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How To Help Your Child's Brain Grow Up Strong

Babies may look helpless, but as soon as they come into the world, they're able to do a number of important things. They can recognize faces and moving objects. They're attracted to language. And from very early on, they can differentiate their mother from other humans.

"They really come equipped to learn about the world in a way that wasn't appreciated until recently," says neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt. "It took scientists a long time to realize that their brains are doing some very complicated things."

Aamodt and fellow neuroscientist Sam Wang explain how the human brain develops from infancy to adolescence in their new book, Welcome to Your Child's Brain. The two researchers also offer tips for parents to help their children eat their spinach, learn their ABCs and navigate elementary school.

Before all of those things, however, children have to learn how to talk. Babies can differentiate syllables and new sounds from very early on, but there are ways for parents to help their children develop their language skills faster and more efficiently.

"The most simple way is to talk to your baby and around your baby a lot," says Aamodt. "And the other thing that parents can do is to respond when the baby speaks, even if the baby isn't forming the words correctly or you don't understand it. Just act like some communication has occurred — smile and give the baby a little pat — and that encourages the baby to continue to try to communicate."

But because language is so social, says Wang, passive exposure to words really doesn't help babies learn in any way.

"For instance, videos that are often shown to babies containing language are not nearly so effective," he says. "In some cases, people try to teach babies language by showing them videos in a foreign language. It doesn't work very well at all because these are not social ways of exposing a child to language."

Parents should also realize that their children may reach certain intellectual milestones at different times — and that's OK.

"Language is acquired quite well before the age of 6, but trying to force your children to read before the age of 4 is an effort that doesn't work very well because the brain is not very well-equipped to tell the letter 'b' from the letter 'd' and so on," says Wang. "[But] it's something that older children can do without any effort at all."

And children who grow up in bilingual households have a distinct advantage over their peers.

"Kids who learn two languages young are better able to learn abstract rules and to reverse rules that they've already learned," says Aamodt. "They're less likely to have difficulty choosing between conflicting possibilities when there are two possible responses that both present themselves. They're also better at figuring out what other people are thinking, which is probably because they have to figure out which language to use every time they talk to somebody in order to communicate."

Teaching Self-Control

Aamodt and Wang also emphasize the importance of teaching your children self-control from an early age.

"This is really critical because there are so many things parents want to do when they read parenting books," he says. "They take steps to teach their children math or reading ... but a big thing we can do for our children is to do the best to foster the development of self-control and willpower. Self-control and the ability to restrain impulses is associated with success at every age, whether it means being able to read at age 4, or being able to restrain impulses at a later age, or even what your peers think of you in high school. At all of these ages, willpower and self-control is a stronger predictor of academic success than IQ."

When children are young, they can learn self-control by focusing on any fun activity — whether that means studying martial arts or playing with dolls and planning a make-believe tea party.

"It gives the child practice at planning and organizing a series of topics to achieve a desired goal," says Aamodt. "When you're planning a tea party, you can't be acting like a fighter pilot. You have to be acting like a lady having a tea party. So pretending is one of the earliest types of exposure most kids get to planning and organizing their actions. And the more you practice that, the better you're going to be at it."

Making sure your child has fun while learning self-control is vitally important. Aamodt and Wang recommend, for instance, telling your child to pretend he or she is protecting a castle instead of just saying, "Stand still."

"Taking advantage of a child's natural sense of fun is a terrific way to instill these things," says Wang. "This is not the kind of thing that works well if it's forced. It can be something as easy as pretending to guard the castle or playing a take-turns game where you say, 'I'm going to draw an ear on this piece of paper, and when you see an ear, then it's your time to listen. And if you see a mouth on this other piece of paper, then it's your time to talk.' So all of these things can be done in very simple ways — in ways that are often fun — and the more fun it is, the more likely the child is to pay attention for a longer period of time. These things are fun, they don't cost money, and anybody can do it."

Dr. Sam Wang is an associate professor of neuroscience at Princeton University. Dr. Sandra Aamodt is a former editor-in-chief of Nature Neuroscience. They are also the co-authors of Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life.


Interview Highlights

On rewards vs. punishment

Dr. Aamodt: "With a child, you're not only concerned with getting a child to behave. You're also concerned with building a good relationship with your child. You want your child to think of you as a wonderful person to be around. You also don't want to teach our kids that the way we solve our interpersonal problems is with violence."

Dr. Wang: "Negative reinforcement is often not very effective with deterring behavior. ... negative reinforcement punishment tends to not be very general. So the child will avoid doing the specific thing that led to the punishment and not learn some broader rule. From a practical standpoint, negative reinforcement is not terribly effective."

