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January-February 2006 Selected Content

My Word! - David H. Albert

Phonics in Utero

I can be a cranky sort of guy. Not a crank (or at least I hope you don't think me so) or on crank (in my day job, I help folks find treatment to wean themselves off the stuff), just cranky. I usually sleep okay, though I recently discovered unhappily that the dentist now mixes epinephrine with the lydocaine, and that can make me a bit loopy.

Just cranky. I don't tend to find conspiracies under every rock, but not because I don't see the agglomeration of big business and big government (most of the time, it is difficult to know where one ends and the other begins, really) wrapping their blood- and brain-sucking tentacles around us and the rest of the world ever more tightly. Rather, they don't usually seem particularly secretive about it anymore, and perhaps that is more worrisome.

I attempt to share and ultimately dissipate my crankiness through humor. Homeschooling conventions and forums are therapy for me, so please keep the invitations coming so that I don't turn into an ax murderer; or, avowed pacifist that I am, simply a crotchety old guy ("crustified," says my younger daughter, Meera, an adjective I seem to have earned when she turned the ripe old age of 14.)

I have joked for years at conferences about how the past-President of the United States had come to believe that if little Johnny didn't know his vowel sounds at age 6 Ohm, he was destined to become a drug-addicted homeless criminal. (The current President believes the same thing - so much for partisan differences.) The logic chain seems ironclad: If Johnny doesn't know his vowel sounds and "perform at grade level," he will "fall behind." If he falls behind, he will feel badly about himself. If he feels badly about himself, he won't succeed in school. If he is not succeeding, he will be left back. If he is left back, he is likely to fall in with the wrong crowd. If he falls in with the wrong crowd, he is more likely to use drugs at an early age. If he uses drugs at an early age, he is more likely to become a criminal. If he is arrested and serves time in prison as a criminal, he is likely to find it difficult to find and hold a job. If he can't hold a job, he will become homeless. Skid Row, the shooting gallery, and the state penitentiary are all the future has in store for little Johnny for failure to properly identify the Sa, Fa, Ma, and Pa quadruplets at the appointed time. There it is - bald, clear, and terrifying, and holds parents and entire communities as willing hostages.

The prescribed solution has been to mount the kids on the school conveyor belt at earlier and earlier ages - Head Start at ages three to five, or Early Head Start at age two. (That research has shown that it doesn't work, even on the President's own terms, would be the subject of another essay.) And then, I would jest, soon they'll be teaching phonics in utero, which usually provokes some arch laughter from homeschooling audiences.

Well, following one of these talks, a woman came up to me and presented me with a full-page advertisement cut out of a maternity magazine. There, lying on a bed with a book, is a smiling, clearly very pregnant, blonde woman (in most of the parenting magazines I have perused, with the exception of Mothering, blondes seem to be the symbol of blissful future motherhood, and they all "carry their pregnancies well"), with the following headline: "You're never too young to learn. (In fact, you don't even have to be born!)" The copy reads, in part, "BabyPlus(R) provides your child lifelong benefits by beginning the learning process even before your baby is born. Our prenatal curriculum, comprised of 16 weeks of audio "lessons," is the first step in your child's cognitive development....We suggest you and your child begin the lessons between weeks 18 and 32 of your pregnancy. Don't miss the opportunity to provide your child this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity." (The ad, by the way, gives no indication of how the curriculum is to be delivered - for that, you have to go to the Web site.)

At least they seem to understand that you can't get left back and be forced to retake week 29 before you are born. Detention goes with the territory. But if you don't start the curriculum early, "research" undertaken in Russia ("limited in scope and substance due to budgetary constraints during a time of profound political upheaval,", says the Web site) seems to indicate your child will have: poorer school readiness and diminished intellectual abilities; shorter attention spans; later developmental milestones; decreased ability to self-soothe; poorer sleeping patterns beginning in early infancy; poorer nursing; and will be less alert and relaxed as a newborn. Put it together, and one can quickly see that to not utilize the Prenatal Education SystemTM - "when learning begins" - is to subject your future Susie to child abuse and neglect, and a life of continuous woe.

The system costs $163.95, plus $14.95 shipping and handling, including the optional speakers and belt package "for those who feel their abdominal/physical size requires two sound sources for the use of Baby Plus(R)." (The blonde in the picture clearly wouldn't require it, but how would you be sure? And what would it mean to have a "feeling" about such matters? Do would-be mothers come specially equipped with such foreknowledge? What do I know - my second X chromosome is missing a leg.) The package is pretty inexpensive, I'd say, given that the benefits will last a lifetime. Didn't see a money back guarantee, though.

