Friday, October 14, 2011

Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina

Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five 

 (Kindle edition,, my review on
5 stars
All you need is love. Not the smothering kind. Don't be a hyper-parent. And practice inductive disciplining. Slightly repetitive if you have read Brain Rules (blog), but the chapters on parenting, praise, and morals are worth the admission ticket.

Like the author's first book, Brain Rules, that took a look at the research and insights into how the human brain works and how it affects us. This book is then a natural extension of his first book, taking a look at how babies' brains work and evolve. Baby brains undergo the most change and development, so it stands to reason we can all benefit by understanding what affects the baby brain, and how. And how we can use this knowledge to make better decisions as adults, and as parents.

The first chapter is on pregnancy, that is, when the baby first comes into the world, but not quite yet. But even there, in the safe comfort of the mother's womb, the baby is busy having experiences. The brain is busy, growing. And while "No commercial product has ever been shown to do anything to improve the brain performance of a developing fetus." [Medina, John (2010-09-21). Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five (p. 24). Pear Press. Kindle Edition.], there is still enough that parents can do to help the baby's brain develop. Every little bit does count.
For every hour per day the children spent watching certain baby DVDs and videos, the infants understood an average of six to eight fewer words than infants who did not watch them.
The brain starts out as a single cell in the womb, quiet as a secret. Within a few weeks, it is pumping out nerve cells at the astonishing rate of 8,000 per second.

By the beginning of the third trimester, a fetus readily displays avoidance behaviors (trying to swim away, for example, when a needle comes near for biopsy). From this we conclude that babies can feel pain, though it is impossible to measure this directly.

Babies can hear mom’s voice in the womb by the end of the second trimester, and they prefer it to other voices at birth. They respond especially strongly after birth if mom’s voice is muffled, recreating the sonic environment of the womb.

The fact that babies cause problems in marriages is a known fact. Babies are the ultimate stress inducers. From causing sleep deprivation, to introducing an incessant source of demands, and so many other problems that humans don't quite ever fully realize till they become parents. That grown ups, parents, fight, is also a truth universal acknowledged. That such fights can create a stressful environment should not be rocket science either. Babies respond to stress. They respond to stress in stressful ways. Stress can come in different ways. The worst is the unrelenting stress. There are evolutionary reasons for that. Stress used to be over in a matter of a few minutes, when humans roamed the Savannah, along with other, larger predators. Stress ended with the end of either the predator or the prey. Hence the human body never had a need to learn how to cope with unremitting stress. Modern society and the company of humans can subject the body to extended periods of stress. Children are especially vulnerable to the deleterious effects of such stress.
Here are the bad types of stress: Too frequent. Chronic, unrelenting stress during pregnancy hurts baby brain development. The stress doesn’t necessarily have to be severe. The poison is sustained, long-term exposure to stressors that you perceive are out of your control.
Too severe.
A woman’s stress hormones affect her baby by slipping through the placenta and entering the baby’s brain,
The first target is the baby’s limbic system, an area profoundly involved in emotional regulation and memory. This region develops more slowly in the presence of excess hormone,
Excess hormone from mom can mean baby has a difficult time turning off her own stress hormone system. Her brain becomes marinated in glucocorticoids whose concentrations are no longer easily controllable.
It's not enough to raise a loving baby. The baby has to be smart. The baby has to be smart in demonstrable ways, such that parents can finally feel they have achieved something in their own lives. Children become the vehicles and the receptacles for their parents' ambitions and desires. Not good.
However, if you look at the problem of raising a smart baby, independent of the parents' ambitions, you do not need to spend tens of thousands of dollars on useless products that do nothing except make useless advertisers and the product manufacturers rich. All you need is love. And praise. Praise directed at effort, NOT results, or IQ. This is something that Nurture Shock mentioned, as did Geoff Colvin in Talent Is Overrated (post), as did Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers (post), and as did Sheena Iyengar in The Art of Choosing (post). This is something that Amy Chua also says in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (post), but much more provocatively so. And, please avoid hyper-parenting!
Myth: Continually telling your children they are smart will boost their confidence.   Truth: They’ll become less willing to work on challenging problems (see “What happens when you say, ‘You’re so smart,’” page 140). If you want your baby to get into a great college, praise his or her effort instead.

