Smart Parenting, Smarter Kids
ONE Our Children’s Amazing Brains
The phone rang as I returned to my office.
“Hello, this is Dr. Dave Walsh,” I said as I sat down at my desk.
“Hi, my name is Eleanor Stephenson. My husband and I were at your seminar in Lake Crystal, Minnesota, a few weeks back. We found it helpful, and I wonder if you have a minute to give me some advice.”
“I’ll try,” I replied.
“Thanks,” she said. “Our son Jeremy is in second grade and we are having a problem with his teacher. I really need help knowing what to do.”
“What problem are you having?” I asked.
“Well, we had parent conferences the other night,” she began, “and Jeremy’s teacher told us that Jeremy had difficulty paying attention in class. I didn’t say anything, but I knew this couldn’t possibly be true. Jeremy can play video games for hours on end without blinking. It’s clear Jeremy can pay attention, so I think the problem is with his second grade classroom—it’s too boring. Do you have a suggestion for how I can handle this?”
“Well, Eleanor, there may be another explanation for what’s happening. It may not be the teacher’s problem. As a parent,” I said, “you, too, have probably noticed how hard it is to get your kid to pay attention to math homework, while he has no problem sticking with a video game for hours on end. This is explained by the way the brain pays attention. The brain is equipped with two attention systems. One, reactive attention, is located deep within the brain’s emotional center, automatic, instinctive, and involuntary. When something moves or is very stimulating in our environment, we automatically react and focus our attention, very handy when our ancestors needed to watch out constantly for danger.
“The second system is called ‘focused attention’ and is located in a
different part of the brain, called the prefrontal cortex or the executive center, right behind our forehead. We use the focused attention system when we decide
to pay attention. Unlike reactive attention, this one is not automatic. Focused attention is only developed with a lot of practice. It’s very important because we need focused attention to learn things that aren’t naturally stimulating. For example, word rhyming, a second grade reading skill, is not particularly exciting, learned only by listening closely, paying attention to word endings, and practicing words.”
Eleanor and her husband realized that their son’s reactive attention was engaged with video games, while his classroom work needed focused attention.
The distinction between reactive and focused attention is important to keep in mind—really important when we listen to teachers talk about their struggles to keep kids’ attention these days. We’ll explore in chapter 4
the important relationships between attention and memory and learning. For now this one example illustrates how recent brain science discoveries can help parents, teachers, coaches, or anyone interested in kids do a better job of raising healthy, successful children in the 21st century.
Parenting and our children’s amazing brains—that’s the focus of this book. I’ll explain what brain scientists have learned about children’s brains from prenatal development through the teen years. Whether you’re pregnant with your first child or trying to figure out why adolescents act the way they do, you’ll find important information and practical advice. The emphasis throughout will be on science made practical. The chapters will include checklists, tool kits, sample dialogues, conversation starters, and lists of dos and don’ts.
Unlocking the Brain’s Secrets
Consider a newborn’s three-quarter-pound brain and the teenager’s three-pound wonder: their brains control everything they do and who they are. As director of mundane but critical tasks like regulating body temperature and heart rate as well as higher functions like solving quadratic equations and falling in love, the brain works even when we’re sound asleep. While it occupies only 2 percent of our body mass, the brain burns 20 percent of our body’s energy. Only recently have we begun to discover how the brain really works or develops.
The brain is a particularly difficult organ to investigate. We can’t easily observe it, so we have to try other methods to explain the activity inside our
heads. For centuries scientists devised theories, based not on direct observation of a living brain, but indirectly, on how people acted.
Sigmund Freud, for example, developed a very elaborate theory of brain functions from the behaviors he observed. After Freud’s ideas were published in the early 1900s, many others advanced their own pro- or anti-Freudian theories. Theories on the mind got so confused that mid-20th-century psychologist B. F. Skinner declared all these theories a waste of time. He called the brain the “black box” and claimed that behavior, not the mind, should be a scientist’s focus because we could measure behavior directly.
At the time, Skinner, the “father of behaviorism,” may have been right, but in the 1970s scientists invented machines including CT scans, MRIs, PET scans, and SPECT scans, that allowed researchers to peer inside the brain without harming it or its owner.
In the past forty years these machines have greatly improved and now provide high-resolution images, pulling back the curtain in front of the brain and enabling physicians to diagnose brain problems and dramatically improve treatment. We’ve also gained a wealth of information about the development and function of normal brains.
