Every time I lectured to a group of parents-to-be about baby brain development, I made a mistake.
The parents, I thought, had come for a tasty helping of science about the brain in utero—a little neural crest biology here, a little axonal migration there. But in the question-and-answer session after each lecture, the questions were always the same. The first, delivered by a very pregnant woman one rainy night in Seattle, was, “What can my baby learn while she is still in my womb?” Another woman asked, “What’s going to happen to my marriage after we bring our baby home?” A dad delivered the third question, with some intensity: “How do I get my kid into Harvard?” An anxious mom asked the fourth question: “How can I make sure my little girl is going to be happy?” And the fifth belonged to a downright noble grandmother. “How do I make my grandchild good?” she asked. She had taken over parenting responsibilities from a drug-addicted daughter; she did not want the same thing to happen again.
No matter how many times I tried to steer the conversation toward the esoteric world of neural differentiation, parents asked variations on these same five questions—over and over again. Finally, I realized my mistake. I was giving parents Ivory Tower when they needed Ivory Soap. So, this book will not be concerned with the nature of gene regulation in the developing rhombencephalon. Brain Rules for Baby instead will be guided by the practical questions my audiences keep asking.
“Brain Rules” are what I call the things we know for sure about how the early-childhood brain works. Each one is quarried from the larger seams of behavioral psychology, cellular biology, and molecular biology. Each was selected for its ability to assist newly minted moms and dads in the daunting task of caring for a helpless little human.
I certainly understand the need for answers. Having a first child is like swallowing an intoxicating drink made of equal parts joy and terror, chased with a bucketful of transitions nobody ever tells you about. I know firsthand: I have two boys, both of whom came with bewildering questions, behavioral issues, and no instructions. I soon learned that’s not all they came with. They possessed a gravitational pull that could wrest from me a ferocious love and a tenacious loyalty. They were magnetic: I could not help staring at their perfect fingernails, clear eyes, and dramatic shocks of hair. By the time my second child was born, I understood that it is possible to split up love ad infinitum and not decrease any single portion of it. With parenting, it is truly possible to multiply by dividing.
As a scientist, I was very aware that watching a baby’s brain develop feels as if you have a front-row seat to a biological Big Bang. The brain starts out as a single cell in the womb, quiet as a secret. Within a few weeks, it is pumping out nerve cells at the astonishing rate of 8,000 per second. Within a few months, it is on its way to becoming the world’s finest thinking machine. These mysteries fueled not only wonder and love but, as a rookie parent, I remember, anxiety and questions.
Too many myths
Parents need facts, not just advice, about raising their children. Unfortunately, those facts are difficult to find in the ever-growing mountain of parenting books. And blogs. And message boards, and podcasts, and mother-in-laws, and every relative who’s ever had a child. There’s plenty of information out there. It’s just hard for parents to know what to believe.
The great thing about science is that it takes no sides—and no prisoners. Once you know which research to trust, the big picture emerges and myths fade away. To gain my trust, research must pass my “grump factor.” To make it into this book, studies must first have been published in the refereed literature and then successfully replicated. Some results have been confirmed dozens of times. Where I make an exception for cutting-edge research, reliable but not yet fully vetted by the passage of time, I will note it.
To me, parenting is about brain development. That’s not surprising, given what I do for a living. I am a developmental molecular biologist, with strong interests in the genetics of psychiatric disorders. My research life has been spent mostly as a private consultant, a for-hire troubleshooter, to industries and public research institutions in need of a geneticist with mental-health expertise. I also founded the Talaris Institute, located in Seattle next to the University of Washington, whose original mission involved studying how infants process information at the molecular, cellular, and behavioral levels. That is how I came to talk to groups of parents from time to time, like on that rainy Seattle night.
Scientists certainly don’t know everything about the brain. But what we do know gives us our best chance at raising smart, happy children. And it is relevant whether you just discovered you are pregnant, already have a toddler, or find yourself needing to raise grandchildren. So it will be my pleasure in this book to answer the big questions parents have asked me—and debunk their big myths, too. Here are some of my favorites:
Myth: Playing Mozart to your womb will improve your baby’s future math scores.
Truth: Your baby will simply remember Mozart after birth—along with many other things she hears, smells, and tastes in the womb. If you want her to do well in math in her later years, the greatest thing you can do is to teach her impulse control in her early years.
Myth: Exposing your infant or toddler to language DVDs will boost his vocabulary.
Truth: Some DVDs can actually reduce a toddler’s vocabulary. It is true that the number and variety of words you use when talking to your baby boost both his vocabulary and his IQ. But the words have to come from you—a real, live human being.
Myth: To boost their brain power, children need French lessons by age 3 and a room piled with “brain-friendly” toys and a library of educational DVDs.
Truth: The greatest pediatric brain-boosting technology in the world is probably a plain cardboard box, a fresh box of crayons, and two hours. The worst is probably your new flat-screen TV.
Myth: Continually telling your children they are smart will boost their confidence.
Truth: They’ll become less willing to work on challenging problems. If you want to get your baby into a great college, praise his or her effort instead.
Myth: Children somehow find their own happiness.
Truth: The greatest predictor of happiness is having friends. How do you make and keep friends? By being good at deciphering nonverbal communication. Learning a musical instrument boosts this ability by 50 percent. Text messaging may destroy it.
Research like this is continually published in respected scientific journals. But unless you have a subscription to the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, this rich procession of findings may pass you by. This book is meant to let you know what scientists know—without having a Ph.D. to understand it.
What's in the book