John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist, has a lifelong fascination with how the mind reacts to and organizes information. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School—a provocative book that takes on the way our schools and work environments are designed. His latest book is a must-read for parents and early-childhood educators: Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child From Zero to Five You might ask, “What does this topic have to do with small business? Well, if you’re having issues with your kids, you’re not going to be on top of your game at the office.
Q: What’s the gist of what one should do to foster emotionally health and intellectually successful kids?
A: Take these comments with a grain of salt, though. Every brain is wired differently from every other brain and learns in ways unique to that wiring. This means there are few “one-size-fits-all” parenting recommendations you can actually make, even if we all agreed what optimal actually means.
Early pregnancy. Do nothing. The early in utero baby brain is pumping out neurons at the rate of 8,000 per second. For weeks. This takes lots of energy. A peaceful lack of interference from amateur parents is probably the best piece of advice at this stage.
Late pregnancy. Go get a pedicure. Or a massage. If you are pregnant, spend a lot of time doing activities you enjoy. If you are the partner of someone who is pregnant, treat her like a queen. Why? Late pregnancy is a stressful time, even if you are trying to enjoy yourself. That’s okay; the baby’s brain actually likes healthy dollops of “typical” stress. What’s not good is atypical stress, the type where you don’t feel like a queen but more like a serf. Out of control stress can actually hurt baby brain development.
Toddler years. Turn off your television, unless you want to get into the habit of anesthetizing your child’s natural exploratory tendencies. Even second hand exposure has been shown to be harmful. The best thing for a toddler’s intellectual development at this stage is a cardboard box, a set of crayons and two hours.
Elementary years. From the research of Diana Baumrind to Haim Ginot and John Gottman, it is clear that the single greatest predictor of parenting success is what a parent does when the child’s emotions run hot. Parents in the US respond in surprisingly predictable ways—total of four behavioral clusters or “styles”—only one of which is optimal for brain development. It’s a bit much to explain in this space, but the book details all four styles.
Teen years. As kids mature, practice authoritative parenting and inductive rule-setting. Authoritative parenting is a behavioral alloy: copious amounts of empathy mixed with unassuming, but iron clad regulations. Inductive rule-setting is where adults consistently explain to their children the reasons for the policies they deploy. It has to do with compliance rates.
Here’s a simplistic example. Poorest compliance: “Don’t touch the dog or you’ll get in trouble.” Highest compliance: “Don’t touch the dog or you’ll get in trouble. The dog has a bad temper and I don’t want you to get bitten.”
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Q: Do any of the tapes, CDs, TV shows, and nutritional supplements matter?
A: No commercial device aimed at boosting the IQs of the diaper-and-pull-up crowd has ever been shown to work. In the case where an electronic product was actually analyzed, it was shown to do real developmental harm. There is stuff that works, but none of it involves wires or microchips.
The same negative findings have been shown with nutritional supplements claiming to boost brain power. We mostly just pass the stuff, which means Americans have the most expensive urine in the world. One exception to this admittedly grumpy view of vitamin supplements is B-complex folic acid, especially if taken around conception and the first few weeks of pregnancy. Women who supplement their diet with this vitamin have a greatly reduced probability of carrying a child with neural tube defects.
Q: What about adults? Perhaps not brain development, but preservation?
A: The best thing adults can do to preserve their brain function is to get off their butts and go for a run. Aerobics appears to be the secret sauce. Consistent aerobic exposure can increase the performance of cognitive gadget we call executive function- anywhere from 50 to 102 percent, depending upon the study.
This is an important finding. You want lots of executive function, a mixture of impulse control, ability to plan for the future and an aptitude for gist-to-detail hierarchical structuring. (good for math). If you want not only to preserve what you have left but also improve what you have left, go for a run.
Q: How should you praise kids?
A: Praise their effort, not their IQ. If little Johnny gets an “A” on a test, don’t say “you’re so smart”. That creates an unholy alliance between his grades and his brains. What happens when he gets a “C”? Is it because he is stupid? “Yes,” your child says. Kids raised with this praise tend to give up quickly when confronted with hard problems. Their grades suffer.
Say instead “You got an A because you studied really hard.” The kid creates a holy alliance between grades and intellectual elbow grease. When Johnny gets a “C”, he says “that’s okay. I must not have studied hard enough” Kids who grow up being praised for effort internalize a remarkably refreshing attitude towards success (and failure). They tend not to give up when confronted with hard problems.
Q: What if your kid doesn’t have to work hard to get good grades? If you tell them, “I’m proud that you worked so hard,” but the kid knows he didn’t work hard, then what? The kid thinks his parents are clueless and easily fooled—which creates a whole different set of issues.
A: The solution presents itself in the level of the material to which the child is being exposed. Probably the material is too easy. The parents need to find the goldilocks level at which a) the material presents just enough of a challenge that the child must exert considerable intellectual elbow grease to master it, and b) it must not be so suffocating that the child gives up. Giving up is what usually occurs in these kids when presented with challenging material, regardless of how “advanced” they are (what does that mean again?).
It’s not too much to ask the parents to “flare” some of their own advanced skills, and I submit a personal example. My own 11-year old was going down that road—he’s really good at math—and I gave him a Fourier transform and asked him to solve it. He was, of course, completely bewildered. I got a lot of new respect that day! It gave him a bar to reach for, he said. And a great deal more compliance with his homework.