But I'm more than a little bit cranky about the product. It's not that I'm a cheapskate (well, I am frugal, but not when it comes to my kids), nor in denial about its potential. No, in fact, I'm off the hook - one of my kids was born well before the product was invented, and the other is adopted - what we are doing for her is about two decades worth of remediation for her lack of access to a technology that could have positively transformed her life, and ours. Many of you, dear readers, can't make identical claims, and therefore stand convicted, and it's too late to do anything about it.

With the hair stiffening on the back of my neck, and blood pressure further from registering 'dead' than is normal for me, I sought to explore how it works. As this thing goes, I'm now an expert! What BabyPlus(R) claims to do is introduce lessons to prenates through "the only language they understand - the maternal heartbeat." What's not to love? It's not a vitamin, it's communication, and the technology speaks the language of the heart! And the baby learns to discriminate the BabyPlus(R) sounds from those of the mother, and is stimulated, and along comes little Einstein, only a happy, alert, relaxed, sleeping, nursing one who performs above grade level! There seem to be lots of satisfied customers - there are a bunch of testimonials on the product Web site from very happy, what seem to be first-time mothers and fathers. They even posted one with a 9/11 hook from a New York City Police Officer! None reports on whether the prenatal curriculum helped their kid get into Yale yet, but perhaps that is forthcoming. Anyway, check it all out at www.BabyPlus.com

I'm still cranky. I'm not sure I'd be more peeved if the product works or if it doesn't. Doesn't it seem to imply that the mother's heartbeat is somehow insufficient for the future well-being of the baby? I guess that's the heart of the matter for me: If parents are willing, for the sake of sonny boy, of course, to surrender the language of the mother's heartbeat, what won't they be willing to surrender later to a larger societal view of what is best for the child to further the child's education? The thing is, if I am a mother (or father)- to-be, am I supposed to feel ecstatic or violated?

I don't have any easy answers. I do know that in 1998 the California Legislature was so concerned with how the child's brain is organized (as a result of relentless lobbying by a washed-up television actor who went by the endearing appellation, Meathead), that they enacted the California Children and Families Act "to provide, on a community-by-community basis, all children prenatal (my emphasis) to five with a comprehensive, integrated system of early childhood development services." With a little imagination, one can imagine public health nurses going door-to-door making sure that to-be moms are wearing their belts correctly (with the extra sound source if called for), and school officials charging those who don't wear their belts religiously with aiding and abetting the fetuses in being truant in utero. Actually, home visits will likely be unnecessary; implanting microchips in pregnant moms to monitor them to ensure they are "laying the proper emotional, physical, and intellectual foundation for their children" would work just as well. I know. I'm getting ahead of myself. (I've always loved this metaphor, as it likely implies that most of them time I am actually behind myself, which means I could use some remedial assistance in catching up. I'm sure Meera would likely agree that I can be a little slow on the uptake.)

Frankly, my objections appear to amount to a bunch of metaphors. "A child's womb is his castle." "A mother's womb is sacred space." "There is a sacred bond between mother and child that is not to be interfered with." "The language of the mother's heartbeat is not to be bought or sold." The rhetoric may make for good protest signs, or counter-advertising, but I hope you, dear reader, expect more from me. I certainly do.

At bottom, I think my hostility is not so much to the technology (after all, I'd urge pregnant women to take folic acid) as to guilt-tripping parents into believing that, to ensure their children's success, they've got to mount the kids on the conveyor belt even sooner than they do now. If I question the morality of stereotyping and scapegoating "late" readers as "slow" learners, or the drugging of seven year-olds because they indicate through their actions that they would rather be playing outside rather than confined to the interrogation rooms, or the social machinery of school itself as a system of tools designed to maintain and reinforce social class distinctions, why wouldn't I question the morality of a technology which goads parents to get their kids into the game that much sooner, even before they are born, for heaven's sake, whether it works or not?

I fully expect to be chewing on this at least until my next epinephrine-free dentist appointment. My crankiness is not likely to fade away anytime soon. Since I am not as of yet at rest with this matter to my own satisfaction, and I expect some of you dear readers are not either, I want to invite you to send me your own comments (shantinik@earthlink.net), and with my publishers' permission, I'll try to put them together for a later column.

In the meantime, and imagining infinite regress and the importance of finding ways to get the XYs involved, I'm hoping against hope that someone doesn't come up to me at the next homeschooling conference with a magazine ad headlined, "Sing to Your Sperm."

© 2006, David H. Albert

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