Welcome to your child’s brain

Giving your kids the best start.
Giving your kids the best start. 

The authors of a new book Welcome To Your Child’s Brain – From in Utero to Uni have one message for parents who wallow in guilt about their style of parenting, believing that this alone shapes a child’s temperament and behaviour – “Take a deep breath and relax.” Fretting over small aspects of parenting or over scheduling them with activities aimed to “improve” them will not necessarily make them more successful.

Neuroscientists, Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt, who wrote the book, liken the vast majority of children to dandelions – plants that adapt and grow regardless of the conditions they are exposed to. Children’s brains, they explain are like blueprints, individual to themselves. These blueprints may be modified slightly based on a number of factors – society, culture and parenting. But, for the most part, a child’s brain will seek out information and experiences that suit their preferences.

By examining the results of numerous studies on children around the world, Wang and Aamodt draw conclusions on several important characteristics that they believe parents can have influence over. Most of these characteristics are better at predicting the chances of a child’s success later in life, much more so than just a child’s IQ:

- Empathy – The authors observed that bilingual children are better at showing empathy. In an interview for Radio NZ, Aamodt said that because a child can speak two or more languages, “they are better at guessing what other people are thinking, so they are better at empathy”. When a child contemplates what language to speak in before communicating, it not only builds good emotional skills and helps them consider other people’s feelings but also improves self-control, according to Aamodt.

- Praise and Rewards – According to the authors, “when an adult praises for small accomplishments, children over age six perceive it as a slight; they see the praise as reflecting the adult’s low expectations”. They suggest to give specific praises like “Wow, you really worked hard on that maths problem!” instead of a generic “Good job!”  Aamodt told Radio NZ that the problem with praises like “You’re so clever” is that children “show less perseverance in difficult tasks” and become anxious that they will eventually be “unmasked as someone who is not as clever as they initially appeared.”

- Social competence - It is important for a child to practise their social skills in order to prevent problems associated with social withdrawal. The authors point out that, “in the US, social withdrawal at age seven is a risk factor for problems such as depression, loneliness and negative self-image at age fourteen”. While some children are naturally shy and reserved, “warm and sensitive parenting with lots of physical contact” will help promote a sense of security in these children. Involvement in organized sport and activities where the children share a mutual interest will help build peer acceptance, giving children confidence to emerge out of their shell.

- Self Control – Through imaginative play tactics, the authors say that seemingly impossible tasks like asking a four year old to stand still for a few minutes might be achievable. This can be achieved by asking them to pretend they are a guard at a castle and that they need to be vigilant and keep an eye out for any danger. This pretend play tactic will result in a much more obedient child in the short run, but a child who can exercise self control and not run off and do as he pleases in the long run.

The authors explain that all these traits are interrelated and count immensely towards eventual success in life, but they single out self control as “the best gift you can give”. It affects everything from academic achievement to interpersonal success. The book quotes studies that reveal children who learn to inhibit certain behaviours in exchange for later gratification show better maths and reading skills in primary school.
Self control can also impact a child’s social skills because showing restraint when needed is related to having less anger, fear and discomfort. This leads to more “socially competent and popular children” who grow up to be empathetic adults.

While the authors provide a lot of practical tips on how to help children seek information and grow, they also caution that helping build certain traits like empathy by learning a second language will work better if the child is under six years of age. The reason for this is what they call “sensitive periods” or “times in development when experience has a particularly strong or long-lasting effect on the construction of brain circuitry”.

Similarly, teaching a child to read before the age of four does not work as quickly as expected as their brains are not equipped to distinguish between letters such as b and d before this age.

In the book, the authors also dispel many myths and misconceptions, such as teens’ preference to sleep in because many believe that they have a longer day-night cycle. At puberty, the levels of the sleep-inducing hormone Melatonin decreases sharply which may contribute to the irregular timing of sleep signals – causing them to go to bed later and thus waking up later. In addition, there are social pressures to contend with – TV, Facebook and text messaging – all things that push bedtime even later.

While parents may worry about the excessive amounts of socializing children do through modern day media, the authors argue that there is a plus side to that.  They explain that social rejection reduces a child’s IQ so much so that “unpleasant or awkward interactions with other people can greatly influence performance on tests of cognitive function.” Furthermore, if faced with possible exclusion from a group, children may lose self-control, which is a critical factor of academic success.

Some parents seem convinced however, that IQ alone is a predictor of future academic success. There are plenty of products out there – Baby Mozart CDs, educational books and DVDs all claiming to increase a child’s IQ. Aamodt and Wang seek to set the record straight about such products – listening to music does not make a child brighter, but playing a musical instrument has direct benefits in improving cognitive function. Absorbing information passively in the form of DVDs or watching TV shows pales in comparison to active learning methods such as imaginary play or taking drama classes.

While the authors provide plenty of insight into a child’s brain, perhaps the message that resonates most is: “think of parenting not as growing the person you want, but as a process of helping your child discover how to make his or her unique abilities and preferences fit well with the rest of the world.”

- Welcome to Your Child’s Brain – From in Utero to Uni, by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang