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How to Raise a Smart Baby

6 Questions for John Medina

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In his book “Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five,” John Medina taps scientific data to unlock the keys to successful parenting. And it’s not what you think.

Medina, the director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University, has written extensively on how the brain reacts to and organizes information, including the New York Times bestseller "Brain Rules." In his newest book Medina, a dad himself, uses his brain expertise to address questions that many parents share - How do I get my kid into Harvard? What can I teach my baby in the womb?

brain rules book

The answer? Contrary to popular belief, the path to a successful adulthood isn't paved with expensive educational toys and DVDs. In fact, Medina says, having healthy emotional lives is the most important factor in a child's future success.

We asked Medina to fill us in on how science can help parents raise their children.

Question 1. Most people want their baby to be happy and smart, but few see the connection between the two. What is the connection between intelligence and happiness?

It's important to understand that the human brain is not interested in learning. It's not interested in being a good little boy or being a good little girl. It's interested in one thing: survival. If you can create feelings of safety in a child, then regardless of what is going on in their life, they're going to turn out pretty well.There's a direct relationship between emotional stability and the ability to do well. What I like to tell parents is, if you really want your kids to do well in college, the best thing you can do is consistently, and with great joy, give them feelings of safety from early on. Tell them things like, "I'm never going to go away from you, we will always be together." If you don't communicate these feelings of safety, you can forget about your baby getting into Harvard. Kids who feel unsafe statistically don't do very well.

Question 2. What's the biggest misconception parents have about raising a smart baby?

Scientists know the greatest single predictor of how a child will turn out is that child's ability to control his or her emotions. Parents are unaware of how profoundly this will affect virtually everything they might want for their kid. So what a parent does when a kid's emotions run, when the kid is experiencing intense anger or fear, or even an intense amount of joy - what a parent does at that intense moment on a consistent basis is a great predictor of how the kid will turn out later.

Question 3. Tantrums are a prime example of emotional intensity - how can parents use those moments to help a toddler learn to control his emotions?

When a kid has a tantrum, it starts with the triggering behavior (whatever is causing the tantrum), followed by the emotional outburst. But because toddlers are rookie people and they're not used to big feelings, those feelings can be so big that they actually get afraid. And then they start spiraling emotionally, and they have a tantrum. So what do you do as a parent? Get the child to verbalize their feelings as soon as they are physically able to do so, and that helps. The instant you begin the process of teaching your kids to verbalize their psychological interiors, the more likely they are to be able to successfully navigate through a temper tantrum - in fact it usually diffuses it.

Question 4. In your book you talk a lot about impulse control. What is it, and why is it important?

Impulse control is the ability to control yourself when you want to do something a certain way, and you are not able to do it. If you have poor impulse control, you're kind of like that old rock song, "I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, I want it now." People who have poor impulse control tend to be stressed more often. They tend to get divorces more quickly once they grow up. And they tend not to be particularly good students.

There is a well-known experiment that illustrates this concept: You put a 4-year-old in a room with a cookie and tell the child, "you can have one cookie right now if you want, but if you wait five minutes and don't eat that first cookie, I'll give you a second cookie and then you can have two." And you'll watch as the kids sit on their hands, and look away and try to look back. The experiment shows that impulse control is partially developmental. Kindergartners still suck at impulse control - they grab the cookie and eat it. I'm not sure you can build impulse control in an infant, but you certainly can start teaching it to a toddler.

Question 5. There are a lot of DVD and TV programs marketed to babies - but in your book you maintain the American Academy of Pediatrics' standard of no TV before age 2. Does watching TV really have that much of a damaging effect?

For every hour of television a kid watches before age 4, there's a corresponding nine percent increase in the probability of bullying behavior by age 6. It actually gets worse: A toddler who watches two hours of TV before age 3 is 20 percent more likely to present with some attention problem by age 7.

When certain television programs were first designed in the late '60s and early '70s, they were specifically designed to get a kid to stay still for 40 or 50 minutes. What children's TV had to do was create something that is called noisy-kid syndrome - the show had to have a certain number of edits, flashing lights and loud noises to get the kids' attention.

The problem is that's not what a baby is built for, and that is not what's good for a child's brain. If you're a child under 5 years of age, the one thing you should be doing is moving. You should be exploring and testing your environment. You're essentially holding babies' intellectual feet to the fire by putting them in front of a television, and there is a great damage to behavior because of it. Most important, babies become anesthetized - they slowly stop exploring their environment. I absolutely agree with the AAP: No television before age 2, and I'm not so sure it's such a great idea after 2, either.

Question 6. You emphasize the importance of empathy throughout your book - how does that factor into successful parenting?

The best parenting from a research perspective is something that we call authoritative parenting. It's a very interesting mixture of two gadgets. Here's the first gadget: You have a set of rules, and you never back down from those rules; you make them very articulate and very clear. The second gadget is the most interesting: It's empathy. Parents who are going to raise superstar kids start out almost from the start with a reflex of empathy whenever their child has a really strong feeling.

For example, is if your child has a goldfish and it dies, what are you supposed to say? Well, you could say, "Kid, death is a part of life, get over it." There's no empathy in that, and it doesn't work very well. A parent can also say, "You know, when you cry like that, it makes me so upset, so I'm going to go for a run until you settle down." Not only do these options not communicate empathy; neither of them helps the child to develop any emotional regulation. No, the thing a parent should say is, "Your goldfish has died, you loved that goldfish so much. I bet you feel awful. I bet your heart is broken. Is that true? Come here and let me give you a hug, and you and I are just going to cry together."

If you have the ability to set rules, and there's also a tremendous amount of empathy - these tools together create the greatest kids.

 
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