Lessons from Brain Rules for Baby: How to raise a smart and happy baby from zero to five

In Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Baby from Zero to Five, John Medina reviews lots of research (brain as well as psychology) and uses these to back some practical ideas on how to raise smart and happy kids.

brain rules

First, what does he mean by ‘smart’? Actually, a whole lot more than we would think. He identifies 7 main ingredients that make up intelligence — starting with the basics of memory and improvisation, followed by the desire to explore, self-control, creativity, and verbal and non-verbal communication skills.

So what are the main ingredients required to nurture a happy, smart child?

Well, safety and security comes first, and related to this, a happy and loving home. Medina writes that the brain’s first priority is survival — which is why babies need to feel safe, and form secure attachments to their parents or care-givers.

What happens when this is missing? According to studies, babies in emotionally unstable homes have been found to be less able to positively respond to new stimuli, calm themselves, and recover from stress. In other words, learning is encumbered.

Stress is another key factor. Stress within the family (the kind that persists over a prolonged period) does not help to create the safe environment that children need in order to thrive. Stress placed on the child can also be toxic.

What really caught my interest is the topic of empathy. Medina advises parents to practise empathy in the home. (Better still, make it a way of life.) He cites research showing that where empathy is frequently used by couples, marriages thrive, and it has the same positive effect on kids. But what does empathy look like, and how do we develop an “empathy reflex”?

Em-pa-thy [noun] : The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Imagine this, your two-year-old is bugging you for a cookie when the cookie jar is empty. Employing empathy would mean that you first acknowledge his desire (or emotion), perhaps by saying something like this: “You want a cookie, don’t you? And you’re feeling grouchy because the cookie jar is empty. How I wish I could run to the supermarket right now and get you a nice big cookie.”

It may sound a little weird, but it is proven. Medina states that “Empathy reflexes and the coaching strategies that surround them are the only behaviors known consistently to defuse intense emotional situations over the short term — and reduce their frequency over the long term.”

And what about the sticky topic of discipline? When it comes to discipline, most of us know that we need to first establish a clear set of rules in the home. And then what? Well, Medina advises that these rules need to be reasonable, and enforced swiftly, consistently, and with warmth — which basically means that your child needs to feel emotionally safe, not threatened (remember, safety and security come first).

Most importantly, the rules have to be explained. When we explain why a particular rule exists, and the consequences of not abiding by it, compliance rates soar. (So don’t just leave it at “Because I said so”.)

He also came up with a handy acronym to help us remember his tips on discipline:

F – firm

I – immediate

R – reliable (or consistent)

S – safe

T – tolerant (or patient)

Honestly, the book is jam-packed with so much interesting stuff that it was a challenge to digest everything. So I was truly thankful when Medina helps to wrap everything up into one sentence:

“Be willing to enter into your child’s world on a regular basis and to empathize with what your child is feeling.”

Sounds simple…but probably a lot harder to do regularly. I’d like to end with a video of John Medina talking about one of the 12 brain rules: Exploration. (If you’re hard-pressed for time, please fast forward to 2:10 for a poignant moment.)

The greatest brain rule of all is something I cannot prove or characterise but I believe in with all my heart…It is the importance of curiosity. – John Medina

Education is not a race

The article titled ‘Sorry, your child is not bright enough’ published in Today has been creating waves lately, at least where my Facebook and Twitter are concerned.

I’ve heard from some parents sharing about how the tuition industry and its proponents have ‘mercenarised’ education, and about how wrong it is that some enrichment centres reject children from entering if they don’t pass an entrance test. And we are talking about children as young as six here.

The idea about enrichment centres ‘streaming’ and selecting ‘the cream of the crop’ is appalling. I think it’s also very revealing about the way Singapore does education.

But my main focus here is on parents — who feel that if they don’t enrol their children in these centres they will get left behind even before they set foot in primary one. I know we live in an extremely competitive and ‘kiasu’ environment, and as parents, we only want to provide the best environment for our children’s intellectual growth and well-being. But have we ever stopped to think that all this pushy parenting and undue stress can be counter-productive to the learning and development of our young ones?

If you were a 6-year-old, and you’ve just been told that you didn’t make it into a particular enrichment centre because you didn’t do well enough on a test, how would you feel? What would it do to your self-esteem?

At best, the child makes it through, does sufficiently well through primary school and secondary level education, and lands himself a spot at a local university (something he might have been able to do anyway without the help of an external education provider at a young age). But at worst?

Perhaps we need to rethink the equation that child + enrichment courses = good grades = highly intelligent and eventually successful individual. Perhaps we need to rethink the entire concept of intelligence itself.

I’ve been reading John Medina’s Brain Rules for Baby, and it’s been a refreshing read. Medina is a developmental molecular biologist and author of the New York Times bestseller Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School — a provocative book that challenges the way our schools and work environments have traditionally been designed.

In Brain Rules for Baby, Medina talks about the danger of hyper-parenting, and lists the ways in which it can potentially hurt our children’s intellectual development:

  1. Extreme expectations stunt higher-level thinking — pushing your child to perform tasks his brain is not developmentally ready to do can lead to them resorting to lower-level thinking instead of higher-level thinking and processing skills.
  2. Pressure can extinguish curiosity — where children focus their energy on securing parents’ approval instead of exploring their worlds.
  3. Continual anger or disappointment becomes toxic stress — at the extreme, this can create a psychological state known as learned helplessness, which can physically damage a child’s brain, and is deemed a ‘gateway to depression’.

Really, good grades are not the be all and end all. Don’t stress our young. Let them enjoy their childhood. If you really want to invest in their education, try these instead.

Spend time with them.

Nurture their love for exploration and discovery.

Model timeless values such as kindness and generosity.

Instill gratitude.

Read great books together.

Hone their social skills.

Emphasize the value of effort and hard work.

And perhaps, just perhaps, these will benefit them in all areas of life, above and beyond the academic realm.

I leave you with this quote from the book:

“Write this across your heart before your child comes into the world: Parenting is not a race. Kids are not proxies for adult success. Competition can be inspiring, but brands of it can wire your child’s brain in a toxic way. Comparing your kids with your friends’ kids will not get them, or you, where you want to go.”

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