Your baby’s IQ is a function of her brain volume. Brain size predicts about 20 percent of the variance in her IQ scores (her prefrontal cortex, just behind her forehead, is particularly prescient). Brain volume is related to birth weight, which means that, to a point, larger babies are smarter babies.

What separates high performers from low performers is not some divine spark. It is, the most recent findings suggest, a much more boring—but ultimately more controllable—factor. All other things being equal, it is effort. Good old-fashioned neural elbow grease. Deliberate practice.
How can you get that kind of effort from your child? Surprisingly, it’s how you praise him.
Research shows that Ethan’s unfortunate story is typical of kids regularly praised for some fixed characteristic. If you praise your child this way, three things are statistically likely to happen: First, your child will begin to perceive mistakes as failures.
Second, perhaps as a reaction to the first, she will become more concerned with looking smart than with actually learning something.
Third, she will be less willing to confront the reasons behind any deficiencies, less willing to make an effort. Such kids have a difficult time admitting errors.
Kids praised for effort complete 50 percent more hard math problems than kids praised for intelligence.

So what exactly is hyper-parenting? Well, we all know what it refers to, sort of, don't we? Unsurprisingly, the word and phrase has been researched and there are some precise definitions there to be aware of.

Developmental psychologist David Elkind, now professor emeritus of child development at Tufts University, has divided overachieving moms and dads into categories. Four of them are: • Gourmet parents. These parents are high achievers who want their kids to succeed as they did. • College-degree parents. Your classic “hot-housers”, these parents are related to Gourmets but believe that the sooner academic training starts, the better. • Outward-bound parents. Wanting to provide their kids with physical survival skills because the world is such a dangerous place, these parents are often involved in the military and law enforcement. • Prodigy parents. Financially successful and deeply suspicious about the education system, these parents want to guard their kids against the negative effects of schooling.
Every good book on marketing has a plethora of two-by-two grids. Where an attribute is plotted on the horizontal axis and another on the vertical axis, thus forming a neat four-square grid. If you reduce parenting also to dimensions, then it stands to reason someone would have come up with such a grid.
Baumrind described two dimensions in parenting, each on a continuum: • Responsiveness. This is the degree to which parents respond to their kids with support, warmth and acceptance. Warm parents mostly communicate their affection for their kids. Hostile parents mostly communicate their rejection of their kids. • Demandingness. This is the degree to which a parent attempts to exert behavioral control.
Putting these dimensions in the form of a two-by-two grid creates four parenting styles that have been studied. Only one style produces happy children.
Authoritarian: Too hard
Indulgent: Too soft
Neglectful: Too aloof
Authoritative: Just right

The chapter, "happy baby: seeds" has a single valuable lesson. That the best predictor of happiness is friendship. As the Sanskrit shloka says, "mitram kutah sukham" ("without friends there is no happiness" अलसस्य कुतः सुखं ).

Ekman has found several surprising things about human facial recognition. First, people all over the world express similar emotions
Second, the conscious control we can exert over own facial features is limited, which means we give away a lot of free information. The muscles that surround our eyes, for example, are not under conscious management. This may be why we tend to believe them more.
How can we tell face-reading abilities are so important? In part because the brain devotes a tremendous amount of neural real estate, including an important region called the fusiform gyrus, to the single task of processing faces. 
It is an oft-repeated myth, especially on brain-dead television soap operas, that the best parents are necessarily those that smother their children with love and affection. Common sense should tell you that is not the recipe for a healthy relationship. 
In the late 1980s, researchers were somewhat startled to find that when parents paid too much attention to their kids cues—responding to every gurgle, burp, and cough—the kids actually became less securely attached. Children (like anybody) didn’t take too well to being smothered. The stifling seemed to interfere with emotional self-regulation,
The Amitabh Bachchan blockbuster, Majboor, has this very poignant line from the amazing Kishore Kumar number, penned by the genius Anand Bakshi, that goes, "bahut zayada pyaar bhi achha nahi hota, kabhi daaman chudana ho to mushkil ho" (बहुत ज़यादा  प्यार भी अच्छा नहीं होता, कभी दामन छुड़ाना हो तो मुश्किल हो...)

