Better Babies

School Gets Kids to Do Feats at a Tender Age, But It’s Controversial – The Intensity and Discipline Of Doman System Have A Cost, Some Critics Say – Gray’s Anatomy at Age 8

The Wall Street Journal
Rochelle Sharpe

PHILADELPHIA – Fresh from reciting haiku during their morning Japanese lesson, the six- and seven-year-olds at the Evan Thomas Institute eagerly review some Greek and Latin word roots.

Sitting at a low table in an upstairs bedroom of an old stone mansion, the seven children wildly wave their hands to answer questions about words like “cacophony” and “geotropism.” Then they happily identify pictures and describe the achievements of such notable Greeks as Aristophanes and Alexander the Great. Later, a 12-year-old student raves about his “perfect” school and boasts of being able to read 200 books in a year.

“You feel like you’re looking at 45-year-old midgets,” Glenn Doman says enthusiastically. A gabby, elfin man, Mr. Doman launched the school 19 years ago to show parents around the world how to make their children “intellectually, socially and physically splendid.”

The students, all reared with techniques espoused in Mr. Doman’s “How to Teach Your Baby to Read” and other popular how-to books by his Better Baby Press, provide a powerful incentive for parents to try his unconventional education methods. But the techniques also amplify the quandary facing parents on how soon and how much to press education on their children, an issue stirred again recently by a Carnegie Corporation study that underscored the importance of maximizing intellectual growth in the first three years of life.

Many educators condemn Mr. Doman’s approach. They question his program’s long-term effectiveness and wonder whether the school’s whiz kids merely are performing tricks that sustain Mr. Doman’s superbaby business.”¨Some former students lament a childhood lost for little gain. “I don’t feel really smarter than anyone else,” says Cara Caputo, featured in the school’s brochures as “a Renaissance Child who can do everything well.” Now 19, she attends the local community college and looks back on her grammar-school life with some sadness.

“The thing I missed most as a kid was having a lot of fun, just being a kid and playing,” she says. “There was a lot of pressure to be perfect.”

Those concerns are lost, however, on parents who see Mr. Doman as a genius. “When you see what happens with the children, you can’t understand why everyone isn’t doing this,” says Christine Aronis, of Westport, Mass., who has taken two of Mr. Doman’s weeklong “How to Multiply Your Baby’s Intelligence” seminars, which cost $690 each. Boasting of her 3 1/2-year-old daughter’s ability to read 200 words, play the piano and hum Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, she praises Mr. Doman for permitting her to offer her child “everything that is wonderful in humanity, instead of just Bozo the Clown.”

Housed on a bucolic campus on the outskirts of Philadelphia, the Evan Thomas Institute, known as ETI, is a small part of Mr. Doman’s larger empire, the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential. His operation began as a rehabilitation center for brain-injured children. Last year its revenue totaled $4.7 million from donations and fees, with most income coming from the rehab program. Over the past 30 years, more than two million copies of Mr. Doman’s baby books have been sold.

Before letting a visitor see his school, Mr. Doman insists on giving a 40-minute tour of the boardroom, which features tributes from prominent admirers. There is a letter from Jacqueline Onassis, thanking him for treating her father-in-law, Joseph Kennedy, after his stroke, and pictures of Mr. Doman with Pope John Paul II and several Japanese leaders.

At ETI, teaching is done with a Japanese flair. Everyone removes shoes before entering the classrooms, which are carpeted in a tan, woven material reminiscent of tatami mats. All students learn Japanese and are taught violin according to the Suzuki early-learning method.

Mr. Doman, 74, tells visitors that Linus Pauling, who won two Nobel Prizes, predicted that only the brightest people in the world would embrace Mr. Doman’s work, warning him not to waste time with the others. “The only people who ever understand us are Nobel Prize winners, NASA scientists and all parents,” Mr. Doman says.

ETI, with about 50 pupils at a given time, is tuition-free and seems like an extension of a home-schooling program. Students are enrolled by invitation only. Janet Doman, the institutes’ director and Mr. Doman’s daughter, decides whom to admit solely by interviewing children’s parents, who must be graduates of the “How to Multiply Your Baby’s Intelligence” course. Parents, not trained educators, serve as many of ETI’s teachers, in accordance with the Doman philosophy to not “incarcerate the child with a stranger.”

