On Wednesday, we had the great pleasure of talking to Sandra Aamodt, author of the book “Welcome to Your Child’s Brain: How the Mind Grows From Conception to College” on our live radio talk show. Sandra, former editor in chief of Nature Neuroscience, shared with us her incredibly information findings on how our child’s brain works in conjunction with some of the larger parenting issues we face today. If you missed the live show, no worries; you can listen to it below as well as download it for later listening too!
Here are some of the key takeaways from our talk:
Why is it important to teach self-control?
Sandra: Self control is very important to a child’s success. There is a fantastic video on you tube. Google ‘Stanford marshmallow development’ to see it. The children who were able to control themselves from eating the marshmallow right away were more successful than the others. About half of your kid’s self-control is genetic. But it CAN be taught. It can even be taught in adulthood. It’s a very effective thing for parents to focus on.
Is there a key age to start?
Sandra: It’s never too late but the biggest gains for children are between the ages of 4 and 7. Kids go from needing to be monitored most of the time to being in control of their own behavior
A great way to foster self-control is to encourage social imaginary play. It is the first experience for kids to deliberately control their behavior to get something they care about. Parents don’t need to monitor this. A 4 year old told to stand in one place can do it for about one minute. But a child told that he is a guard and needs to guard his castle can stand still for 4 minutes!
Do we change things for children with ADD or ADHD?
Sandra: You have to always start where your child is. No matter what age your child is, the important thing is to be getting them to stretch just a little bit. If you try to get them to do something too hard, they will fail and give up. On the other hand, if you don’t challenge them at all, they won’t be learning anything at all. You want to get your child into ‘stretch goals.’ These are things your child can do with some help. You can offer suggestions on how to do it.
How does this continue through the course of their childhood? How does it change when they are older?
Sandra: The principles are the same. It has to be something they enjoy doing and get incrementally more difficult. For instance, for boys tae kwon do has been proven to improve self control. Every time they master something there is a new skill they can master. For a 6 year old, a board game is a great way to foster self-control. Things that are fun but get progressively harder.
Switching gears to talking about children’s brains – can you share some of the interesting findings that jumped out of you about young children up to the age of 5?
Sandra: The best kind of parenting is dependent on that child’s characteristics. There is no such thing as the perfect way to parent as each child is different. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense but our culture tends to believe that children are all interchangeable.
Is shyness innate? If you have a child who is acting shy do you force them to be more social?
Sandra: It depends on what culture your child is growing up in. First of all, shyness is definitely innate. That is called temperament and it is innate, but it isn’t an exact predictor of how your child will be when he/she grows up. It is a gauge, and that is where the parenting experiences come in.
In the US, we are a very extroverted culture. The more you get out there and are cheerful and mix with people, the more we like you. This is not true in China or India – it’s obnoxious. You want to be reserved, calm, centered. In those cultures, introverts do better. In the US, the parent worries about having a shy child. If you encourage them to be more social gently, that can work. You can make your child much less introverted. I’ve always found it amusing that we assume that shyness is a bad thing when it is actually completely culture centered.
Switching gears again – we have a lot of expectant moms in our community. You wrote that ‘Emigrating to another country during pregnancy nearly doubles the rate of your child having autism.’
Sandra: It is an effective stress. I don’t want to say that you should never have stress. But remember, when you talk about these types of studies, we are talking about real heavy stress – like Hurricane Katrina stress not “I got in a fight with my boss” stress. This type of severe stress are not good for the baby during pregnancy, because the mom’s stress hormones can travel through the placenta into the baby. The women who moved in that study were moving to a different country where they didn’t speak the language, not moving from east to west coast.
I’d like to talk about myths: Breastfeeding increases your child’s IQ.
Sandra: The truth is that women who breastfeeding do tend to have more intelligent babies, but again it is the difference between correlation and causation. Women who breastfeed tend to be more educated, more intelligent, and don’t smoke. So should we be surprised that their kids are smarter? They were probably more intelligent to start with.
The study most convincing was a study between siblings. Over 600 pairs in the two studies where one was breastfed and the other was bottle fed, there was no difference in intelligences in their kids.
Myth: Playing classical music to babies makes them smarter.
Sandra: This is one of the most widely believe myths. The story of how it happened is so strange. It was like a game of telephone where a statement goes through a whole bunch of repetitions and is completely different than how it started. This study was on college students, not babies! It said that classical music showed a slight increase in a cognitive task and only lasted for one hour. Very different than babies! That’s how it all started.
There IS something that parents can do to increase child’s IQ (just a little bit) with music – kids who learned to PLAY a musical instrument has improved cognitive development than kids who don’t. Playing music also is a great way to foster self-control.
Discuss your quote: “A new paper in the Journal of Child Development backs up my logic by demonstrating that teenagers who argue with their mothers are more likely to resist peer pressure to use drugs and alcohol.”
Sandra: The study actually found was that they took 13 year olds and took them into the lab and just had them have conversations with their mothers about something they disagreed on. A few years later the same moms came back and they found that the same mothers that successfully squashed the disagreement right away were the ones more likely to be using drugs and alcohol IF their friends do. They were essentially trained to learn to just follow what they were told. The fact is that the child caved under pressure during the conversation with their parents. Even if the mom ended up winning the argument, if the child was able to express their opinions and feelings were the ones better able to resist drugs and alcohol. It is more about having the conversation and having a family dynamic where the child’s autonomy is respected. Children need to be able to make the case for what they can do.
You wrote “Delay Kindergarten at your Child’s Peril” Let’s talk about this.
Sandra: For anyone who doesn’t know what red shirting is, it’s holding your child back so that your child can grow and mature before they enter kindergarten to give them an advantage. Not true. Kids who are younger have to work harder and have to stretch themselves. They are able to improve more. In one study, the youngest 5th graders were not doing as well as their older classmates, but if they were compared to 4th graders of the same age, the 5th graders performed higher. So early struggles are advantageous in how they do when they are older. Kids who are red shirted are less motivated and perform less well. When you go to college – nobody cares about your grades in first grade!