Home on the range (mother's day out..of her mind)

I’ve never been one to take advantage of absolute-satisfaction-or-your-money-back guarantees. Part of it is just laziness, but I also try to accept my responsibility as a consumer: The choices I make are my own, motivated by a combination of careful research and wishful thinking. If the age-defying serum I purchase doesn’t prove to be as age-defiant as I’d hoped, I’m not likely to return it, get on the horn with the Better Business Bureau, or even blog about it.

But when I heard about the recent brouhaha over Baby Einstein, I found myself doing the math: Disney will refund $15.99 to customers who feel they were misled by the marketing of the DVDs as “educational.” That’s way more than the going rate of $2 for used Baby Einstein videos on eBay, and I’ve got at least 10 collecting dust in a closet. Though there’s a limit of four DVDs per household, nothing’s stopping me from enlisting members of my extended family to return the rest — nothing except maybe my pride. As more than one sneering parent has put it on comment boards across the internet, taking advantage of this offer is like saying, “I am a total idiot. Mock me, please.”

Well, they have a point. When I first learned of the recall — or as Disney prefers to call it, the extension of a “refund policy already in place” — I thought it sounded like a headline from The Onion: PARENTS DEMAND REFUND WHEN TV TURNS BABIES INTO DROOLING COUCH POTATOES INSTEAD OF TINY ASTROPHYSICISTS. I mean, how gullible can people be? I was happy that my kids enjoyed the videos as toddlers, but I never thought that watching slo-mo images of gamboling golden retrievers and splashing babies would make them smart. I did find that the DVDs would keep them pleasantly occupied for 30 minutes while I answered emails or used the bathroom without an audience. I also found the classical-music soundtrack more palatable than the vocal stylings of a certain color-coordinated quartet of androgynous Australians.

This puts me squarely in the pragmatist-parent camp, one of the factions currently spewing vitriol online. Pragmatists are acutely aware of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation that children under 2 not have any screen time, and that older kids be restricted to an hour or two at most. We are disturbed by the Nielsen stats released last month indicating that TV usage among children has reached an all-time high, with kids ages 2 to 5 logging more than four hours a day. We are quite familiar with the studies that suggest speech delays and ADHD are more likely to result from repeated viewings of Baby Mozart than a Mensa membership. And many of us support the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the coalition whose relentless efforts to make Disney stop marketing Baby Einstein as educational ultimately resulted in this refund. Nevertheless, we feel that when used sparingly, responsibly, and not as a substitute for human interaction and books, a little TV never killed anyone.

The pragmatists run afoul of the hardline purists. They’re the ones most likely to observe that Albert Einstein didn’t watch Baby Einstein and look how well he turned out (his estate, however, does benefit from the $200-million business that licenses his name). Some of these folks appear to lead a Little House on the Prairie existence in which children are given an abacus and a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress to occupy them while Mother toils over her washboard — and crafts eloquent takedowns of Dora the Explorer on the comment boards at the nytimes.com and Slate.

The purists paint a scary picture of ignorant parents strapping defenseless infants to their bouncy seats, propping their eyelids open, Clockwork Orange-style, and mercilessly subjecting them to repeated viewings of Baby Van Gogh. Meanwhile, the “ignorant” parents remain fiercely loyal to Baby Einstein. They cite the undeniable brilliance of their own offspring as proof of the product’s effectiveness, and vilify the haters and moneygrubbing lawyers who dared to threaten poor, beleaguered Disney with a class-action suit.

I, for one, can’t work up a lot of sympathy for the parent company of Baby Einstein because I doubt that very many people are going to take advantage of the refund. I’m guessing that the folks who really have been duped — the ones who can least afford to blow $16 on a DVD — spend more time working to feed their families than they do getting worked up about other people’s parenting choices on the internet. The peanut galleries may be united in their withering disdain for these “idiots,” but this refund is like Fisher-Price offering to buy back all the old toys my kids have outgrown, at full price. On behalf of idiots everywhere, I will help myself to a tiny piece of the Disney pie — and maybe even split the proceeds with CCFC.  

Home on the Range appears the third Wednesday of each month.

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