On time out

Dr. Wang: "One thing that's similar between how children and nonhuman animals learn best is the phenomenon of timeout, which has entered the lexicon as a means of getting a child to avoid doing something later. It comes from technical literature from which the long phrase is 'timeout and reinforcement,' which is if the kid does something undesirable, you simply take the child, go to the corner, and just sit there. And you don't say anything at all. You don't have to be negative. You don't have to mete out a punishment. You just have to say, 'Sit there for 3 minutes, and when I come back, we're done.' And then you forget about it and move on. This works at all ages."

On stress and pregnancy

Dr. Aamodt: "Stress is not good for babies. No ethics review board in the world would approve [an experiment] in which we deliberately damaged [pregnant women's] babies. But there are these so-called experiments of nature. One experiment that was done looked at women who had been evacuated from a hurricane in Louisiana when they were pregnant. What that study found was a substantially increased rate of autism in babies who had been in their fifth or sixth month of gestation at the time they fled the hurricane. The effect was stronger in cases where the hurricane was more dangerous."

On 'tiger parenting'

Dr. Wang: "I'm not very much of a tiger mother. I'm more of a pussy cat dad."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host: Wouldn't you love to know what's going on in your child's brain? Good luck with that. But it's helpful to know how a child's brain develops, and that's the subject of the new book "Welcome to Your Child's Brain: How the Mind Grows from Conception to College." My guests are the co-authors, Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang. They're both neuroscientists. Aamodt is a science writer and a former editor-in-chief of "Nature Neuroscience," a scientific journal in the field of brain research. Wong is an associate professor of neuroscience at Princeton University.

Sandra Aamodt, Sam Wang, welcome to FRESH AIR. I think a lot of parents feel very guilty that if anything goes wrong it's like their fault. If anything goes wrong with your child's development. And you're very reassuring about that in the book. You are reassuring to parents that brain development in most children requires no special equipment or training. You say most children find a way to grow in whatever conditions the world has to offer them. And you say your child's brain raises itself. What are some of the things that a parent can trust that a child is going to learn or ways that their brain is going to develop pretty much on its own?

AAMODT: So there's this whole collection of developmental processes that biologists call experience expectant development. What that means is that any normal child is going to get the environmental experiences that that child needs to develop things like for instance vision. All you do need to experience to develop vision, children who have difficulty seeing their brains don't develop the visual areas correctly. But on the other hand, you don't have to take your kids to vision classes, because the experience is that are necessary for visual development are easily available to any child who can see.

GROSS: You know, parents are trying so hard to give like their children like be intellectual edge and the musical edge in the mathematical edge. Is there an age where it's really pointless to try to do that and just like relax about that?

SAM WANG: Well, generally speaking, children's brains are very much self-wiring and able to learn amazing kinds of things but there are windows of opportunity during which the ground is most fertile - these things that developmental biologists call sensitive periods, when it's really the best time to learn a particular thing. And it's important to keep, to be mindful of the fact that children become ready at different times for different things.

For example, language. Language is acquired quite well before the age of six. But on the other hand, trying to force your child to read say before the age of four is an effort that doesn't work very well because the brain is not very well equipped to say for instance, tell the letter B from the letter D and so on, things that older children do without very much effort at all.

AAMODT: You seem to think that a child growing up with two languages has a like a cognitive edge over children growing up with just one.

Oh they do. It's substantial. Kids who learn two languages young, as early as their first year of life, are better able to learn abstract rules and to reverse rules that they've already learned. They're less likely to be, to have difficulty choosing between conflicting possibilities when there are two possible responses that both present themselves. Interestingly, they're also better at figuring out what other people are thinking, which is probably because they have to choose which language to use every time they talk to somebody in order to communicate.

GROSS: So your new book opens with a quiz. And I thought it would be fun to give our listeners this quiz and even though we won't know their answers, they'll know whether they got that right or not. And I think it's an informative quiz. So the quiz is titled "How Well Do You Know Your Child's Brain?" So here's question number one: Which are the following is a good way to get your child to eat his spinach? A, cover the spinach in melted cheese. B, start the meal with a few bites of desert. C, feed him with soy-based formula as an infant. D, all of the above. E, none of the above. Who wants to take that? What's the real answer?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WANG: The real answer is D, all of the above. All of those things; a little desert, melted cheese on the spinach and soy-based formula all have a positive effect on getting a child to prefer spinach.

GROSS: Okay. So you have to explain how something as counterintuitive as giving your child a few bites of desert before the spinach is going to help your child want the spinach.

