Nature versus Nurture, Seeds and Soil
True to his quest to cover parent’s practical questions, Medina organizes his book around the genetics of a baby’s brain and the sociological impact parenting has on it. As a result, the brain rules cover both hard science (“The brain cares about survival before learning”; “Intelligence is more than IQ”; “Babies are born with their own temperament”) and practical parenting advice backed by research (“Praise effort, not IQ”; “Empathy soothes the nerves”; “Discipline + warm heart = moral kid”).
Medina does this because he believes that nature and nurture are intimately joined in babies’ brain development. He calls the genetics “seeds,” and the social influence “soil.”
“Seeds are the DNA. I have an XY complement and you have an XX complement, and there’s DNA in them thar hills. Then the seed has to be planted in soil, and then it has to grow up. If you have great seeds and great soil, you’re going to get a good one.”
For this reason, Medina dedicates a whole chapter to marriage and helping partners navigate the brutal effects of new parenthood on their relationship. Parents should not be surprised to discover that there is neuroscience to back this up, too.
Happy Marriage, Happy Baby
Medina says there are a couple of “big fat reasons” why he dedicates so much time to helping parents not fight:
- “Kids can pick up on it. And infants can rewire their nervous system (it’s called a compensatory response), and that rewiring puts them on a heightened state of alert.”
- When exposed to a “huge amount of fighting and no resolution, kids get infectious diseases, they are more prone to get pediatric anxiety and depressive disorders, and they show, in later years, no real loyalty to parents. In fact, some grow up to be rescuer children” — children who become their parent’s confidant. “That’s toxic,” he says.
So is there hope for kids exposed to fighting?
Medina says yes, there’s a way around these detrimental outcomes. Parents need to add a second ingredient to their fighting: resolution.
“The research is clear. It’s not the presence of fighting that matters, and it does not hurt our kids’ brains, but … after you’re finished fighting, you also have to resolve in front of your children.” Parents may go off and resolve their conflict in private, but Medina says that’s not enough. The key is to make up with your partner in public, in front of the children. “If a kid sees mommy and daddy fight and the next day sees them okay, he’s thinking, ‘Huh? Weren’t they fighting?’ If they see you resolve emotionally and verbally, the kid has a chance to learn that a) fighting is okay, and b) here is how you resolve it.”
If children never see their parents resolve the fight, Medina says an asymmetry develops — all fighting, no making nice — and the presence of that asymmetry is devastating.
The Power of Empathy
When faced with a strong emotion from your spouse or your children, Medina tells parents to turn to empathy first.
- “Describe the emotion you think you see.”
- “Make a guess as to where it came from.”
By learning how to empathize with your partner as well as your little ones, you will teach your toddler and preschooler, through example, how to empathize with others around them. Children who learn to step outside of themselves in order to understand another person’s feelings are better able to control their own impulses, thus leading to higher SAT scores years down the road. And children who are able to empathize with playmates make better friends. Medina cites the landmark Harvard study of adult development to show that friendships are the single best predictor of a child’s happiness as they grow up.
Empathy not only has the power to stabilize marriages, but also the power to shape your child’s intelligence and happiness.
Children are Human Beings
Ultimately, Medina would like parents to understand one thing about their baby. “A child is a real live human being from the get-go, not your merit badge. They are not a personal reflection of your intelligence or the success of your life. They are little people, who need to be treated as people … That’s why I wrote the book.”