Minding Your Baby’s Mind: Raising A Smart and Happy Child

Every time molecular biologist John Medina taught parents about their babies’ brains, he noticed something interesting: They didn’t seem to care. “Even though I was talking about cells and molecules, I would get the same five questions every time,” Medina says, listing them:

  1. How do I get my kid into Harvard?
  2. Does my baby have an active mental life in the womb?
  3. What’s parenting going to do to my marriage?
  4. How do I raise a happy child?
  5.  How do I make a moral child?

Parents might be surprised to learn there’s a neuroscience behind each of these questions. Thus was the birth of Medina’s book, “Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five.” “I wanted to make this book organized around those heartfelt, insightful, and good questions that people are asking but no one’s addressing,” says the author, who uses science to answer these questions and to dismiss some myths about parenting.

“The great thing about science is that it takes no sides — and no prisoners,” says Medina. “Once you know which research to trust, the big picture emerges and myths fade away.”

Myth 1: Playing Mozart to your womb will improve your baby’s future math scores.

The truth? Leave your fetus alone, says Medina.

“Morning sickness is legendary for nausea, but it also makes you so doggone tired, you don’t want to move. The baby is going, ‘Good, good. I’m spitting out 8,000 cells per second. I need time to concentrate, thank you.’ ”

If you want your child to do well in math, the greatest thing you can do is teach your little one impulse control, writes Medina. Citing results of a study by researcher Walter Mischel, Medina explains how children who could delay gratification for 15 minutes scored 210 points higher on their SATs than children who could only last one minute.

Myth 2: To boost their brain power, children need French lessons by age 3, a room piled with brain-friendly toys and a library of educational DVDs.

The truth? Medina says that if your toddler’s brain could talk, it would say, “Quit buying me electronic gadgets. I need lots of open-ended play. I need cardboard boxes, and crayons, and two hours. I don’t need flash cards. If you really want to improve my cognitive development, talk to me, say words to me. Interact with me. Understand my behavioral cues.”

Medina cites the work of Ed Tronick, who, for decades, has been studying the emotional lives of children and the way their parents interact with them. Tronick coined the phrase “interaction synchrony,” which Medina defines as knowing your babies’ cues, when you’re overstimulating them and when you need to be with them.

The worst thing possible for your toddler’s growing mind, Medina says, is your flat-screen TV. He advises parents to create a “chocolate factory” in their homes for their toddlers — a room built for your toddler’s growing brain (based on Willy Wonka’s chocolate plant). Every playroom should include the following elements:

  • Lots of choices
  • A place for drawing
  • A place for painting
  • Musical instruments
  • A wardrobe filled with costumes
  • Blocks
  • Picture books
  • Tubes and gears

“Anything where a child can be safely let loose, joyously free to explore whatever catches her fancy,” he explains.

Myth 3: Continually telling your children they are smart will boost their confidence.

The truth? Medina voices the impact of such a myth on a kindergartener’s mind: “If you are going to praise me for my intellectual accomplishment, don’t tell me I’m smart. It’s toxic for me to hear that.” Medina cites the work of Carol Dweck, a Stanford scholar and researcher, who used the term “fixed mindset praise” to describe the way parents may inadvertently clip their child’s intellectual stamina in the bud.

“Little Johnny gets an A,” Medina explains. “A fixed mindset praise says, ‘Oh Johnny, you got an A on the test. I am so proud of you. You are so smart.’” Knowing that mom and dad are happy with him when he gets an A is like a “dopamine lollipop” for little Johnny, says Medina. Thus, when he gets a C, Johnny believes this means he’s not smart. It becomes a personal failure, upon which he fixates over and over.

“Johnny’s depth of understanding is pretty limited,” says Medina. “He’s interested in pleasing an authority figure. And children raised with fixed mindset praise don’t get very good grades, even if they are smart. If they get to Harvard, they collapse under the weight of the intellectually robust environment.”

If you want your child to do well in Harvard and other intellectually rigorous schools, Medina says, use “growth mindset praise”: “Oh Johnny, I’m so proud of you. You must have studied really hard.” As Medina explains it, “Now you’re appealing to intellectual grease, not horsepower.”

Parents who praise their kids’ efforts, not achievements, raise children who love running into problems. “They are so happy to get a challenge. If they get a C, they feel like they have control over it,” Medina says. “They say to themselves, ‘I didn’t study hard enough.’ Not, ‘This is a personal failing.’”

According to Medina, kids raised with growth mindset praise are focused, tenacious, and don’t take failure personally.

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We believe that neuroscience is the next great scientific frontier, and that advances in understanding the nature of the brain, consciousness, behavior, and health will transform human life in this century.

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