Parenting “Experts” are everywhere. They’re there to tell us exactly what to do in just about every situation, usually with the moralistic, judgmental attitude of… well, parents. Parents voluntarily subject themselves to these “Experts” and their opinions because parenting is stressful, and it’s nice to think other people have this stuff figured out. In order to examine the ongoing biological, philosophical, moral, and psychological debates that other people have about raising your children, Full-Time Dad presents Parenting Expert Wars. Today’s topic is Brain Rules for Baby.
It stands to reason, at least at first blush, that adults would have the inside track into knowing how to relate to children. I mean, we were all children at one time. It’s interesting when you stop and think about it, but we are almost universally terrible when it comes to remembering what it was like to be a child. This is because our adult brains are fully formed and developed. We can learn, sure, but those formative years have long since past and many of us foist the adult perspective upon our toddlers, children, and teens. It’s as if parents refuse to recognize a major component of being a child: everything is new all the time. This can be overwhelming1, but babies and children have a key evolutionary advantage over adults: their brains are built for rapid learning and development.
John Medina is a developmental molecular biologist who has made a career out of studying how the human brain figures out how to learn, grow, and interact with the world. In his book Brain Rules for Baby, Medina peels back the curtain to reveal the inner workings of baby brain development from a neurological perspective. Medina uses his deep understanding of neurological and biological research and weaves them with psychological research studies to build cases for specific parenting approaches and techniques.
Why Are There Brain Rules?
The development of the human mind is a complex and bizarre process. Humans have, by a wide margin, the longest brain developmental period of any animal on earth. While other animals can be fully mature in a matter of months, a few years at the most, the human brain isn’t done developing until around age 25. This is an evolutionary advantage in the long run– humans are really, really, REALLY smart– but the complexity of this mental capability requires decades of growth.
Babies are born with zero knowledge of the world. Babies certainly can’t understand what you’re saying to them, and their outward communication capability is essentially binary2. Considering every single thing they experience is new, initial development for infants is lightning fast. They immediately begin making sense of the world based on stimulus they are constantly exposed to. As they get older, behaviors become normalized based on these stimuli, and their brain tells them how to interact and react. All a child cares about at the outset is feeling safe. If you can make a baby feel secure, brain development can flourish, but remove the veil of safety from a baby’s life and suddenly the brain goes haywire. Behavior problems emerge; learning is stunted; social interaction is stymied.
And then there’s the question of how much influence we actually have on our children. How much of our child’s behavior is innate and how much is taught? Medina attempts to tease this out with a simple gardening metaphor.
Seeds and Soil
At the core of Medina’s thesis is the balance of nature and nurture, which he refers to as the seed (nature) and the soil (nurture) parents pass down to their children that dictate their development. Some parents believe in the near-unlimited potential for their children, but our genes will only allow for certain limits. Take a biological characteristic like height. As we know, malnutrition can severely stunt a child’s growth. But no amount of ideal, scientifically formulated nutrition is going to get a baby boy to grow beyond what his genes are programmed to handle3.
Brains are similar. Your child’s neurological capacity for information and skill does have an upper limit, but your environmental factors will impact whether that capacity will be reached4.
At his lectures, Medina is often asked: “How do I get my child into Harvard?” Ivy League schools are the arbitrary gold standard of parental-influenced academic achievement5, basically first place in the Parenting Olympics. Personally, I don’t want Creature to go to Harvard or Stanford. If she wants to apply to elite schools, fine, I’m not going to stand in her way. But I’m also not going to be a parent who cracks the Ivy League whip to the detriment of her well-being.
The odds are against your kids getting into Harvard, and even bothering to ask “How do I get my child into Harvard?” is wrong-headed. The question you should be asking is, “What environment do I create to maximize my child’s brain development?”
The answer is a bit counterintuitive: stop praising your kids for being “smart.” Praising your child for her intelligence seems encouraging and innocuous, but it’s actually very destructive. Intelligence, like height, is just a trait, and focusing on the innate capability of brainpower reinforces a worldview that things should come easily to smart people simply because they are smart people. Inevitably, when these people approach something challenging, they become discouraged and frustrated.
So what do you do instead, according to Medina? Praise effort. When your child brings home a perfect spelling test, your response should be “Wow! You must have studied really hard to do so well!” This is reinforcing the idea that effort is valued, and works toward building resilience. When these people approach something challenging, they have the mental fortitude to work through the struggle, and get psychological satisfaction out of solving a difficult problem.
We are of a mind that financial success is tantamount to personal happiness. That if we could only have that palatial 7,500 square foot house on the riverfront complete with gym, sauna, and movie theater, then we would be truly satisfied with our station in life. In reality, financial success has very little correlation to happiness. Neither living in a fancy house nor driving a luxury car will have any measurable impact on your long-term happiness.
Medina believes he understands the key to happiness for all people. Without exception, long-term happiness is related to the strength and length of your relationships with other people. If your marriage is falling apart and you don’t feel like you have any friends or family to support you emotionally, then no amount of financial or material wealth will pull you out of the doldrums. Conversely, if you have strong bonds with your family and great friends you’ve known for years with whom you can share in good times and bad, then you will be satisfied with a relatively modest lifestyle.
Humans are social creatures, and encouraging your children to build and value relationships is arguably the most important thing you can teach. So how do you foster the development of this skill set? Empathy, empathy, empathy. The ability to see a situation from another person’s perspective is the single most useful social skill you can teach.
This takes practice. While in calm situations I am able to understand another person’s perspective, in stressful times– those moments when empathy is more important– I still get reactive and defensive. This is only going to become more acute as Creature wears me down with endless questions and inexplicable tantrums.
