August 22, 2008

Overstimulation Part II: Shelby Picks on a Peacock

Meet Jacques the Peacock:

Jacques scares me. Jacques makes me want to pack it all up and move to Amish country. Jacques makes me want to ban anything with a battery from the house (Jacques doesn't even take a battery!) and find a cave to live in.

Jacques is extraordinarily popular.

I look at this small toy and as an adult I am overwhelmed. Could they possibly cram anything else onto a single toy? The above picture doesn't show it, but Jacques' back is covered in various black and white patterns, since we all know that newborns only see contrast, or something. Here's a picture of Jacques' butt. Anyway, just looking at the picture, I can count over 25 different elements, and that's just his front. If Jacques were a Christmas ornament, he'd be the one made by the child so taken with all of the pretty things on the table that she glued as many sequins, sparklies, doo dads, fuzzy balls, pipe cleaners, foam pieces, and as much glitter as she possibly could onto that one piece (that child would have been me, by the way).

Is more really better?

I don't see a toy that makes me want to grab it and explore every visually appealing aspect. I see a toy that makes me want to say, "STOP THE MADNESS!!!" And lest you think Jacques is an anomaly, he is joined by an entire line of "Lamaze" toys made by Learning Curve that share the same features, including whatever the hell this is supposed to be. I don't know where Lamaze changed from a childbirthing technique to a line of terrifying toys, but I suspect Dr. Fernand Lamaze is doing some hyperventilated breathing from the Great Beyond at this.

To me, Jacques looks less like a toy and more like a lot of visual noise. Which makes the product description from Amazon all the more puzzling:

Stimulates Baby's Vision and Auditory Skills When babies are first born, they see in black and white. This is why the Play and Grow Peacock strikes a balance between bright, high contrast patterns that help stimulate baby's vision, and bold solid colors that give baby's eyes a place to rest. Sounds like crinkle, squeakers and jingles also help stimulate and develop baby's auditory skills. Finally, large, friendly eyes on the Play and Grow Peacock invite baby to focus and stare at a single object, which helps calm baby while supporting healthy eye development.

Are they seriously saying that any aspect of this toy is visually calming? Seriously???

Why yes. Yes they are.

So all that said, it should seem like a no-brainer. As an adult I find this toy overstimulating. Shouldn't it be doubly more so for an infant? But here's the thing--the only thing greater than the number of features this toy has is the enthusiasm of parents who wholeheartedly endorse it. Both Babies R Us and Amazon feature product reviews, and nearly all reviews of Jacques are gushing. Parents go on and on about how this is their child's favorite toy, how their faces light up when they see it, how it makes them smile, and so on and so forth. (well, one reviewer on Amazon called it "Lame and boring"--I'll just present that without comment). One reviewer on Babies R Us paints a particularly vivid picture:

When I bought this toy and introduced it to my daughter at 6 weeks, I only showed her Jacques' backside which has black and white patterns on each 'feather' and his red backside. Newborn babies like black, white and red - it's easy for them to see. A week later I slowly turned Jacques to reveal his ultra colorful front profile and her eyes got sooooo big~ It was priceless~

Every time I read this I can't help but picture a thought bubble over the baby's head saying, "OH MY F-ING GOD--WHAT THE HELL IS THAT THING???" as its colorful side is being dramatically turned around and revealed. But I digress.

On the whole I really tend to trust my Spidey Sense, and my Spidey Sense tells me loud and clear that this toy is way over the top. But at the same time, I'm fully aware that I don't actually have a child yet. And those who have children seem to love this toy so much they're buying them for all of their friends. So am I the one who's wrong here?

Going back to my earlier entry on Baby Einstein, I'm struck again by the quote about how babies' minds are being programmed to expect a high degree of stimulation, and in comparison, reality is boring. To my perception, Jacques is merely the stuffed animal equivalent of overstimulating Baby Einstein videos. Obviously a normal teddy bear can't hold a candle to Jacques. Training a newborn to expect that every square centimeter of a toy should be New! Different! Bright! Exciting! surely sets them up for disappointment later.

Unrelated studies indicate that most babies tend to filter out extraneous stimulation so toys like Jacques are harmless--the baby takes what he needs and discards the rest. However, those studies are far from comprehensive, and aren't focused on children's toys necessarily. It's well-known that some babies are more sensitive than others and can't filter out overstimulation. The next question then becomes: are we creating hypersensitive children because we're overstimulating them? I have to wonder if the children who love Jacques according to their parents' reviews would have been equally happy with a regular, boring stuffed animal?

And moving beyond the overstimulation issue--or actually broadening it--what are the larger implications? Jacques is so visually stimulating that the normal human face is completely boring next to it. But actually, the normal human face is extremely complex. We convey hundreds of emotions and messages through nonverbal, facial expressions. Most of these, however, are very subtle. A furrowed brow, pursed lips, narrowed eyes--each of these are part of a larger set of social communication tools we use. But back to Jacques--everything about Jacques is so exaggerated and in-your-face (so to speak--heh). It's so obvious. It's so right there. You don't have to look for it. We assume visual stimulation is a good thing--that it helps babies activate visual centers of their brains. But if we present so much information--so much that's right out there and obvious--are we training babies to shut down parts of their brains, removing any challenge in finding meaning? If so, are we actually training babies to become visually lazy? If babies become accustomed to everything being right there in the clear, then are we discouraging them from learning how to look harder to recognize subtleties?

A child who can't recognize subtleties in human facial expressions is a child who is set up for social problems as he or she grows. Because nonverbal communication is such a huge part of the way we interact socially, any child that struggles with correctly "reading" nonverbal cues is a child who struggles with all kinds of interpersonal and social communication. This is not a good thing.

So basically I'm saying that Jacques the Peacock causes Autism.

No, not really. But I do wonder about the overall picture here. We know that babies can be overstimulated. We know that overstimulation is a bad thing. But what are the larger impacts of overstimulation, moving beyond sleeping problems or temper tantrums? What are the causes of overstimulation? How much is too much? Beyond the obvious (television), what can I as a parent do to regulate stimulation?

I think we may have to move to Amish Country after all. I've heard it's beautiful in the fall.

Posted by Shelby at August 22, 2008 02:26 PM

Holy mother of God, Jacques is waaaay too much. Shelby, I
am totally with you. This just goes to show that you are going to have so much fun interacting with your baby, and that faces will definitely be his favorite thing to see!

When I first went to babies r us, my gut reaction was to run away! I, like you, prefer the minimalist approach when it comes to the baby stuff. They need very little to be happy. In fact, if Ronnie sees a fan in motion, she is as content as can be!


Posted by: melinda at August 23, 2008 07:30 AM

As I said at Babies R Us...they make a similar line of toys for puppies. I have it as a gift. It is completely ignored in favor of ... well...anything. Wombat prefers the plain white sack of catnip toy she stole from the cat. So much for visual stimulation.

Posted by: Sherri at August 23, 2008 01:27 PM

That peacock is nasty.....looks like somebody barfed up a Rorschach Test all over a rubber duck.

I still have a few of Seana's Baby Einstein DVDs on the shelf that little Baby Biff can watch when he comes over to visit.

Posted by: Katrina R. at August 24, 2008 03:36 PM
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