The new information about children and youth brain development is especially exciting. My book Why Do They Act That Way? A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen
is entirely about how the teenage brain works. My previous book, No. Why Kids—of All Ages—Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It,
pays special attention to the critical importance of self-discipline—how children learn to balance and manage the brain’s hardwired drive to seek pleasure. The book you are now reading expands my inquiries into children’s behavior to cover a wider range of brain-related topics.
We learn new brain secrets every day, and in the process even correct some mistaken beliefs. As recently as the mid-1990s, for example, students of the brain were taught that the only brain cells we will ever possess are the ones we are born with, that we never grow any more. Today, we know that isn’t true. The 1998 discovery of adult neurogenesis, the birth of new brain cells later in life, overturned that long-held theory.
Brain Science Saves the Life of a Teenager
Our friends Austin and Pam, parents of fourteen-year-old Jacob, benefited from this new brain information. The surprise neuroscience lesson happened one night while we visited over coffee and dessert.
“How are the kids?” I asked, as my wife, Monica, and I sat talking with them.
“Jenny is fine but Jacob’s driving us nuts,” Austin replied. “It’s almost like he’s had a personality transplant. He’s become more and more sullen, withdrawn, and grumpy. Our trip to Des Moines last week for my nephew’s wedding was miserable. All Jacob wanted to do all weekend was to listen to his iPod. He was downright rude to half the relatives.”
“Last night,” added Pam, “I asked him to take the garbage out after dinner. You’d think I asked him to clean the entire house. Jacob rolled his eyes, sighed out loud, and mumbled about doing everything around the house. I bit my tongue because I didn’t want to say something I would regret. He acts so annoyed whenever we ask him to do anything.”
Having survived three teenagers ourselves we had a pretty good idea of what was going on with Jacob. “Welcome to adolescence,” I tried, to lighten the mood a bit.
“Your kids were never like that,” Pam said as she looked at Monica.
“That’s just because you didn’t see them at home,” Monica replied. “Teenagers can be a little surly with adults, but they usually reserve the vintage collection for their own parents. I still remember all three kids’ predictable response when I asked for help: ‘Why do I have to do it?’”
“Parenting teens can be really difficult,” I chimed in. “It helps to try not to take it personally. Realize that right now his feelings probably confuse him as much as you. The issue is not really you,” I said. “It’s what’s going on in Jacob’s brain.”
“You mean hormones?” asked Pam.
“Hormones are only part of the picture,” I explained. “There’s a lot more going on in the teen brain than hormones. Brain science now tells us that adolescent brains are works in progress, a series of major construction zones. The changes going on inside their brains explain a lot of the moodiness, impulsivity, risk taking, and anger.”
Our neighbors’ response echoed that of many parents when they discover what brain science has learned about the teen brain. As Pam joked that night, “This little brain lesson might have saved the life of a fourteen-year-old. I was beginning to weigh a prison sentence against putting up with Jacob’s surliness. So do we just put up with him until his brain finishes growing?”
“Well, yes and no,” I responded. “Knowing what’s going on in Jacob’s brain can help us not take everything personally. On the other hand, we can’t become doormats for disrespect. Cutting teenagers some slack doesn’t mean a free pass for bad behavior. Adolescents need to learn accountability,
too, and it’s our job to teach them. It’s a real balancing act.” We’ll explore more about the teen brain and how parents can strike that balance in chapter 10
Brain Science 101
Austin and Pam had a ringside seat to one of the brain’s many growth spurts. A few brain basics will help us understand these spurts. The brain is essentially a vast electrical system. Right now, as you read this book, your brain is generating enough electrical power to light a twenty-watt lightbulb. That familiar lightbulb-over-the-head cartoon image turns out to be accurate after all. The basic unit of this electrical system is the brain cell, or neuron. While brain cells come in different sizes and shapes, they share a common structure, including a cable or axon with branches at each end. One set of branches is called dendrites and the other synaptic buttons. Electrical charges enter the neuron through one branch, zip down the cable, and exit out a branch at the other end.
The number of brain cells is quite impressive. An infant arrives in the world with about 100 billion brain cells
, each with an average of ten thousand branches. A quick calculation reveals that the possible number of contact points in a newborn baby’s brain is one quadrillion. Trying to compute the possible number of match-ups with these quadrillion connections would stymie the most brilliant mathematician.