Ms. Doman is a practicing Scientologist but says her religion doesn’t affect the school, an assertion some former students dispute. ETI isn’t affiliated with the Church of Scientology, which professes to help people gain perfection by exorcizing bad memories from past lives. It is licensed as a private school by the state of Pennsylvania but has received little government scrutiny. The state’s Division of Nonpublic and Private School Services has inspected it only twice in the school’s 19-year history. Officials say they had no idea that uncertified teachers taught ETI students. Mr. Doman contends that ETI’s combination of certified teachers and aides is in compliance with the law, which requires that instructors at licensed schools be certified teachers.

Children may enroll in classes at around age three, but they often start the Better Baby program earlier, for Mr. Doman’s regimen can begin at birth.

He recommends that mothers deliver their babies underwater and place their newborns face down on a padded crawling track to sleep, rather than in a crib. Early physical activity helps organize and develop the brain, he says, so babies need to be as mobile as possible. Underwater births give them a head start on swimming, and the padded track allows them to start scooting along within weeks, he believes.

The core of his program is based on the theory that the brain grows by use. This general idea, widely accepted by the scientific community, originally led Mr. Doman to develop a controversial treatment for brain-injured children when he worked as a physical therapist. He founded his institute in 1955 as a rehabilitation center for these children, promoting this so-called “patterning” treatment. It requires children to go through special repetitive exercises for up to 12 hours a day so unused brain cells can be programmed to take over the function of damaged cells.

The treatment has been denounced by some major medical organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Neurology. “It’s utter and absolute nonsense,” says Edward Zigler, director of the Yale University Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy and a founder of Head Start. He says the treatment is based on a “bankrupt theoretical foundation” and cites scientific studies showing it doesn’t work.

Mr. Doman dismisses studies done without his cooperation as “almost obscene” in their bias. He says he has been begging people to do evaluations, but they aren’t interested. Scientists argue that he has blocked rigorous evaluation of the work.”¨Undaunted by his critics, Mr. Doman concluded that his techniques could help healthy children, too. The Better Baby program was born, incorporating Mr. Doman’s belief that stimulating an infant’s senses in a variety of unusual ways will expand the brain’s auditory and visual pathways.

Some mothers follow elaborate routines after every diaper change: flicking lights on and off 10 times in a darkened room, repeatedly banging their kitchen cabinets, even playing an Institute-prepared tape that includes loud, startling sounds like screeching tires. As the children grow older, the parents help them swing across overhead ladders. This improves the children’s mental as well as physical prowess, Mr. Doman says.

The babies also view flashcards their parents prepare to teach reading, math and hundreds of facts called “bits of intelligence.” Parents show their child five or 10 cards at a time for one second each. Mothers or fathers are supposed to present the cards with great joy and enthusiasm to instill a love for learning.

“Making learning dull is like making sex dull,” Mr. Doman says. “It can be done, but it’s hard.”

For reading, children start by looking at cards with one word on them. Such cards also can be used to label items in the house, so babies can associate names with objects. Math begins by showing babies 100 cards decorated with red dots, each with a different number of dots ranging from one to 100. Teaching “bits” consists of holding up pictures of 10 related items, such as lizards, and happily announcing one interesting fact about each, such as “the Texas horned lizard spurts blood from the corner of his eyes.”

“The kids scream for it,” says Jerry Beigel, a Newport Beach, Calif., father of two-year-old triplets. They can read, add, subtract, multiply, divide, even recognize the flags of countries, he says. When he watched one of them give the correct answer to 43 + 8 – 3, “it was spine-chilling,” he says. “It is spooky.”

Like many parents, he finds his biggest problem is keeping up with his children’s thirst for knowledge. With the need to introduce new words, dots and bits every day, he and his wife say they found themselves staying up often until 2 a.m. cutting and pasting pictures on cards for coming lessons. They finally hired a helper and now have 4,000 cards illustrating facts about butterflies, seashells, the periodic table, Monet and Norman Rockwell paintings for their two-year-olds.”¨Some parents buy bit cards at the Better Baby Bookstore, which sells 10-card packs for $10.95. Others join the ETI offcampus program for $400 a year, receiving ideas for bits and other home-schooling tips as well as access to a hot line staffed by ETI instructors. Many follow suggestions to start their children on the violin at an early age.