WANG: Well the answer to this is that flavor preferences are not innate for the most part, so there are a few things that we are automatically like. Sweet flavors we automatically like. Fatty things we automatically like. But nearly everything else is learned. And what that means is that even before birth and then in early childhood, children are learning what flavors are associated with something tasty. And so in that case, that's a conditioning experiment in which something that they know they like, this fatty sweet thing - dessert - one associated with something else that they don't know whether they like or not, when paired repeatedly eventually leads to a preference. And there's a time window in which that pairing is optimal, which is when the flavor is separated from the reward within about a nine-second period, and that leads to effective learning of the new flavor.

GROSS: Wait. So what's the reward? Because you get the reward before you get the spinach.

WANG: Ah. Well, it turns out that it works pretty well when they're given in that order. Now at practice it's a little bit difficult, because if you've got a baby you kind of imagine yourself hovering with two spoons in front of the kid, you know, one spoon of spinach and another spoon of ice cream, and you jam one spoon and then you jam the other one in. But...

GROSS: With a stopwatch and count nine seconds.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Well, I'll tell you simpler way to do it, which is to take these two things - the simpler ways to take the two things and puree them and mix them together. Much easier.

What, spinach and ice cream?

You know what? Babies don't know that's weird.

OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I wouldn't try that with a grown-up.

You're a father. Have you actually tried this?

WANG: I have tried that sort of thing. I have mix things together and it works reasonably well. She's four now so it doesn't work quite so well now because she's aware. She in fact has an unusual ability to take a spoonful of stay spinach and something nice and separate them from each other. I didn't know, you know, it's like she's got opposable lips. It's amazing.

GROSS: OK, another question. What kind of dream experience is not yet within the capacity of a three-year-old: Seeing a dog standing around, playing with toys, sleeping in the bathtub, watching tropical fish or looking at an empty room?

The answer is B, playing with toys. What's going on here is that in studies of dreaming is possible to watch the development of training in children as they get older by doing things like waiting until they wake up or even waking them up and saying well, what did you see? And in small children up until the age of about three or four, what children either report is no dreams at all or the report static things like a chicken eating corn or a dog standing or I was sleeping in a bathtub. And at early ages dreams don't have social interactions, they don't have feelings. There are a lot of things that don't appear in preschoolers dreams but only at later ages, around the age of eight or nine.

Oh, that's really interesting. You can't remember your dreams at that age, can you?

WANG: I don't remember anything about my dreams. One thing that's interesting, when children wake up at that age sometimes they wake up afraid. But that's something different, they're not really dreaming. So for instance it's been reported that children have things like night terrors, right? So a child wakes up, is inconsolable but can't really say what's going on. And that's in fact not a dream. So dreams and night terrors seem to be different events in a child's sleep experience.

GROSS: Well, what can you tell us about night terrors?

WANG: There are different sorts of things that happened during sleep at early ages. Night terrors are one example; another example is sleepwalking. It appears that there's something about sleep that is in some sense learned or acquired. It's not that sleeping comes online all at once at an earlier age, but there's this kind of coordination in which the sleeping brain eventually with experience and time and natural development is able to control responses like fear or walking around during sleep. These are clearly very important functions but they come online gradually, and in some kids they don't come online right away and so you end up with things like kids who wake up scared.

GROSS: Well, if you're just joining us my guests are Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt. They're the authors of the new book "Welcome to Your Child's Brain." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us my guests are Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang. They're the authors of the new book "Welcome to Your Child's Brain: How the Mind Grows from Conception to College." And Sandra Aamodt is a science writer, who is the former editor-in-chief of "Nature Neuroscience," which is a brain research publication. And Sam Wang is an associate professor of neuroscience at Princeton University.

Sam, you were studying neuroscience and teaching neuroscience before you became a father. Your child is four now. Have you tested the scientific research on your own daughter?

WANG: Generally in my household it's not really allowed to do experiments per se on the kid. However, one thing that's come out of our of all the reading that I've done and that Sandra and I have batted back and forth about child development is I have to say the main thing that's come out is that I've become much more relaxed about a lot of things that I see happening with her as she gets older. So for instance, show writer name backwards or show writer name upside down and I think to myself well, is that OK? And then if I think back to the literature on reading and writing, I think well you know what? She's four and that's common, and it doesn't mean it's dyslexia. It means that she is doing with four-year-olds do, which is right things upside down and backwards. So a lot of what I do is relax now.

The other thing I do that I think is what you're really asking about is I've learned to focus on outcomes that I can affect. So I've gotten very interested in her social skills, in her self-control capacity because I see those things as things where I can help her by helping her to develop things that are going to serve her really well later.