Consider this comparison. A piano has eighty-eight keys. How many possible songs or tunes can be composed with those eighty-eight keys in different combinations and sequences? Of course, the answer is “Who knows?” So if we can’t figure out the potential number with eighty-eight keys can you imagine the possibilities with one quadrillion? The late Nobel laureate Francis Crick
, one of the co-discoverers of DNA, once said that the possible number of neural network configurations in one brain exceeds the number of atoms in the universe. The possibilities are limitless. When a baby arrives in the world, however, only 17 percent
of her brain cells are wired together. That leaves the rest—the vast majority—to connect in the days, weeks, months, years, and decades that follow. Two forces drive the wiring: genetics and experience. I like to think of genetics as the hard wiring and experience the soft wiring.
How a baby learns language provides a good example of the combination of hard wiring and soft wiring in action. As new parents know, their bundle of joy arrives perfectly capable of making noise. Vocalizing is hardwired. However, which of the world’s 6,500 languages a baby will eventually
speak is not hardwired. Her language is shaped by her experiences, that is, the sounds she hears. (A whole chapter on how she acquires language follows later in this book.)
A child’s experiences are a key factor in how her brain gets wired. Neuroscientists have a phrase to underline the importance of experience in brain wiring: the neurons that fire together wire together.
The more often neurons fire together, the stronger the connection becomes. Or as University of California, Los Angeles neuroscientist Jeffrey Schwartz puts it
, “the survival of the busiest.” An elementary grade teacher drilling her students on basic math facts is an everyday example of this important brain principle in action. After a pupil repeats that 3 plus 2 equals 5 often enough the connection is made, and that fact becomes fixed in memory for easy retrieval.
I was explaining brain basics to a group of third graders at the Park Tudor School in Indianapolis recently and asked one little girl what her favorite sport was. “Tennis” was her immediate reply. “That’s a great example,” I said. “Tell me,” I continued, “what was it like when you first tried to play tennis?”
“I could barely hold the racket,” she said, smiling. “And I couldn’t even hit the ball.”
“Well, now that you’re in the third grade, how is your tennis game?” I asked.
“My dad says I’m getting pretty good,” she answered.
“How did you get from not being able to hold the racket to being pretty good?”
This little girl is a brilliant neuroscientist, because when we “practice,” the scientific principle “the neurons that fire together wire together” goes into action. Here’s my rule: Whatever the brain does a lot of is what the brain gets good at.
That’s true whether we’re talking about studying math, playing the trumpet, or working on our tennis game.
Mental Experience Counts, Too
The brain isn’t just shaped by our actions. Even thinking wires the brain
. When Alvaro Pascual-Leone was a scientist at the National Institutes of Health, he invited people who had never played the piano to be part of an experiment. After teaching them all how to play a simple tune, he randomly assigned them to two groups. The first group kept practicing the tune for two more hours. The second group just imagined playing the piece without so
much as laying a finger on a keyboard. He mapped the brain activity of both groups before, during, and after the experiment and amazingly, the ones who had imagined playing the tune exhibited the same brain changes as those who had actually played. A pianist still needs to practice, but thinking had rewired their brains. When world-class athletes imagine their performance before the competition starts, they aren’t just concentrating. The neurological starting gun has already fired.
The Brain’s Growth Spurts
However, all experiences aren’t equal in wiring the brain. Some experiences are more important than others. Experiences with the greatest impact on brain wiring
are those that happen during a brain’s growth spurts. “What’s a brain growth spurt?” you might wonder. Well, we know that our billions of brain cells wire together into circuits. We don’t know our total number of circuits, but we do know they develop in spurts at different times and speeds. While some spring to life, others are less active.
University of California, Berkeley neuroscientist Marian Diamond describes exactly what happens during a brain circuit’s growth spurt. A hardwired trigger sends the neurons’ branches, the dendrites, into a frenzy of growth. At the same time, experience swings into action. The branches that fire together connect while those that don’t fire eventually wither back and die like neglected, unwatered flowers in a garden. Scientists call the hypergrowth “blossoming” for obvious reasons, and they call the withering process “pruning.”
What’s doing the pruning is, of course, experience. Our experiences during a brain’s growth spurt affect the brain’s wiring more than at any other time during our life. The two nicknames “window of opportunity” and “window of sensitivity” highlight this importance, as a child’s brain’s greatest potential as well as its greatest vulnerability lies during these critical growth spurts. For example, the Japanese language doesn’t have the same “l” sound that we have in English, so young children learning Japanese don’t hear the “l” sound as we speak it in English. They don’t have a circuit wired to recognize or vocalize our “l” sound, and the circuit that does fire sounds like our “r” sound—so, when learning English, they might say that they pray, rather than play, video games.
