Otto’s Growing Vocabulary  

Isn’t it funny how once a kid gets the hang of something, he really gets the hang of it? Like when I think back on the girls, I can remember being worried because they didn’t really speak. I then remember thinking they would never shut up. (Which remains a current theme as they take absolute delight in screaming, “Vagina! Penis! Bumhole!” As often and as loudly as they can. (Yes, I’m aware that the medical term is “anus.” They just don’t seem that taken with it, despite my efforts to correct them. Apparently “Bumhole” is a lot more fun to shout out.) Anyway, that’s another post. The point is, I don’t really remember the in between, you know, the period of time between an occasional new word and a little person who seemed to understand and say just about everything.

Which is why I feel compelled to try and carefully record Otto’s language progression. I’m sure as his vocabulary grows, my interest in each new word will wane, but for now every single step we take toward verbal communication feels awesome. Well, awesome until last Saturday when Otto gave me his 3rd word. Are you ready? Okay then. Here it is: Elmo.

Yes, Elmo. As in the furry, red, loveable little Sesame Street Character. The one that has lived in our home, been thrown down our stairs, and cheerfully encouraged my children to use the potty while they were watching him and simultaneously urinating on the furniture. That Elmo.

Now I know what you are going to say. So let me say it for you. “But Dr. Zibners, we all know the AAP says no television before the age of 2. So how on earth did Otto become so familiar with said furry muppet?”

The answer? Um, he watches television? I mean, not all day long. But certainly not “never.”

This very subject came up last summer when we were visiting with some friends who have a daughter about Otto’s age. Her dad is also a pediatrician and a very good one at that. In keeping in line with the AAP guidance, he gets really mad at her mom when he finds out she’s been allowed to watch television. (Notice the careful wording here.) The mom confided that she occasionally lets the little girl watch a bit of Sesame Street in the morning when her 3 year-old sibling is home. I mean, what’s the harm?

Well, is there any harm? What does the AAP actually say about this? Some of you may have heard that the American Academy of Pediatrics strictly recommends absolutely no television viewing before the age of 2. Which isn’t actually what they said. In fact, in the Policy Statement, they point out that they have been “frequently misquoted by media outlets as no media exposure in this age group.” But, no, before you get too excited, they aren’t exactly praising me for popping my kids in front of the television either. However, do allow me to summarize the 3 key points.

  • There is no evidence that children under the age of 2 can benefit developmentally or educationally from electronic media. Unstructured play is clearly better.
  • There is evidence that media exposure can cause aggression, sleep problems, obesity and attention problems, although these studies have looked at preschool and school age kids.
  • Yo! Parents who think it is okay to watch CNN or Breaking Bad while their kids are in the room are not only going to miss some key moments, but their kids are actually watching people being blown up in the Middle East. That’s probably not good, eh?

So there you have it. What the policy actually says is this: we should be discouraging media exposure in kids under 2. Notice I said “media,” not “television.” The policy is not just addressing Sesame Street videos, but Angry Birds, Farm Heroes and whatever else you’ve got on your smart phone or iPad. (I’m on to you. I travel and eat in restaurants with children too, people.) But the truth is, kids learn better from unstructured play in the real world, with 3-dimensional objects they can touch, hold, sniff and lick. 2-dimensional worlds don’t give them the same richness of experience and the result is that little ones can’t learn as much from playing an electronic puzzle as from playing with one made out of wood.

But—in my defense– the policy does not say “absolutely none.” The AAP recognizes that media and television are a part of our lives. So, no, your kid shouldn’t have a TV in his bedroom. But if your 17 month-old son happens to love Sesame Street, that’s not the worst thing you can flip on while you try to get a shower/do the dishes/write a blog post. (Just saying.) If you do allow your little one some television or iPad time, you should make sure the material is appropriate for a child of that age. Even better if you can watch together and sing songs or talk about Mr. Noodle. And please don’t stay there all day. One episode is enough.

So there you go. Solo playtime allows babies as young as 4 months to think creatively, solve problems, and accomplish new tasks independently. Unstructured play with or without an adult is more valuable for these precious little minds than any television show or Mickey Mouse Roadhouse Rally game. But what’s also valuable and precious is my sanity. Which sometimes means turning on the TV. Of course, now that Otto can say, “Elmo,” he thinks we’re going to turn on a video every time he asks. Which clearly isn’t the case. At least not after the first dozen times. It is super cute. And he is very clearly impressed with himself. As am I, although admittedly he could have chosen a word that didn’t publicly shame his mother. Then again, at least it wasn’t “Walter White”, right?