Apart from the chapter on stress, one of the best chapters in the book is the one on babies and morals: Moral baby. This covers ground on the touchy topic of whether babies are intrinsically moral, if they are then why don't do they the right things. The development of moral development in children, it turns out, follows a well-defined progressive path. It starts out with "Avoiding punishment", where the intent of the child is to reduce behaviors that result in punishment. Not surprising. The next stage in this development is where a child begins to consider consequences of his or her actions, and finally learns how to act "on principle".

Families who raise moral kids follow very predictable patterns when it comes to rules and discipline.
• Clear, consistent rules and rewards • Swift punishment • Explaining the rules

Scientists (and good parents) discovered long ago that you can increase the frequency of a desired behavior if you reinforce the behavior.
Behaviorists call this positive reinforcement.
Researchers distinguish between two discipline strategies: negative reinforcement and punishment. Both deal with aversive situations, but negative reinforcement tends to strengthen behaviors, whereas punishment tends to weaken them.
...punishment by application. It has a reflexive quality to it. You touch your hand to a stove, your hand gets burned immediately, you learn not to touch the stove. This automaticity is very powerful. Research shows that children internalize behaviors best when they are allowed to make their own mistakes and feel the consequences.
The punishment must be administered consistently—every time the rule is broken. That is one of the reasons why hot stoves alter behavior so quickly: Every time you put your hand on it, you get burned. The same is true with punishment. The more exceptions you allow, the harder it will be to extinguish the behavior. This is the basis of a Brain Rule: Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Consistency must be there not only from one day to the next but from one caregiver to the next.

In the second type of punishment, the parent is subtracting something. Appropriately, this is called punishment by removal. For example, your son hits his younger sister, and you do not allow him to go to a birthday party. Or you give him a timeout. (Jail time for crimes is the adult form of this category.)
Either type of punishment, under proper conditions, can produce powerful, enduring changes in behavior. But you have to follow certain guidelines to get them to work properly. These guidelines are necessary because punishment has several limitations: • It suppresses the behavior but not the child’s knowledge of how to misbehave. • It provides very little guidance on its own. If it’s not accompanied by some kind of teaching moment, the child won’t know what the replacement behavior should be. • Punishment always arouses negative emotions fear and anger are natural responses—and these can produce such resentment that the relationship may become the issue rather than the obnoxious behavior.

This is on the whole an excellent book. Some chapters will hold your attention more than others, and that depends partly on where in the parenting stage you are in.
My same complaint as with the author's first book, Brain Rules, applies to this book also - that of no references in the book. See my full review of , and the piece on references from the post:
A quibble, minor if you don't particularly care about references in books. The author states that to keep the book "reader-friendly" extensive references are available at I actually found this distracting. I am used to flipping to the end of the book where the references are noted, and then back to the page I was reading. Reading an ebook on the Kindle makes this job of navigating to a reference at the end of the book easier (though Nicholas Carr may disagree). Having to go to a web site is a distraction - the author should know that. Secondly, the website itself is not very well organized if all you are interested in are the references. You have to click to go to a different page for each chapter (rule) in the book, and from that page click on a link at the right that reads, "References for this rule [PDF]". Each chapter's references are in a PDF file ( for instance). These could so easily have been included in the book itself. Keep the online references too by all means - they can serve as a place where these references are updated and new ones added. Thirdly, the book itself does not contain any numbering of the references within the text, so it is doubly difficult to figure out where in the PDF of references for a chapter to look for as a reference to something you have read in the book.This is certainly one experiment that has failed.


Kindle Excerpt

© 2011, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.