GROSS: How are you trying to help her with social skills?

This is somewhat challenging, but for instance helping her show empathy towards other children and to adults by saying honey, you just did that. Will you please show me by making a face what that made the other person feel like? How would that make you feel? And rather than asking her some cognitive question like, do you think that's a good thing to do, I'll ask her something like, make a face showing how that makes that person feel. And that is a way of activating her emotional responses in a way that's accessible to her at an early age. Children really do better at certain ages with direct experience of the emotion.

What about teaching her self-control?

WANG: Well, self-control is a hard thing to teach. The kind of things I do with her with self-control are engaging in complicated games, in setting little playacting games. Like I'll give her a picture of an ear and I'll say honey, when you have the ear it's your turn to listen. When you have the mouth it's your turn to talk. And so things involving planning ahead, self-restraint, and making it into a fun game so that she naturally wants to do these things. And I tried very hard to weave that into everyday life, which I should say is actually kind of hard because honestly, I tend towards being somewhat indulgent.

GROSS: As a parent?

WANG: Yeah. I'm not very much of a tiger mother. I'm kind of more of a pussycat dad.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Do you check yourself on that? Do you think that it's sometimes like bad to give in - that you're going to, you know, spoil her or, you know, teach the wrong lesson?

WANG: Well...

GROSS: And, you know, a lot of parents think that parenting is about being respected and being a firm authority figure, you know, drawing the line, not about like being like a nice guy and being, you know, loved and warm and fuzzy- that a parent isn't a child best friend, a parent is a parent.

WANG: I'm pretty bad at that. One thing I've - one person I turned to for advice on these things is Sandra, in fact, because Sandra is obviously at a distance from my family and so, in fact, at the same time...

GROSS: And not a parent.

WANG: Not a parent, at a distance from our family, but she has done something exceptional, which is reviewed the literature on reinforcement, on authority and so on. And so I actually often will ask is Sandra about things like what to do in terms of firmness or saying no and so on.

GROSS: Sandra, what is some of the advice you've given?

SANDRA: So kids do best in terms of their behavior when the parent is not their best friend but is also not an authoritarian - you must do what I say because I said so type of parent. The best parenting approach is to be both very responsive to what the child needs, but also to have firm rules and boundaries that you enforce in a sort of impersonal way. It's not about getting angry and saying oh, you really made me mad when you did that. It's just about saying well, that's against the rules and now you get a time out. And then OK, we're done. Everything's fine now. That whole thing is over and I'm not going to go sulk.

WANG: Right.

GROSS: And it gets - why is that a rule? I don't like that rule. And then you say?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WANG: I don't really engage with the questioning of the rule. I usually cut right to, well, I'm your father and it's time for you to have a timeout right now. And I try really hard not to get into discussions of the rule because my kid is pretty smart and she is in many cases a little lawyer. She's good at arguing with me about rules. And if I just say, you know what? What I'm saying is it is time for you to sit over here for three minutes. And that's usually enough.

GROSS: And is that effective?

WANG: It works pretty well. As long as it's not a case in which she asks for something and asks for something and then on the, you know, fourth or fifth try I say oh, OK, because that teaches something else, which is that evidently asking for something four times in a more and more strident tone is the way to get something.

GROSS: Dad can be manipulated. It just takes a little bit of time. Just be patient.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WANG: Yeah. I tried really hard not to be that dad.

GROSS: No. No. But dads believe - I know you believe that, you know, reward is better than punishment when you're teaching a child. So you've just talked about a timeout, sitting still, which to a child is a kind of punishment.

WANG: Well, one way to dispense the rewards is to do something a bit more complicated. For instance, a point system in which you say OK, you get a point if you brush your teeth for real. You get a point if you get up in the morning and you do not wake up dad demanding breakfast. OK, so...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WANG: ...and...

, NEUROSCIENTIST, SCIENCE WRITER: Well, that sounded a little personal there.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WANG: Well, I'm just saying, one point for, you know, if you wake up and the sun is not up yet and if you just play for a minute then you get a point. And eventually those points accumulate and turn into a reward. And I have to admit that those are not imaginary examples. And but the point system works pretty well actually.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both very much for talking with us.

WANG: It was our pleasure. This was fun.

, NEUROSCIENTIST, SCIENCE WRITER: Yeah, it was great.

GROSS: Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang are the authors of "Welcome to Your Child's Brain." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show. You can find out on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NICK LOWE: (Singing) I'm on along the street, but nobody told my feet. They're walking on air for somebody's destiny...

GROSS: One the next FRESH AIR, Nick Lowe joins us in the studio to perform songs from his new album "The Old Magic." Join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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