Some children seem to flourish. Joan Katz of Philadelphia says her daughter started reading books independently by age two, and her son read Hardy Boys novels by age four. The boy also could run five miles a day by age six, she says. Marilyn Pereira, who now lives in the Dominican Republic, says her son started reading at age one, and by two could read entire novels and autobiographies.

But others drop out because of their children’s negative reactions. Beth Kaplan of New York says she stopped doing the program after 18 months when her son, then 3 1/2, threw his violin across the room and screamed, “I hate the violin.””¨Educational psychologists say amazing intellectual feats by some young children may be possible, though they believe much of what parents at Mr. Doman’s school see is rote learning that has little long-term value. Children can learn to recognize words as ideographic symbols, that is, know CAT as a single visual image but not know it as a word formed by a collection of letters with sounds, they say.

“Young children can learn things in all sorts of ways,” says Yale psychologist Sara Sparrow, “but it’s not very lasting.” The small percentage of children who are naturally precocious readers tend to learn on their own, she says.

The Domans argue that recognizing words is a critical step toward reading and that children don’t need to sound words out phonetically to read. All the information children digest may not be retained, they say, but the point is to stretch their brains and expose them to a wide variety of material.

The school incorporates some elements of what is popular in education reform. Classes are small, and time schedules are flexible. Older students have a “subject of the week,” spending two hours a day on a topic such as natural history.

Students have high standards to reach, another popular concept in education these days, though reformers may never have envisioned standards like these. Children start Shakespeare as toddlers, study Gray’s Anatomy by age eight and begin physics by nine. But they also do gymnastics and take part in frequent plays, performing them before the Better Baby seminars.

There are no textbooks or tests, but no recesses, either. Uniforms are required for staff and students alike. Children carry tiny leather purses, but what’s inside, some former students say, aren’t just innocent playthings of childhood.

The purses are filled with poker chips, the prime tools of the institute’s firm discipline system. Children who do good deeds are rewarded with chips, while those who disobey what the school calls its civil code must forfeit chips as fines. Students count their chips at the end of each school day and use them to buy such privileges as going to the ballet or performing in front of a seminar.

This practice is similar to a reward system used in Scientology, says Priscilla Coates, a Scientology expert.

Ms. Doman says she knows of nothing in Scientology similar to the civil code. “We think being fair and just with kids is important, and Scientology does, too,” she says, observing that people could charge that ETI and Scientologists both use dictionaries, too. While some critics complain that Scientology is a cult, Ms. Doman says, “I’m proud to be a Scientologist. It’s a very ethical, sane, nice group of people. It has absolutely nothing to do with my work here.”

At ETI, former students say, the discipline became more intense as the students grew older, especially for the few children who lived on campus with their parents. One boy says that when teachers felt he had disobeyed the civil code, he would receive letters filled with threats “that can make a 12-year-old wet his pants.” Not only was he warned about expulsion, he says, but was told his family could be evicted and lose their institute jobs. “I’ve had dreams about being emotionally tortured,” he says.

Once, when teachers discovered a child had written a letter mentioning pubic hair, he says, students were called into a room and told they were in “a state of nonexistence” – which is a persona-non-grata status in the Scientology world – and would have to work to be accepted again.

“The nonexistence incident did not occur in school,” says Ms. Doman, who acknowledges that conditions of existence are a Scientologist concept. The incident, she says, was a private matter between a mother who lived on campus and her children.

“We don’t ever threaten anyone,” she adds. She says a child might misinterpret reminders to comply with school rules as threats.

One parent says no dissent was allowed at the school. Nishi Jadczak of Philadelphia says her child was kicked out immediately after she casually mentioned to another parent that she sometimes disliked the way her daughter was being treated and might put the child in another school. At first, Ms. Jadczak says she was devastated by her child’s dismissal. But after awhile, she says, she came to understand that she had become mesmerized by the place herself.

“Being in the institutes is like being in a cult,” Ms. Jadczak says: Once you join, you get caught up in it. “Performing was an honor.

That was the kick. You got your highs, you had so many parents admiring your kid. Parents still remember how totally dazzled they were by Felicia.” Her four-year-old daughter, she says, could identify Shakespearean quotations by the play and the character.

Ms. Doman dismisses Ms. Jadczak as a disgruntled mother.