Q: How should you punish them?
A: There’s an important preliminary question in the back of this one: “should children be punished?” The answer is “you bet”, but it is important to keep something in mind before addressing the mechanics:
If you are a parent, write this across your heart: the brain is not interested in being a good little boy or girl. The brain is interested in being a safe little boy or girl. The brain is the world’s most sophisticated information processor, but all of that neural hardware is focused like a laser on a single goal: surviving to the next day.
Any parenting style that aids perceptions of safety is going to optimize the performance of this unidirectional system. Any parenting style that degrades that safety is going to hobble it. This means that punishment must always be delivered in an environment that says “I will always love you, even if you don’t always like what I do.”
Now to the mechanics of punishment. I use the acronym “FIRST” to describe the rules of punishment shown to be the most effective in the research literature. The punishment must be Firm, which means it has be perceived as unpleasant. The punishment must be Immediate, delivered as close to the moment of infraction as possible. It must be Reliable—or consistent—which means that every time a given rule or directive is violated it is punished (that includes mommy and daddy and nannies and all the relatives being on the same page). It must be delivered in Safety—the child must know that things are safe, even when things are awful. There must be a certain Tolerance. Kids aren’t little adults and they are going to make lots of mistakes. What I’m really describing is Patience, so the acronym should spell FIRSP.
Q: Now that you’ve given us all this information, and we realize that didn’t do these things, are our kids doomed?
A: Yes. I am kidding of course. The one lesson neuroscience has taught us about the brain is that it is a remarkably plastic and adaptable organ. Its almost never too late to get started doing the right thing, or at least what the literature says is the right thing. There is an additional and quite natural failsafe mechanism. When all else fails, there’s always the grandkids.
Q: A little self-diagnosis: What are sure signs that we are over-parenting?
A: The surest sign comes from a sin of omission: The whole reason you bring children into the world is to equip them to outlast you. Which means fostering independence is a big deal, especially as they mature. Parents often forget this, which is the sin of omission. This has idea strong evolutionary roots, most of which you can blame it on our big, fat overweight brains.
Parenting can be thought of as an attempt to solve a problem created by two clashing numbers: the diameter of an infant’s brain and the width of the mother’s birth canal. If the baby’s head is too small, the baby dies. If the infant’s head is too big, the mother dies. The solution? Give birth to babies before their skulls become too big. The consequence? Kids come into the world before their brains are fully developed.
The result? Parenthood. Kids are not capable of outlasting their parents at the moment of birth. But they need to learn it; the survival of the species depends upon independence. It is left to the parents to teach them this important skill. Many parents forget this and as a result, over-parent.
Q: What’s worse: too much or too little parenting?
A: Too little is worse. Teaching independence actually requires a great deal of parental involvement. Parents who practice what the literature calls “laissez faire” parenting style (an inadvertent or deliberate abdication of parenting responsibilities) raise kids with the worst development outcomes. These kids have the poorest emotional regulation, fewest friends, greatest risk for pediatric anxiety and depressive disorders, greatest risk for future criminal behavior, worst grades.
Q: Let’s say a person now realizes they’re over parenting, how do they let go?
A: As a college professor, I find many over-parenting adults possessed a single obnoxious attitude: they treated their kids like merit badges through out the course of their parenting. They saw their children’s successes and failures as reflections of their own status, accomplishment, even self-worth. Which means they didn’t see their kids as people, they saw them as performance reviews. That continues after they leave home, hence the hovering.
The best way for these parents to get rid of this toxic inner helicopter is to realize that they gave birth to human beings who eventually need to stand on their own, complete with their own successes, and failures (see the previous “sin of omission” discussion). Even the worst Sikorsky parents often want the best for the kids. But they need to let their kids rise and fall on their own. It is what their kids’ brains are built for.
Q: Are there lessons you can apply from brain development to the lifecycle of a company?
A: I am not sure about the lifecycle of a company, but certainly for the environment in which the company’s lifecycle takes place.
I am often asked to speak to business audiences on the potential of applying findings from the cognitive neurosciences to business practice, something about which I am very skeptical. I usually say three things to explain my skepticism:
a) We don’t know enough about how the brain works to apply anything to business practice. We don’t know in real terms how your brain knows how to pick up a glass of water and drink it. Let alone be prescriptive about how business should work.
b) That doesn’t mean we are clueless about brain functioning. We know a lot about the brain’s performance envelope, for example. The brain appears to have been designed to solve problems related to surviving in an outdoor setting—in unstable meteorological conditions—and to do so in near constant motion.
c) So, even though we don’t enough to be prescriptive about how companies should run their business, we do know this: if you wanted to design a business environment that was directly opposed to what the brain is naturally good at doing, you would design a cubicle. And you would place it in a building with very few windows surrounded by people who were constantly gunning for your job.
And if for some reason you find this appalling, you would have to have a certain intellectual courage. You would have to be willing to tear down a few things and start over again (perhaps treadmills in place of desks?).
I realize the great impracticality of that last sentence. It is actually a simple call for research in the area, because we don’t actually know if treadmills would be more productive than desks. Until we are willing to do such research, we will only have our courage. Courage is good to have. But I would rather it be accompanied by data.
So there you are: the inside scoop on the development of brains. Remember to read John’s book for more information: Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child From Zero to Five.