Like most new parents, Julie Aigner-Clark wanted to give her baby daughter the best. What could be better than exposing her to the arts, thought the former English teacher. From that idea back in 1997 grew the multibillion-dollar infant development media empire known as Baby Einstein. Although Aigner-Clark and her husband, William, sold the company to the Walt Disney Co. in 2001, they have been involved in a controversy stemming from two University of Washington studies claiming to link TV viewing by babies and toddlers to attention issues and delayed language development. Recently, William went to court to get the University of Washington to release its data. Disney also was facing pressure by consumer groups and the threat of a class-action suit over its educational claims, prompting Disney to offer refunds in late 2009 for Baby Einstein products.
At the same time Aigner-Clark, 43, was battling breast cancer, twice — in 2004 and again in 2008. Her book geared for children about her family’s experiences, “Your Love is the Best Medicine,” is set to be published by Harper Collins in the fall. And her company, Aigner Clark Creative, continues to make educational videos, this time geared for older kids and seniors.
Aigner-Clark and her husband live in the Denver area with their daughters, Aspen, 15, and Sierra, 12, and a menagerie that includes two lovebirds, four chickens, two cats, a mouse, a frog and too many fish to count.
Let’s go back to the beginning. You founded the Baby Einstein Co. as a way to “expose babies and moms to the arts and nature,” according to your Web site. What kind of research did you do to decide how best to create that?
The reality was my only research was by being a mom. I knew what my daughter liked looking at, and I thought other babies might pretty much like the same thing. Babies like simplicity. I was basically making a video board game but I put great music to it. It just made sense to me.
In what ways did you believe it would be educational?
I never did, and that’s where the real odd part of this whole controversy is. Baby Einstein never claimed to be educational; it was to expose babies to beautiful things. It wasn’t about being smart, it wasn’t about education, it was about exposure.
A few years ago, you told the Denver Post that your intent was that parents would watch Baby Einstein videos with their kids, making it an interactive experience just like reading a book or playing a game with them. But, of course, most parents plop their kids before the TV — not to make their kids “smart,” but to buy themselves a half-hour to cook dinner, make a phone call or fold the laundry. Do you think the interactive message was misunderstood?
I do think the interactive message was misunderstood. We didn’t want to make a video baby-sitter, but I’d also say as a real mom, there are times when our baby wants to veg. In my opinion, it’s not damaging. It’s the real world. No one should be 24-hours a day stimulating their baby. I think the message has been misconstrued.
I just went to see “The Lovely Bones” and sat two seats behind a mom and her baby. I thought, are you kidding me? There are so many more terrible things happening in the world that are so much worse than Baby Einstein.
Parents have been behind the big push to create mini-Mensas, enrolling their kids in all sorts of programs and lessons to get them on a fast-track to an Ivy League school. Do you think Baby Einstein was just telling parents what they wanted to hear?
I think there are parents out there like that, of course.
Why did your husband file a complaint against the University of Washington researchers when you sold Baby Einstein to Disney years ago?
To set the record straight, to really retain what we created — a lovely legacy to help parents expose their kids to really lovely things. We made babies laugh, and we’d like to maintain that. We’ve been wrongly accused; it’s completely personal for us.
How did you handle TV and other technology when your daughters were infants?
When I started Baby Einstein, I was pregnant with Sierra and Aspen was 2. Aspen watched some Sesame Street at home, but there was not really a lot of technology for babies so it wasn’t much of an issue. … But I believe TV can be a great way for parents to teach their kids. I don’t have a problem with good, quality television.
From Baby Einstein to now, you have created products that seek to educate kids. Can’t parents teach kids about art or how to be safe without videos?
Of course they can, and I think that they should. This is just one of many ways you can do that. A lot of people don’t really listen to classical music. This way, you can choose to expose your child to classical music even if you don’t know how to do it.
Since you sold Baby Einstein to Disney, you’ve created the Safe Side, which aims to keep kids safe, and Memory Lane, to help people suffering from Alzheimer’s. How and why did they come about?
With the Safe Side, my kids were in middle school and I was dealing with independence they hadn’t had before. As much as you hope you know the homes your kids are visiting, I wanted my kids to know what to do. It’s a message everyone’s pretty uncomfortable talking about. This is about learning how to be safe, making a product that kids can enjoy watching.
With Memory Lane … a number of letters we got were from people who were Baby Einstein customers who said they had a mother with Alzheimer’s who were watching the videos, too. It’s very soothing and there isn’t a plot to follow and if you’re suffering with a disease like Alzheimer’s or dementia, you don’t want to have to struggle with a plot. But, you don’t really want to buy a Baby Einstein video for your grandmother! (Memory Lane’s) filled with scenes with great images and music that might trigger happy thoughts.
You’re also writing a book about your experience as a two-time breast cancer survivor as a young mom with kids. How old were your daughters at the time, and how did it impact them?
The first time, in 2004, they were 9 and 7, and then, in 2008, 13 and 11, and it’s obviously one of the most horrible things you have to tell your kids. You’re so trying to be positive and not put any fear in them. But, no matter how young they are, they know cancer’s bad. I can’t think of my child having cancer, but I didn’t really think of it from a child’s perspective, how it feels to have their mom have cancer. We say to our kids, “I’m going to be OK,” but for our kids, they’re looking at us and we look like we’re dying.
How did your diagnosis affect your relationship with your husband?
In many ways, it strengthened it. He was incredible; he was there the whole time. Getting menopause at 42 isn’t a joy; to have someone stick by you is an amazing accomplishment. To me, it’s a reflection of how amazing a man he is.
Back when you were growing Baby Einstein, your kids were still young. You’ve said that it kept you away from your daughters more than you would have liked, and that you felt guilty. Has that changed now that they’re older?
It’s changed because I don’t work hardly at all anymore. As the company grew for the five years from when I started it, I had no idea what was going to happen. By the time we sold it, we were really busy. It was taking me away from my primary thing, which was my kids. I was still there with my kids, but my mind was somewhere else. I didn’t feel as engaged with my kids as in the beginning. There have been some rough patches.
How would you like your daughters to look back at their childhood?
As happy, happy, happy. We have been fortunate to travel with our kids. I’m an only child, which I hate, and I’m sorry I didn’t have four kids. My kids are also so close to me, we have been so tight. I would hope that would be their memory, of our tightness and goofiness.
Baby Einstein Founder Julie Aigner-Clark was interviewed by Vicki Larson, Around the Watercooler  contributor. She is a journalist and single mom.