Saturday, January 26, 2013

Brain Rules for Baby - A Review

I mentioned in my first Currently post that I recently read the book Brain Rules for Baby - How to Raise a Smart and Happy Baby from Zero to Five. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and, for the most part, found myself agreeing to most of the authors points. This book is filled with great advice and sound research. While I love the authors take on some key parenting points, I will adapt what I've read into my own interpretation. Rules, after all, are meant to be bent and broken, right? :) Anyhow, I thought I'd share with you my five favorite advice points that I hope to work on in our home.

1)Happy Marriage, Happy Baby

The author, John Medina, suggests that, while becoming a new parent is an exciting experience, its also one that will forever impact your marriage/relationship. I will admit that even with a great relationship, having a new child can cause stress. When we found out we were expecting, we figured what sacrifices we would have to make financially so that I could stay home with our girl. We moved into a great rental house last April and have been making it work since I left my job just two weeks shy of giving birth. My husband is incredibly patient, kind, thoughtful, etc. I'll be the first to admit I have a little bit of a temper.

Those first few weeks home with baby (after he went back to work and my mom completed her visit) were rough. I was getting used to taking care of an infant (something I had done before for money, but I always got to "clock out" at the end of the day) as well as staying home. I felt pressure (from myself, mind you, NOT my husband) to keep the house tidy and have dinner on the table - I wasn't at work after all. Anyhow, the pressure I was putting on myself was more than I could stand. I was emotional, I was distraught, I was downright drowning! I hid my feelings for awhile and once I let him know how I was doing, my husband really stepped up and made me feel at ease. Its gotten a lot better since those first few weeks, but still a work in progress. I never knew my love for my husband could have grown the way it has since we've become parents.

Anyhow, I digress, this piece of info just really hit home. I could see in my daughter just how much happier she was when mom wasn't stressed about the little things. The author even has evidence that most marriages and relationships suffer this first year of parenthood, you just need to constantly work at improving it. The stronger the marital bond, he argues, the more confident and happy your children will be.

2)Work on that Empathy Reflex!

I had to add the previous point to my favorites due to its obvious importance, but on the overall it seems like a no-brainer. A happy marriage makes successful parenting more likely. This next point, however, has been the one that I've thought about the most.

The Empathy Reflex works like this: When you find that there is an imbalance "between what you know about your inner feelings and what you deduce from your spouses" (and children) you should practice kicking your empathy reflex into high gear. At the moment you sense aggravation on their end, try to implement these two steps:

1) First describe the emotional changes you think you see

2) Next make a guess as to where those changes came from.


Say your kid worked really hard on a school project and, in turn, your decided to reward them with a sleepover. Plans are made, excitement is abound and disaster strikes. Your basement (where the kids were to have "slept") floods and things are just a mess. You hate to postpone the sleepover but you can't possibly entertain a guest with your house in such disarray. You and your spouse break the bad news and feelings of anger and confusion come pouring out.

"But you promised!" "You said I could have a friend over. You said!"

Instead of getting emotive (lets face it - your basement flooded, you don't have time or patience to try to justify a postponement of a sleepover) with your child, instead try to be empathetic. They won't understand that this just isn't a good time for the sleep over. They don't understand the inconvenience of adult issues. If you act on your own emotions, when your child is just learning how to, you'll get an atomic situation. Emotions flaring on both ends. Rather, say:

"You look really angry and upset. I bet you are mad that we have to postpone the sleepover. You were really looking forward to it, weren't you?"

The author suggests that you will be amazed by how many doors this will open up with both your spouse as well as your kids. Why? Because people are much more likely to properly communicate if they feel they are being listened to and understood. Long gone are the days of "because I said so". If we want our spouse, and especially our kids, to grow from anger/disappointment/grief/jealousy/etc. then we need to show them that there is no shame in having these emotions. Rather, its about how you act upon those emotions.

