NEW YORK — An HBO special premiering Saturday features a diaper-clad maestro conducting an all-animal orchestra, but the cute images and world-class score haven’t deterred critics from assailing “Classical Baby” as an inappropriate attempt to introduce infants to television.
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HBO is deeply proud of the animated half-hour show — which was developed by award-winning producers in consultation with a Harvard Medical School child psychiatrist, offers music by famous composers, and is intended to be watched by parents and babies together.
“To leave a child alone in front of a TV as a baby sitter is terrible,” said the consultant, Dr. Eugene Beresin. “The whole idea of this production was to find and create a medium that could help a parent and child interact.”
A 'classic hoax'
Critics, though yet to see the show, are unconvinced that any TV is good for children under 2. The Boston-based Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood has called the program a “classic hoax” and is urging parents to avoid the show while protesting with phone calls or e-mails to HBO.
Susan Linn, founder of the commercial-free campaign and a psychologist at the Harvard-affiliated Judge Baker Children’s Center, said the idea of exposing infants to culture through TV shows “is nonsense.”
“There’s mounting evidence that too much TV is harmful,” she said. “It’s a battle parents are going to be fighting with their children until they leave home, so why would you want to get babies started on watching TV when they’re not even asking for it?”
A variety of home videos and computer games are available oriented toward under-2 children, including a Baby Einstein video with music by Vivaldi that’s marketed for use with babies as young as 6 months.
However, it is rare for a TV network or cable channel to promote a program specifically for infants, as HBO has done with “Classical Baby.”
'Wonderful tool for early learning'
“Stimulating, soothing, and full of heart, 'Classical Baby' fulfills the potential for TV to inspire and engage a baby’s imagination and sense of wonder, while serving as a wonderful tool for early learning and family bonding,” says a news release promoting the show, which premieres at 7:30 p.m. EDT Saturday.
The show consists of short musical pieces by Tchaikovsky, Bach, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin and others, accompanied by animation depicting clowns, fairies, animals and glimpses of great artworks such as the Mona Lisa. HBO plans to expand it into a three-part series later this year with episodes focusing on art, dance and music, accompanied by a manual offering tips for parent-infant interaction.
“It’s part of the whole baby video scam, escalating ever since ’Teletubbies,’ pushing the false notion that watching these videos is good for babies,” Linn said. “You can create a bond doing things that aren’t potentially harmful to children.”
She contended that videos and TV programs geared to infants are part of an industry effort to teach children to turn to TV screens for stimulation and soothing.
Any kind of TV bad for babies?
The American Academy for Pediatrics, in an official policy statement, says quality educational TV programs can be an asset for preschool children, but it explicitly refuses to recommend TV for children under 2.
“During this time, children need good, positive interaction with other children and adults to develop good language and social skills,” the academy says. “Learning to talk and play with others is far more important than watching television.”
However, Beresin argues that “Classical Baby” is designed to encourage exactly the sort of interaction that the pediatrics academy would endorse.
“To say that this kind of TV is bad is tantamount to saying art is bad,” Beresin said in a telephone interview. “It’s no different from listening to CDs together, or reading storybooks together.”
Beresin said children could benefit from learning at an early age that TVs can be part of a positive, engaged family life.
“Children are exposed to TVs and computers and GameBoys for the rest of their lives,” he said. “If they’re left alone with these things, we’re sending them a bad message. Let’s make them part of human interaction.”
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