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Brain Rules for Parenting
I recently attended the Brain Rules for Parents and Educators seminar by John Medina in Asia. John is a developmental molecular biologist and author of the two bestselling books Brain Rules and Brain Rules for Baby. Just the sound of his job title makes me think the guy has tons of knowledge to share. Reading halfway through one of his books only serves to confirm it.
So what did I learn from sacrificing over 4 hours of my Saturday?
The main thing I took away was something called “emotion coaching”. John talked about it like the Holy Grail. With emotion coaching, not only could one achieve the best potential for their children (smart AND happy kids), but emotion coaching was scientifically proven to work for adult couples as well (reducing divorce rates to what sounded like 0%)!
John actually started out (and ended) by stressing that if he had to summarise everything he knew about the Brain Rules for Parenting into 2 sentences, he would say:
i) Stick to your rules.
ii) Be nice.
But those 2 bits of advice are basically a summary of the Gottman’s rules of emotion coaching, which John oddly added ‘set limits’ to.
5 Rules of Emotion Coaching
Parents have to:
i) Be consistently aware of their child’s emotion.
ii) Recognise child’s emotion as an opportunity for intimacy or teaching.
iii) Listen emphatically with or validate child’s emotion.
iv) Always help the child to verbalise their feelings.
v) Set limits on child’s behaviour while helping their child to problem solve.
Besides the magic of emotion coaching, the 4-hour seminar was broken into 4 broad chapters:
- Introduction to Brain Development
- Raising Smart Children
- Raising Happy Children
- Raising Moral Children
And throughout those 4 hours, not once did John say something along the lines of “To have a smart kid you need him to study study study. Give him lots of homework and worksheets to do. Make sure he’s reading and writing in 3 different languages by his 4th birthday”. Not even in the Raising Smart Children chapter. I wish I could video call him (or at least play a recording of him) to those hundreds of parents who are always harassing me about their child’s academic achievement.
So what DID John talk about? He covered a lot of ground, and unfortunately he’s renowned for talking rather quickly. Therefore I was given the choice between trying to take notes, or just sitting and listening. After missing the contents of one slide completely because I was trying to copy down references, I opted to just sit and listen, so forgive me if my recall is perhaps a bit inaccurate, and definitely patchy.
Introduction to Brain Development
The seminar began with a biology lesson covering the bits and pieces of the brain. For example, the brain is divided into two main sections, referred to as the human brain and the lizard brain. Funny, I could’ve sworn the Brain Rules book mentioned a third, mammalian brain. I’m no brain scientist, so maybe I missed the bit where he said the mammalian brain doesn’t kick in for children.
Neuron density (aka learning ability) in the brain increases as the child matures, peaking at 6 years of age. Thereafter, neuron density declines to adult levels. So that’s the tried and tested saying that you learn best when you’re a child. However, neuron density peaks again when you enter your teenage years, around the age of 13, before declining again, this time forever!
The main takeaway from this chapter?
Before the age of 2 (perhaps later), don’t use technology as a substitute for a human caregiver. An infant pays attention to, and reacts to a human caregiver, because an infant is able to influence the caregiver with his own actions. The same does not hold true for a television programme, language tape or Apple product.
Raising Smart Children
Aka How do I get my kid into Harvard?
The answer has to do with something called executive function. John described executive function as the strongest determinant at an early age for a child's future academic achievement. He defined a high level of executive function as being strong in the areas of:
i) Decision making
ii) Impulse control
iii) Planning and foresight
iv) Attentional shifting
So what's the best way to test a child's level of executive function? It may not be the best way, but a really fun one to watch would be the famous marshmallow test!
A subset of “How do I get my kid into Harvard?” is, “How do I get my kid to stay in Harvard once he’s in?”
The answer has to do with how you praise your child. When your child does well, don’t say:
"Well done Emily, you scored an A, you’re so smart, I love you!"
Emily’s train of logic will be: My parents love me because I scored an A, the reason being I’m smart, whatever that means. Smart isn’t very easy for us to define (saying “scores high in exams” doesn’t count), much less so for a child.
What happens when Emily doesn’t score well? Emily’s logic will then be:
I didn’t score well, which must mean I’m no longer smart. Which must mean my parents no longer love me (and by the way also means I’m stupid).
And poor Emily will be sad and confused as to how she can become smarter to regain her parent’s love.
So should you just ignore Emliy when she scores an A? Of course not. You say:
"Well done Emliy, you scored an A, you must have worked really hard to achieve that, I love you!"
That way, when Emily doesn’t do as well, she has a course of action she can choose, which is to work harder (as opposed to “be smarter).
Raising Happy Children
The gist of this chapter was that there are mainly 4 parenting styles:
- Dismissive. Your goldfish died! Ignores crying. We'll just get a new one!
- Disapproving. Your goldfish died! Crying is for wimps! Stop it!
- Laissez faire. Your goldfish died! Do whatever you want. It's up to you.
- Emotion coaching. Your goldfish died! You must be feeling really sad. That's called grief. Offers shoulder to cry on.
Guess which one produces the happiest children? Yup, emotion coaching, which coincidentally, only has to be practiced 30% of the time to achieve results.
Raising Moral Children
Children see, children do. Children are like sponges, and will emulate adult behaviour. What this means is that if you want your children to be caring, outstanding moral citizens, you have to be a caring, outstanding moral citizen yourself (at least when they’re paying attention).