Such behind-the-scenes disputes are lost on most parents, who dream about creating children like Ms. Caputo, who was featured in the institutes’ advertising brochure. Citing her fluency in Japanese and Spanish and her “high-level gymnastic skills,” the glossy brochure touts her mathematical ability, boasting that she could use “the Law for the Multiplication of Exponential Terms” by age nine and had “studied analytical geometry, calculus, trigonometry, astronomy and physics before entering high school.”

Nowadays, as a community-college student, Ms. Caputo says she doesn’t feel at all like a genius. “In elementary school, I felt like Miss Brilliant,” she says, but now that everyone her age knows trigonometry and advanced math, “I don’t feel like I have that much knowledge now.”

Still, she says the school did give her a strong background in many subjects, such as biology: “I know the names of every tree I see.”

The eight children who stayed at ETI until they graduated at about age 13 seem to be having the most trouble adjusting to the world. Graduates often don’t appear anxious to leave the school, and in fact, ETI encourages them to stay and teach, at least for a few years. Some shun high school, preferring to enroll in a homeschooling program or to take courses at the local community college for a high-school equivalency certificate.

Chip Meyer, 17, who graduated from ETI at 14, now teaches math at the school and helps run the institutes’ computer network. He says he decided not to enroll in high school because “from what my friends told me, it wasn’t too exciting as an educational experience.” Instead, he is taking courses at the community college.”¨Some students who tried high school found they couldn’t keep up. “When you go to high school, you’re lost,” says one former student, who says some of the students found themselves on the verge of failing courses. The problem, he says, is that ETI students learn the spectacular parts of courses, but have little understanding of the basics. That, he contends, is because the purpose of ETI isn’t really to educate children or prepare them for higher learning but to put on a show. “Appearances are everything.”

“We did quite a bit of work memorizing Shakespeare,” he says. “But where does that leave you? You can be an actor.”

Ms. Doman strongly disagrees. “The idea we treat this for show is almost a treasonous idea. It flies in the face of everything we do.” She dismisses the students’ remarks, saying adolescents often go through a phase where they feel they have trouble adjusting to the world. “They never experienced the boredom and tedium and silliness that goes with the average childhood,” she says.

One of the boys quoted, Ms. Doman adds, was a discipline problem who is angry because he never received an ETI diploma. (Three students who complained about their school asked to withdraw their statements after the Journal interviewed Ms. Doman.)

Many parents and former students say the program provides a tremendous education. In an institute-sponsored survey of 361 families that used Better Baby techniques, 34.7% said they had children who ended up in gifted programs elsewhere, compared with 2% nationally.

Parents such as Ms. Katz and Ms. Pereira credit the Better Baby techniques for their children’s successes. Like others who had children who flourished, they became more devoted to Mr. Doman’s work and enrolled their children in the Evan Thomas Institute.

Other parents say they learned to ignore parts of the program and focused on what they liked most, advice that Mr. Doman gives in his own seminars.

“I loved being exposed to the concepts,” says Ellen Fisher of Fort Washington, Pa., who came away from a seminar realizing she could share her passions with her daughter. Impressed by Mr. Doman’s idea that learning could be fun, she devised a number of creative games to teach her daughter about her love of history and art. Rather than flash cards at her child, Ms. Fisher says she played “Sit on the President’s Portrait,” telling her child stories about each politician whose picture she sat on.

Ms. Katz’s son, Sean, now a student at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., is one of the institute’s biggest success stories. He left ETI when he was eight and later studied violin at Julliard, playing solos with the Philadelphia orchestra when he was 14 and 16. Between eight and 16, Mr. Katz says, he was basically rehashing much of what he had absorbed at ETI.

“It was almost too good, in the sense it taught you a way of being and learning and living that was really superior,” he says. “When I left the program, I wasn’t prepared for the more inane and asinine things that go on in the world.”

Even some parents and former students who have doubts say they don’t dismiss the program’s benefits. Ms. Caputo says that if she had children, she would use Mr. Doman’s home program with them, but not send them to the school. And although Ms. Jadczak looks back at the school as a bad experience for her child, she similarly says she would still recommend Mr. Doman’s Better Baby program to parents, though not ETI.

She doesn’t think the program helped her children’s reading or math abilities, but, she says, “it’s important for overall brain stimulation.”