Although I will use the terms brain cell
interchangeably throughout this book, neurons actually only make up about 10 percent of the cells in the brain. The other 90 percent are called glial cells
, which comes from the Greek word for glue. We are only beginning to appreciate their roles. Until recently, scientists thought that glial cells did nothing more than provide structural support and a transportation route for raw materials and waste products for their more important neural neighbors. That thinking is beginning to change as glial cells’ role in the production of neurotransmitters, the chemicals that fills the gaps between neural branches, becomes clearer. I wouldn’t be surprised if further research reveals that glial cells are much more than supporting actors.
The Brain’s Chemistry Set
Neurotransmitters are one of two important groups of chemicals—the other is hormones—that play roles in how the brain works. My friend Pam mentioned hormones earlier when she was describing her adolescent son Jacob. Our body produces more than sixty of them in glands located throughout the body. Their job is to bring messages to various organs both inside and outside the brain. The technical name for the hormone system is endocrine, and since the brain is the master control center the entire network is often referred to as the neuroendocrine system.
Here is an example of the neuroendocrine system at work. You’re walking down the street when a huge snarling dog leaps a fence and races toward you with teeth bared. Nerve impulses from your eyes travel to your brain, and your brain immediately gets to work alerting the body to the danger. It instantaneously sends signals to the adrenal glands located way down by your kidneys, and these glands begin pumping out the well-known hormone adrenaline. The surge of adrenaline courses throughout your body increasing your heart rate and blood pressure and sending massive supplies of glucose to your muscles. This adrenaline rush is the classic “fight-or-flight” response, an inborn survival instinct. Seconds later the dog’s owner yells his name. The dog immediately screeches to a halt, reverses direction, and retreats back over the fence. Your cortex realizes the danger has passed, but because of the survival instinct unleashed by adrenaline, it may take a couple of minutes for your body to return to normal. Even though it turned out to be nothing, your neuroendocrine system has used hormones to ensure your survival. And it all happened in a fraction of a second.
The most commonly known hormones besides adrenaline are testosterone and estrogen. At last count scientists have identified sixty-seven hormones, and they are essential to everyday life. Part of the brain, the hypothalamus, serves as the master control for the endocrine system, telling the glands when to ramp up production of hormones and which ones the body needs. We’ll discuss hormones’ roles in later chapters.
The second group of brain chemicals, the neurotransmitters, is located in a microscopic gap left between the branches of two connecting neurons—also known as a synapse, the Greek word for gap. There is a stew of more than one hundred different chemicals, collectively known as neurotransmitters, swimming around in the synapse. They bear this name because their job is to transmit the electrical charge across the gap. They also bear the nickname “molecules of emotion” because they play such critical roles in our emotional life. I’ll explain the roles of different neurotransmitters like Dopamine and serotonin as we encounter them.
Brain Growth Throughout Life
My friend Al Peichel is ninety-five years old. Among his many interests are card games. A visit is never complete without a match of nickel poker or gin rummy. I learned long ago that I’d better pay close attention if I ever wanted to win a game. His mind is quicker, more agile, and more engaged than those of people half his age. I’ve learned to call ahead before dropping in for a visit because, likely as not, Al would be out or busy with his many social, service, and volunteer commitments.
Al Peichel is a living example of another brain principle: “use it or lose it.” While hardwired growth spurts are completed in the mid-twenties, the brain doesn’t grind to a halt once the blossoming and pruning are over. Brain cell branches continue to sprout the more we use them. Even though this book focuses on kids’ developing brains, adults can be encouraged by the fact that, the more we use the three-pound marvel on top of our shoulders, the healthier, sharper, and happier we will be—even into our nineties like my friend Al. That’s why renowned Swedish neuroscientist Torkel Klingberg
says, “Our brain maps are forever being redrawn.” It’s Not All Experience
Michael and Nancy have nine-year-old fraternal twin sons. Although the boys, together since conception, share a bedroom, are raised in the same way, attend the same school, and eat the same food, they couldn’t be more different from one another. “It never ceases to amaze me,” said Nancy during a recent conversation. “Kevin is outgoing, adventurous, sports loving, and loud. Paul is a quiet introvert who prefers a book to a football game on TV.”
I’ve highlighted the importance of experience in brain development, but Kevin and Paul remind us that hardwiring is a big part of the equation as well. Temperament and many personality traits are hardwired, and a growing body of evidence shows additional traits that are innate and not the result of experience. Take Tommy, for example.