3)Face time, not screen time

 I'll admit in those first few weeks after bringing our girl home, I constantly had something on TV - anything from  Live! with Kelly and Michael to the LOST series, and up until a month or so ago, my daughter never paid the slightest bit of attention. Our television is on the large side (men and their toys, amirite?) so avoiding it or having it on "in the background" isn't really an option around here. If its on, you notice, and she was beginning to. I mentioned before that it was starting to worry me the way our girl would crane her neck and back to watch the screen. She would instantly stop being interactive and giggly; instead opting for a more "glazed" look. I knew I didn't like it.

However, I was a bit skeptical when I got to the section in the book that recommends no screen time before age two. NONE? ZERO? Impossible. Medina says putting your kids in front of the television before age two can have detrimental effects on their development. He provides research that shows television before age two can lead to hostility, trouble focusing, and makes it difficult for babies to determine nonverbal cues (read faces/emotions). I am not about to say that our home will be screen free or that she won't watch an ounce of TV before age two - but I will say I'm convinced enough that she won't be sitting down to Sesame Street on her own before then. Will she witness some news or bits to a basketball game? I'm sure. I'm just not comfortable with having her watch TV for "educational or entertainment" purposes for some time to come.

Want more information? Here is a PDF the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) released in 2011 outlining their caution against screen time under two years of age. 

4)Praise effort, not IQ

"You're so smart" vs. "You worked really hard"

I'll admit, I never thought about how I will choose my words of praise with my daughter before I read this book. In Brain Rules for Baby - How to Raise a Smart and Happy Baby from Zero to Five, the author cautions readers to use the later phrase above rather than praising your children as "bright" and "smart". Why? Well, he argues when you highlight their innate abilities (how smart they are) - what happens when they don't understand a concept as easily as they once could? Meaning, what if they really had a knack at math and suddenly it became really, really difficult? Would they feel stupid? Possibly.

He also argues that you can get your children to put forth more effort if you praise them for their hard work. You don't want your children to feel as though being smart requires no effort and, alternatively, is a goal we all work on everyday to achieve. Anyone can be born smart, its what they do that makes them intelligent.

5)A demanding but warm parenting style

According to the author there are "two dimensions in parenting, each on a continuum". Those two dimensions are Responsiveness and Demandingness.

 A parent who is highly demanding but their responsiveness is low is an Authoritarian parent. Think of Neil Perry's (the kid who commits suicide presumably because his parents can't empathize with his drive to be an actor instead of a doctor) parents in Dead Poets Society. They exert their own expectations and their kids are afraid of them. No thanks.

A parent who is Low on both dimensions is Neglectful. They neither set expectations or are involved with their children's upbringing. Think of the Bundy's from Married... with Children. Sounds awful, too.

A parent whose Responsiveness is high but their Demandingness is low is Indulgent. These parents love their kids but let them walk all over them. You probably knew a few kids like this growing up - their parents never said no, they regularly got what they demanded and they are probably still living at home, inept at doing things like their own laundry or checkbook balancing, or, worse, criminal. These kids usually feel their problems are more important than the way their actions could affect others. Instead of parenting, the "parents" let the kids take control. Think of Mr. & Mrs. Salt (Veruca's parents) from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Again, I'll pass.

Finally, a parent who is a high in both dimensions is a Authoritative parent. These parents demand a lot but are also there to explain their rules and listen to the children's feelings and guide them to make good decisions. Think of the Cosbys. Bingo!

So the trick here is to have a good balance between being responsive to your child's needs and wants while setting a bar of expectation on their behavior. No one said its easy or perfect, just remember that your job as parents is to help guide your children into making good choices. 


All in all there was a lot of sound advice that I will pick at to form my own parenting plan. What I enjoy more than learning facts or reading statistics is giving my mind space and time to think about what my parenting style, however ideal, will look like. Check back with me in five years and we'll see how much progress I've made.

Further Reading

Read all of the Brain Rules for Baby (PDF)
Brain Rules for Baby Website

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