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.
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.”
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