own mouth, and gets a big kick out of doing it too. I had no idea he was absorbing the dog's sounds like that, that it would peak his interest like that. Meanwhile, I sit there in front of him going, "Say Mama, say Mama, ma-ma, ma-ma, ma-ma, ma-ma." And he just smiles and gives me a blank stare. Sure, he might say it as he's crawling over to me, but not when I'm trying to force it. Ever notice how they never do their "tricks" when you ask them to? Yeah, they're too smart for that.

Clearly, babies are just ripe to absorb everything, curious and eager to explore their world. But even though they're just babies, it's really on their own terms. We don't need to get in their faces with educational tools and numbers and the alphabet -- instead, we should just sit back and see what they discover on their own, what draws them in, what they're putting together from their vantage point, just a foot or two off the ground. I'm not saying a parent shouldn't play and interact with their baby, but I think it's important to let your child take the lead sometimes, let him or her show you what's peaking their interest, even if it is a plastic pink Frisbee. And save the high-tech toys and computer programs for when they're old enough to whine and beg and cry about how much they wanna, wanna, just gotta have it.

Do you have a lot of "educational toys" for your baby? Do you think they've worked?

Read More >