Sheila, a single mother, struggles to cope with seven-year-old Tommy. Within minutes of our first counseling session together it was clear she had her hands full. “I’m exhausted,” Sheila sighed after reciting the litany of issues Tommy presented and listing all the parenting books she’d read and seminars she’d attended to learn about “spirited children.” “I spend ten times more energy handling Tommy than I do with his older brother and sister combined,” Sheila said.
After two sessions with Tommy and reviewing reports from his teacher and school social worker, I had a good idea of what to recommend to Sheila at our next session.
“After talking with him and reading the reports from his school I think that Tommy may have an attention deficit hyperactive brain. A lot of experts call this attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD. However, I don’t like the word disorder
because it suggests Tommy has a defective brain. The latest brain research shows that kids like Tommy have a brain that’s wired a little differently, but it’s not a bad brain. In fact, some very successful people had brains just like Tommy’s, including Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy, Winston Churchill, and Albert Einstein.”
“What makes you think Tommy has ADHD?” Sheila asked.
I looked at the page of notes I wrote before Sheila arrived. “Well, I see Tommy is very bright but impulsive. He has trouble sitting still, is impatient, easily frustrated, and frequently forgets or loses things. His teacher wrote that he often interrupts other students, is easily distracted, and has a lot of trouble paying attention. You also told me in our first session that Tommy was like this long before he got to school,” I asked.
“Absolutely. He came home from the hospital that way,” Sheila remembered. “So what should I do?”
“I’m not an expert in ADHD,” I responded, “but I know someone who is. I’d like you and Tommy to visit her and see what she thinks. If I’m right, she can help you with some specific strategies and possibly prescribe a medication that will help.”
Tommy’s problems didn’t mean Sheila wasn’t a good parent. “Your son is very lucky to have you as a mom,” I told her. “You’ve turned yourself inside out to be as good a parent as possible. Tommy was born with a brain that’s a little different. Once he learns how to manage it he might end up with some real advantages over other kids.”
Practical Brain Science
The purpose of this book isn’t just to describe new scientific findings or to explain interesting brain facts. My goal is to equip you with solid scientific information, over a range of topics, like exercise, nutrition, play, sleep, emotional intelligence, connection; information you can use in the most important job in the world: raising kids. Some discoveries in neuroscience confirm thousand-year-old parental wisdom while other discoveries will prompt us to make some changes tomorrow. Still other brain information helps explain behaviors that have puzzled parents forever, such as why friendly, easygoing kids like Jacob can turn into withdrawn, sullen, fire-breathing dragons overnight when they enter adolescence.
I will also separate sound science from urban myths. Brain science has spawned an entire industry of “brain products and programs” aimed at anxious parents. Some are good while others are modern-day snake oil.
Parent Tool Kits and Dos and Don’ts
I’ve included two items in each chapter to help you use the new scientific information: Parent Tool Kits and lists of Do and Don’ts. The Parent Tool Kits are sets of questions about knowledge, attitudes, and tips you need to parent with the brain in mind. The more you answer “yes” the better equipped you’ll be. When you don’t answer “yes” very often, you’ll find information in the chapter that will help you get to yes. Here’s a short sample set of questions to give you an idea of how the Parent Tool Kits work. Of course, the kits in the following chapters will be longer and more specific.PARENT TOOL KIT Parenting with the Brain in Mind
1. I believe that scientific information can help me be a better parent.
2. I keep up with new information about children’s brain development.
3. I’m open to new ideas to help me be a better-informed parent.
4. Raising kids is the most important job in the world.
You’ll also find a list of Dos and Don’ts at the end of each chapter. These are suggestions—good starting points. Following the lists you’ll find a place to write down the things you want to continue and the things you want to change. The result will be your personal plan to nurture your child’s intelligence.
✓ Talk with your spouse, partner, or as a single parent develop an agreed-upon list of desirable traits, qualities, and behaviors that you want your children to have.
✓ Learn as much as you can about your child’s brain development to gain realistic expectations of your child’s behavior.
✓ Relax. Parents have been doing a great job raising kids for many thousands of years.
✓ Get support from relatives and friends. Parenting is hard work.
✓ Remember that raising kids can be a delayed-gratification activity. The rewards we get along the way are bonuses. The real payoff comes when our kids turn out to be the kind of adults we can be proud of.
✗ Don’t get taken in by every product or program that guarantees to turn your child into a genius.
✗ Don’t lose your sense of humor. Raising kids is too serious a responsibility to be taken too seriously.
✗ Don’t be too hard on yourself. All of us parents have times when we look back and wish we had handled a situation differently. Kids are resilient.
What do I want to continue?
What do I want to change?