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.
A very pregnant woman, one rainy night in Seattle, asked, “What can my baby learn while she is still in my womb?” Another woman wondered, “What’s going to happen to my marriage after we bring our baby home?” A dad delivered his question with some intensity: “How do I get my kid into Harvard?” An anxious mom asked, “How can I make sure my little girl is going to be happy?” One grandmother had taken over parenting responsibilities from a drug-addicted daughter. “How do I make my grandchild good?” she asked. And again and again, new parents pleaded, “How do I get my baby to sleep through the night?”
No matter how many times I tried to steer the conversation toward the esoteric world of neural differentiation, parents asked variations on these same six 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.
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.