HE RUBS HIS silver-gray beard, pats his ample middle, and strides jauntily across the front of the large lecture hall.
"You know, there is a great difference between functional intelligence and potential intelligence," says Glenn Doman, 63, the founder, executive director and sole lecturer of The Better Baby Institute in Philadelphia, saying it as though it were a thought that just occurred to him.
"For example, if you begin cutting an earthworm in two, it will resist in every way it knows how. Admittedly, it doesn't know many, but it will try anyway. But if you try to cut off the leg of a human being who is in a coma, he won't do anything to stop you. You can cut off his head, for that matter. It is simply not possible for a human being to act intelligently in the absence of information. Same with the kid who's put away in the attic. He'll never have functional intelligence. Why? He needs information. And that's all we want to do with our children; we want to give them the information to act intelligently."
Doman stops and surveys the 90 parents who are there to learn his methods for teaching infants the kinds of skills we associate with older children: reading, mathematics, playing the violin. Doman's private lecture hall is a cross between a college classroom and a large television studio. Lining the front of the room are floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled with books and assorted models of the human skull. Two microphones dangle on long chords from the ceiling, enabling the lecturer to pace the room and still be heard. Behind the last row of desks is a narrow dark room--"the sequestered area"-- where visitors can eavesdrop unnoticed.
"Not only do we want to give our children the information to act intelligently," Doman continues, "we want to give them accurate information. It takes longer to dispel misinformation learned as a child than it takes to learn new information as an adult."
If it wasn't for the sign out in front--The Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential--it would look like just another classy estate in the lush Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia. But behind the walls of this handsome stone edifice is a controversial, multi-leveled organization that claims a lofty calling: "To significantly increase the ability of all people to function in the intellectual, social and physical realm."
Founded in 1955 as an alternative rehabilitation center for brain-injured children and stroke victims (the late Joseph P. Kennedy was perhaps their best-known patient), the Institute claimed to get results where others failed by providing "visual, auditory and tactile stimulation with increased frequency, intensity and duration." While the medical establishment may not have endorsed founder Doman's aggressive techniques, or his qualifications to practice those techniques (his degree is in physical therapy), there was, and is, no denying his notoriety.
Over the years, Doman's noteriety has brought large numbers to his institutes. A spokesperson for the institute estimates that some 16,000 clients and patients have passed through the Philadelphia headquarters over its 26-year history. Doman first began his work in a 16-bedroom mansion. The facility has since been expanded to include dormitories, lecture halls, an amphitheatre, boardrooms and even an outdoor gymnastics center, all on a 15-acre site. It has been estimated that the institutes generate more than $2 million in annual revenue.
It was while teaching physical therapy to medical students at Temple University in the early 1940s, Doman says, that he first encountered "medical genius." Genius came in the form of Dr. Temple Fay, a surgeon who occupied both the Chairs of Neurology and Neuro-surgery at the Temple University Medical School. "It was Fay who made me realize that there was an answer to why my stroke patients rarely walked, and often could not talk in a functional way," Doman says. "The reason may not exist in the muscles of the leg or the muscles of the tongue. Fay taught me to believe that these mysteries might be solved by understanding how the nervous system had worked in a 50-ton reptile with a three-ounce brain who had been dead for millions of years."
Doman adapted many of Fay's theories and applied them to his own work at the Institutes. In February, 1978, buoyed by a 23-year run of clients who sought out his help for their brain-damaged friends and relatives, Doman decided to expand his brain stimulation techniques to include healthy babies as well. Dubbing his new program the "Better Baby Institute," Doman began offering week-long seminars that sought to teach parents the principles of how a baby's brain grows, in conjunction with practical methods that parents can use to help their babies to learn "even before they can talk."
"It is easier to teach a 1-year-old a set of facts than it is to teach a 7-year-old," says Gretchen Kerr who was recently named director of the Institutes by Doman (who himself is now chairman of the board of directors). "Children have the capacity to learn from the second day of life. Just because they can't talk yet doesn't mean that it's not in their computer to learn. All we do here is to convert our language to symbols the children can understand. For example, it wouldn't serve any purpose to try to teach a small child about the number 50--that's our language. Instead we teach a child how to recognize a card with 50 dots on it without the child ever knowing that there's such a thing as a number 50."
Through similar techniques he calls "patterning," Doman and his staff claim to be able to turn parents into teachers able to instruct their very young children to read, play the violin, compute mathematical problems, speak foreign languages, identify works of art, perform gymnastic feats, and more--depending on the parent's commitment to the program. At the moment, there appears to be no shortage of parents willing to make at least the initial commitment. Doman's Better Baby seminar is offered at the Institute's Philadelphia headquarters six times a year. The seminar runs Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The cost is $450 per parent and seating is limited to 90. The babies themselves are not invited to the seminars. Neither is overnight accommodation provided for the parents. Doman also offers the seminar to residents of Southern California via videotape.
While there is little doubting the lucrative aspects of Doman's Better Baby Institute, not everyone is enamored by Doman's techniques. Various pediatric associations across the country have taken exception to the Institute for the Achievement of Human Potential's program for children over the years. Most associations, however, now choose to combat the institutes with benign neglect.
