Brain Rules for Baby

In his second “Brain Rules” book, John Medina purports to sift through mounds of cognitive neuroscience and social science research (“Ivory Tower”) and synthesize the data into an easily understandable recipe for producing smart, happy, and moral children (“Ivory Soap,” summarized in pages 260-75, if you’re short on time).  For those of you who follow the whole parenting book game, “Brain Rules for Baby” is essentially “Nurture Shock” . . . on steroids.  With engaging writing, explanations geared toward scientific theory rather than research mechanics, structure driven by what parents care most about, and inclusion of practical tips, Medina knocks the ball out of the park.

That said, most of the bottom line conclusions hardly seem new.  How do you raise a smart kid?  After breaking down the concept of intelligence (into self-control, desire to explore, creativity, verbal communication, and decoding nonverbal communication) Medina concludes “[h]ere’s what helps learning: breast-feeding, talking to your children, guided play, and praising effort rather than intelligence,” i.e., the mantra of modern parenting books.  Want to make your kid happy?  According to his meta-research, happiness is derivative of strong relationships, and kids who learn to regulate their emotions and readily empathize “have deeper friendships than those who don’t.”  In order to “[d]evelop an empathy reflex with your child” as well as help “calm big feelings,” you must first describe the emotion you think you see and then make a guess as to its origin.  Suggesting that parents talk about feelings also isn’t exactly earth-shattering, at least not in this day and age.  How about morality?  Medina says moral children are raised by warm, accepting parents who set “realistic, clear expectations; [impose] consistent, swift consequences for rule violation; and praise . . . good behavior” all the while “explain[ing] why a rule and its consequences exist.”  Um, duh (okay, fine, maybe not the morality tie-in, but the advice itself is fairly ubiquitous).  Medina surely swings for the fences, but at the end of the day there’s not a lot of mystery involved in ball meets bat.

Of course, I hear Babe Ruth was nonetheless a wonder to behold.  Likewise, as a veritable slugger of explanatory talent, Medina repeatedly blew my mind.  For example, I read the “Nurture Shock” discussion of children and lying – including the bottom line recommendation to say “I will be happier if you tell the truth” – without understanding what’s at play.  Medina explains that “the brain cares about survival before learning,” and survival for a kid is his parents’ approval.  He scored another hit by describing co-parenting conflict as derivative of perceptual asymmetry: “People view their own behaviors as originating from amendable, situational constraints, but they view other people’s behaviors as originating from inherent, immutable personality traits.”  And of course you can’t go wrong with crowd pleasers like “[i]f as a parent you feel as though you can’t do it alone, that’s because you were never meant to.”

Medina’s best contribution, however, is the confidence with which he delivers.  By discussing only the most thoroughly proven phenomena, “Brain Rules for Baby” offers the definitive, supported conclusions that mommy memoirs – like “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” and “Confessions of a Scary Mommy” – lack.  For me, that authority led to a real life improvement.  My three year-old constantly wants to engage me in pretend play.  I read in “Bringing up Bebe” that French mothers largely stick to the edges of the playground, encouraging their children to entertain themselves.  When I succombed to fatigue and refused to play TSA agent for the umpteenth time, I felt guilty.  When I agreed, I worried that I hampered her self-sufficiency.  After reading the “Brain Rules for Baby” determination that guided play is essential for optimizing brain development, the conflict disappeared leaving me to play with a simple and convincing grace . . . just like Medina.

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