Parents and caregivers strive daily to understand and support the development of their infant or young child. They feel that by having the infant listen to classical music while in the womb or providing a baby with toys and DVD's dedicated to making them academic all stars, they are setting their children up for future success. They feel helpless when a child seems to be crying uncontrollably or anxious when their youngster does not seem to develop at the same pace as that of a friend's child. Almost all struggle with the cognitive thought processes and emotional development of a child and feel helpless when they are not sure how to respond to certain scenarios. Enter John J. Medina's book "Brain Rules for Baby, How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five" as a guidebook for success.
Doctor John Medina, a famed developmental molecular biologist, tackles many of the issues that parents face dealing with the raising of small children. He lists five separate areas for discussion: pregnancy, relationship with the spouse, smart baby, happy baby, and moral baby and has identified twenty-two brain rules that parents should understand and follow if they desire to raise a healthy and well-adjusted child. Though it may seem daunting to read a book written by a scientist, Medina keeps the technical vernacular to a minimum and utilizes many stories from Internet blogs and his own experiences as a father of two boys.
The book begins with a look at the development of the child in the womb, with a preponderance of the information covering the physical and emotional development of the child. Medina dispels many of the myths associated with the purchase of brain enhancement devices and provides a general description of how a baby steps through the processes of development. Although much of the information appears to be general knowledge, Medina approaches the topics from a more scientific approach, using case studies and published medical information to affirm his beliefs. Of keen interest is his information on how a stressed mother can actually affect the development of her child's brain in the third trimester. Medina shows that children born from mothers that had intense stress during this period of pregnancy can have lower IQ scores, problems with motor skill development, behavioral issues, and even have a smaller brain. The information is thought provoking and frightening. He provides steps and techniques to mitigate stress and tips on how the father can assist his wife during this important time.
In his second category, relationships, Medina tackles a topic that few parents rarely receive enough information about. Medina begins this section by highlighting the fact that happy marriages equate to happy babies. Though the relationship may suffer due to the new edition in the family, Medina offers counsel and suggestion on how new parents can work to keep their marriage strong through love, empathy, and compassion. During this phase of an infant's development, they are extremely receptive to stressors and challenges in their environment, leading into Medina's second rule for this topic "the brain seeks safety above all". He discusses how humans have evolved over centuries and that when parents are constantly engaged in combat with one another the infant's brain suffers due to the release of stress hormones. He encourages parents that may have an argument in front of a child to make sure that when they apologize, they do so in the baby's field of vision. By doing so, the infant learns about conflict resolution and witnesses both sides of an altercation. His last statement about relationships "what is obvious to you is obvious to you" further illustrates the need for parents to have active and open communication channels. When one parent expects a certain outcome from the other, they need to ensure they request it be so.
On the development of a smart baby, Medina contradicts many of popular culture's perceptions about what a smart baby is capable of. He compels parents to rethink their position on certain aptitude tests, such as the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) assessment. Medina takes a more phased approach to the education of a young mind, highlighting areas such as executive function and impulse control as better predictors of a child's future intelligence. By incorporating the studies and research of many famed developmental psychologists, Medina challenges the notion that any standardized testing for a young child is misleading and can be potentially harmful. He identifies three key areas that parents need to remember; the brain cares about survival before learning, intelligence is more than IQ, and face time, not screen time. In this topic, Medina empirically states that children should not view any sort of television before the age of two. His rationale for this is sound; television lacks the physical depth of human interaction. A child that views television before the age of two has difficulty making the connection between characters and does not witness the non-verbal gestures inherent in face to face communication. By staying engaged with a child, using a wide ranging vocabulary, and challenging children to express creativity through play and art, the brain will develop into a more powerful cognitive tool, enabling the child to be more involved in their world and allowing for free flowing thought. He follows these thoughts with cautionary tales on what not to do with young children, particularly when it comes to expectation management. Often, parents attempt to push a child to complete tasks and solve problems that are out of their depth of comprehension. Medina cautions parents that pushing a child before he or she is ready is not only a fruitless endeavor but can actually be harmful to their child's brain development. His final thoughts on the subject of a smart baby include such ideas as guided play, praise effort over intelligence, and avoidance of learned helplessness and sedentary lifestyles.
It is a seemly tricky path to navigate but raising a happy child is not an overly complex evolution as described by Medina. Though he identifies new research that may point to a genetic relationship between a child's maximum level of happiness, he provides expert advice on items that assist in the process. The single biggest predictor of future happiness is the amount of friends a child has. Children that have many friends are more capable of regulating their emotions, identifying problems that other children face, and displaying empathy to those around them. Medina supports this statement by providing information on how the brain deals with emotions by using them as "Post-it notes" for how someone is dealing with a given situation. A child's ability to filter and prioritize different emotions from a varying set of people reflects a higher level of maturity and development; those that cannot do this normally suffer from personal emotional issues and therefore tend to be depressed. To further develop the discussion about emotional regulation, Medina covers steps that parents should take when dealing with their children. The overarching theme for this discussion is involvement; the child is looking to the parent to respond to their emotional needs. How the parent handles the situation reflects directly in how the child handles emotions with others. Medina cites Vgotsky's cognitive development principles in this section to illustrate how important community is to the development of a child's emotional response. Medina states, "how parents deal with their toddlers intense emotions is a huge factor in how happy they will be as adults", further illustrating the need to engage and deal with a child's emotions head on. Though he encourages active participation in the handling of these emotions, Medina cautions that parents should address emotions but not judge them. By asking children questions, encouraging them to engage in thought, and providing alternate solutions, parents provide their children with social mediation.
In the last topic of the book, Medina discusses the idea of a moral baby and addresses some key issues concerning the discipline of children. To have a smart, happy, and moral child it is imperative they are raised with discipline and warmth. This does not mean corporal punishment; Medina explains that children that are spanked are more likely to show aggressive tendencies by age five; he also dubs it "lazy parenting". By being firm, fair, and resolute with children, Medina argues that children will be more likely to not repeat offensive behavior. He challenges parents to set reasonable expectations, be consistent, and to be swift with punishment when a violation occurs. He also favors explaining why a particular act is inappropriate; in doing so, the child internalizes the rationale and will benefit from knowing why rules and consequences exist.
As a father of a three-year-old son, I had a deep personal reason to read this book. I found it rather informative, easy to read, and constantly engaging. Medina's thoughts are deeply moving, backed by years of evidence and research and his delivery was impeccable. I have since recommended this book to a number of my friends and co-workers and frequently find myself citing bits of Medina's information around the office and while socializing with friends. It has changed the way I approach parenting with my son and has highlighted a number of issues that led to my divorce. Though it may seem clichéd to write this, I wish this book had been published five years ago. It was worth every penny that I paid for it and I will continue to use it as a reference for years to come.