"The worst thing you can give guys like Glenn Doman is free publicity," says a pediatrician who once headed the American Society of Pediatrics and now refuses to have his name associated with any story having to do with Doman's work. "He's the kind of guy who works the medical fringe. He's there offering hope where there is no hope, like the guy offering laetrile for cancer patients. He's made a lot of money promising improvement to parents with severely retarded children and to children who have parents that are stroke victims. These people usually have worked their way through all the finest medical facilities in the country, but they don't want to give up."
Critics of the Better Baby Institute also argue that its regimen takes away the one chance in a lifetime a kid has to act like a kid. Even if it is possible to teach a baby math and a 2-year-old to play the violin, doing so requires that the child be drilled daily.
Director Gretchen Kerr has heard the criticism before. "You can't make a baby or even a cdehild of 2 or 3 pay attention if he or she doesn't want to," Kerr says evenly. "Just try it sometime. But believe me, children want to learn. They want to learn more than they want to play or eat or sleep; they just don't want to do it every minute of the day. It's all in the exercise. If you exercise the brain at an early enough age, the child will soon become self-reliant. And when a child becomes self-reliant, he begins to demand less attention. Ultimately, the child will grow up with more options in life because of his self-reliance as a child. And after all, isn't that what we all want out of life--the options to someday do whatever we want to do?"
Leah Cianfrani, 33, first heard about the Better Baby Institute over a Philadelphia classical music radio station. The commercial aroused her curiosity, enough so that in February, 1980 she enrolled in Doman's parenting course. At the time her only son was 21/2 months old.
"He can do much more than an average 21/2 year old, because of the Insitute," Ciangrani said recently. "For example, he knows most of the Impresionist painters and their works by sight. It's amazing. He thinks I'm, as smart as he is," she says, "which is sometimes frustrating because I'm not."
As soon as her child began talking, Cianfrani reports, he began asking to work on some of the "bits"--the flash card techniques Doman employs--on his own. "When I first started working with him, he couldn't talk yet," Cianfgrani says, "so I often thought he just wasn't interested, but when he started talking, I found out I wasn't going fast enough for him. I was boring him with too much repetition. I now go faster than the institute recommends."
Leah Cianfrani anticipates problems when her child reaches school age in five years. "My concern is for how the teachers will react to him, " she says. "The school system only likes average students. Slow learners and fast learners are off in a category by themselves. I don't know if I'll put him in a public school system or not. I don't want him to be thought of as an oddball.
"I just wish I had learned everything in my life the way Doman teaches it," she said. "There is no time wasted at the Better Baby Insitute. Everything that Glenn Doman says is germane and important. If I had been taught that way, I probably would have gotten a lot more out of my own education. I've sent several of my friends to the institute and they've come away feeling the same way."
Bruce Buschel, 34, a New York City writer and video producer, decided to enroll in Glenn Doman's Better Baby Institute after a 2-year-old girl visited his home and began reading a book aloud to his 2-year-old twins. "The first thing I did was to ask the girl's mother what was wrong with her kid," Buschell remembers. "The second thing I did was to send my money to the Institute. After watching this girl read, I figured I owed it to my kids to investigate what this was all about."
While Buschel reports that the week-long seminar taught him some valuable parenting techniques, he also learned that the program is not without its practical problems. "If you take all the methodology at face value, it can begin to run your life," he says. "For instance, one of the techniques Doman teaches is the flash card system. He shows how you can teach very young children to identify various classical composers, for example, by playing their music and then flashing their picture. My problem was that I found myself taking care of the kids all day and then staying up all night cutting out pictures for the next day. You can get so invested, in terms of time, that you get to feeling that these damn kids better produce. You can even begin to resent your children if you're not careful."
Buschell also feels that Doman's Better Baby Institute tends to simplify children's psycological makeup.
"I don't think the guy's ever heard of Freud," says Buschel, a self-described "psychological" person. "He never talks about kids relationships with othven a cdeer kids. What he does say is that only insecure people cause problems and that if you give kids the proper information to make them confident, all will turn out well. I disagree. Kids have a lot more going on inside them than just learning how to do math or how to play music at an early age. There're the relationships they have with their parents, for one thing."
Still, Buschel feels that if you define your own parameters, Doman's techniques can only be helpful.
"It can't hurt to flash cards in front of infants," says Buschel. "They're not doing much of anything anyway. It also gives parents a sense of purpose while they're waiting for their baby to become a person. Since my kids are a little older I wait for them to be in a receptive mood before I try to teach them anything. I don't let it consume my entire life anymore, or their lives, the way it did right after I took the course. If you do it right, the whole teaching process can take 15 minutes a day. You just have to catch them in the right frame of mind. I've taught my kids how to identify a Picasso. They can also identify certain composers and styles of music. If the radio's on, they invariably ask me who wrote whatever song is being played. I credit all that to Doman's techniques. But I don't overdose them on art and music either. I'm a big baseball fan and so are my kids. They can identify Willie Mays as quickly as they can identify any artist or composer. A mix like that can only make them better babies."