It doesn’t take a developmental molecular biologist to understand that a child’s ability to experience feelings very quickly outpaces her ability to articulate them. And it’s easy for me to sit here, pre-baby, and wax philosophical about empathy and acknowledging feelings. But will I be able to keep it together when Creature is on the verge of a tantrum because she can’t have the box of cereal with the cartoon tiger on it?
Here is the ideal example of this interaction, according to Medina:
Creature: I want that cereal!
Brent: You can’t have it, sweetie, let’s go.
Creature: I WANT IT! I WANT IT!
Brent: (squatting down to her level) You seem upset. Are you mad?
Creature: Yeah, I’m mad.
Brent: Is it because you want the cereal and I won’t let you have it?
Creature: (sniffling, but calming down a bit) Yeah.
Brent: I understand. I also get upset when I can’t have things that I want. There’s a word for what you’re feeling. Would you like to learn that word?
Creature: (sniff) Ok.
Brent: The word is “disappointed.” You’re disappointed because you want something and you can’t have it. I get disappointed, too, and that sometimes makes me mad. It’s okay for you to feel disappointed that you can’t have the cereal. And it’s okay to be mad at me. I love you very much, even if you’re mad.
The idea, here, is to take the tantrum as a moment to teach your child that all feelings, the good and the bad, are okay. Of course, here is the more likely scenario:
Creature: I want that cereal!
Brent: You can’t have it, let’s go.
Creature: I WANT IT! I WANT IT!
Brent: I said you can’t have it, and that’s final. Now let’s go!
Creature: (inhuman, high-pitched screeches and ear-piercing cries)
Brent: (exasperated sigh, followed by light sobbing in the cereal aisle)
It’s going to take focus and practice, but Medina says helping Creature to work through and articulate her feelings will go a long way to teaching her how to be empathetic, and raising an empathetic child means raising a happy child.
The Limitations of Brain Rules
While the neuroscience and biology are reasonably well-understood, Medina acknowledges the limitations of the psychological and sociological sides of his research. Specifically, there is no statistical6 way to state that X behavior causes Y outcome, only that X is more associated with Y. So when he says that breastfeeding is linked to higher IQ, he is by extension warning people that breastfeeding does not cause a baby to have a higher IQ7. Sifting through the research rubble is the job Medina has taken upon himself, and he presents his arguments in a clear, compelling manner.
There is also a practical problem here: we don’t raise our children in a laboratory. We are humans raising humans in a deeply flawed world. Emotions bubble up and frustration gets the better of us. Medina points out the fundamental challenge with the parent-child relationship early on in the book: parents give and children take. That’s the relationship, period. Beyond the emotional charge of being a parent, there is almost no reciprocation from your children. We provide everything for them from an early age, they grow into independent people and leave your care; you will receive nothing in return.
This dilemma manifests itself in some very stressful ways. You have not had a full night’s sleep in over two months and your infant is crying again, oblivious to your exhaustion.
You had a rough day, are in a bad mood, and are frustrated, but your 3-year old wants to play and cares nothing about your frustration.
You provide a delicious meal for your six-year-old but he says it looks “gross” and won’t touch it.
You provide your teenager a safe, supportive home, but she says you’re unfair and she hates you because you won’t let her go to a concert on a school night.
You pay for four years of college without expecting a nickel of that money back.
Your adult child calls you only sparingly, doesn’t tell you what is going on in his or his family’s life, and never thanks you for your unconditional support. And you’ll still help in any way you can, even if you know your child will take it for granted.
As a parent, you are expected to accept this arrangement without question. To supplicate yourself to the needs of your child. This, of course, is impossible. We are still individual people, despite the common cultural trappings that inform us otherwise. This conflict is a daily struggle for parents, one that children may never learn to appreciate.
And so life gets in the way of perfect. We take shortcuts. We manage the way we were taught. We try to raise our children in the way John Medina recommends, and then the human element takes over.
- Just think about how you handle a new situation as an adult.
- Distress or contentment.
- Growing up, I was consistently among the tallest people in my grade. The coach of the freshman basketball team was excited at my potential, thinking I probably had 6’5″ or 6’6″ in my future. Alas, my genes had already laid out a different blueprint and my height topped out at 6’1″. Useful in everyday life, but an insurmountable handicap when it comes to banging in the low post and crashing the boards, even at the JV level.
- And even if your child’s brain reaches its capabilities, there’s no guarantee she will use said capabilities.
- The brand that Harvard, Yale, et al. have created for themselves is based on a meaningless, recursive loop of “competitiveness” that is pushed forth by the US News & World Reports best-selling annual “College Rankings” issue. The cycle goes something like this: Harvard accepts less 5.2% of applicants, therefore getting accepted indicates exceptionalness. The lower the acceptance rate, the more validating the acceptance. The more validating the process, the more applications the school receives despite the college not expanding its capacity for freshman entrants. Thus, the acceptance rate drops and these schools become more desirable. This conflates selectivity with academic rigor and success, which is a dangerous, if popular game. Meanwhile, there are over 2,000 4-year universities in the US, many of them with world-class academic programs. The University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina are among the best academic institutions in the country and have acceptance rates approaching 30%.
- Or ethical.
- He is also not 100% sold on the IQ as a functional measure of use. He uses IQ as a guidepost, true, but Medina concedes that it’s possible IQ tests measure nothing more than an ability to take IQ tests. The idea that something as subjective and ethereal as intelligence can be definitively quantified is one of those examples of human hubris that twists us up in knots. It’s hard for smart people to accept there are some things that we’ll never clearly understand.