Parenting books are some of the most popular bookstore selections among middle-class, educated people. But in this sea of finger-wagging, cautionary parenting tales, it’s easy to forget one simple fact: If most parenting books did what they promised, you wouldn’t need to buy more. Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt, the authors of Welcome to Your Child’s Brain: How the Mind Grows from Conception to College, are on a mission to change this. Their book is as much a parenting guide as it is a tool for assessing popular parenting advice. Wang and Aamodt dispel myths, offer advice, and present a wealth of scientific research in a breezy read that doesn’t dumb down the science.
Dr. Aamodt, a neuroscientist who has seen more than her fair share of scientifically uninformed parenting advice, agreed to chat with me about the book, her perspectives on parenting culture, and the real science behind childhood brain development. She pointed to a few critical pieces of advice that parents may miss out on when they pick up the latest fad parenting book.
Paranoia and Parenting
It can seem like there is truly nobody more paranoid than an expectant parent, and if we combined all of the pregnancy advice offered by every popular book, we very well might arrive at the conclusion that we should simultaneously do nothing, for fear that any wrong move could harm the baby, and do everything, because a failure to miss a critical milestone could doom a child for life. Dr. Aamodt is critical of this approach and emphasized to me that such paranoia can cause more problems than it solves. Mothers exposed to high levels of stress during pregnancy are at increased risk of giving birth to babies with a variety of problems.
Moreover, many of the tools offered to parents have either harmful or neutral effects. So-called educational television, for example, is likely to do more harm than good before the age of 3 years. Aamodt stresses that babies are too young to internalize the messages of popular series that purport to teach reading and math skills. The time young children spend in front of the television is time not spent with engaged caregivers who can teach children vital skills through play and sensitive interaction. Parents who spend their time worrying about getting the right teaching tool may very well miss the bigger picture of providing their children with meaningful, loving playtime and a nurturing, consistent caregiver.
There’s an even bigger cost to this paranoid, controlled parenting style: a disproportionate share of the blame for poor child outcomes falls to mothers. Dr. Aamodt emphasized, for the well-being of mothers, the important need for a culture where fathers are involved—not just as occasional caretakers or babysitters, but as parents who know their children well and who are involved in the everyday work of parenting.
Many parents are fixated on raising the next great genius. And while good parenting can certainly provide children with more opportunities for learning, Dr. Aamodt emphasized that parents may neglect areas critical for healthy development in their quest to produce baby geniuses. Self-control is one of the best predictors of future success. Children who learn impulse-control skills early tend to do better academically, have happier marriages, and have less turbulent relationships with others. Impulse control is strongly correlated with empathy. So how can parents effectively teach self-control? Dr. Aamodt has a few practical and surprisingly simple tips:
- Encourage play. Imaginative play helps kids place themselves in another person’s position, which can help them hone their empathy skills. Games with rules can help children learn self-control. Children learn that not following the rules can harm others.
- Scaffold your children. Meet children at their developmental level and support them in reaching the next level of impulse control. Parents who expect too much set their children up for failure, and parents who cater to a child’s every whim never provide their children with an incentive to learn to do better.
- Teach your child a second language. Early language learning is correlated with a host of positive outcomes, but perhaps one of the most surprising is increased impulse control. Children who learn multiple languages must speak in one language while suppressing thoughts and words in another language. Bilingual children also have more opportunities to take another’s perspective. After all, they must choose which language to use with each person to whom they speak.
Judging Parenting Advice
Welcome to Your Child’s Brain contains a host of suggestions for critically assessing parenting advice and dispels several common parenting myths. I asked Dr. Aamodt if she could distill her best advice for raising healthy children and for assessing parenting advice into a few suggestions. She offered the following tips:
- Be mindful of conflicts of interest when getting parenting advice. People who are trying to sell you something have a vested interest in touting the superiority of their advice.
- When there is an academic source available, refer to it first. These ideas are more likely to have been rigorously tested, and academic sources tend to have fewer conflicts of interest than commercial sources.
- Regularly ask yourself if what you’re doing is working. If things are getting worse, it’s time to try a new strategy.
- Employ “cheerful consistency.” Children need to feel loved, and they also need structure and predictability—especially when they’re young. Dr. Aamodt recommends “cheerful consistency” as an ideal approach to discipline and limit-setting.
- Remember that there is no one approach that will work for all parents and all children. What works for one child may not work for another.
For parents tired of the preachy advice of traditional parenting books and who want to learn what the research actually says about oft-repeated parenting claims, Welcome to Your Child’s Brain is a must-have.
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