What’s Going on in There?

Continuing my program of reading about babies and children, we have a book about the neurological development of the foetus and child up to the age of about five. This was very interesting; lots of neuroscience I knew in outline, put into a definite context.

The aim of the book is to provide the background necessary to understand why it’s best for parents to do certain things for their children. Some of it concerns how to avoid things going wrong: folic acid in pregnancy (did Yuriko have enough of that? IwillnotpanicIwillnotpanicIwillnotpanic), avoiding cigarette smoke (don’t Yuriko’s co-workers smoke? IwillnotpanicIwillnotpanicIwillnotpanic), and making sure that your baby is neither blind nor deaf early on. Early impairment in either sense can lead to the relevant parts of the brain not getting properly wired up, which means that the child will never be able to use them properly, even if the physical problem is resolved later. In the case of the ears, this can mean losing the ability to use language, even sign language. (This is the book with the quote about auditory systems not developing in a vacuum, by the way.) Other bits concern things that you should do; those are much more positive to read about.

Some bits are quite obvious. Babies, apparently, need loving parents who talk to them. Who would have thought it? Other bits are really not obvious at all. For example, there is pretty good evidence that spending ten minutes a day spinning round in a swivel chair while holding your baby can bring the age at which it walks forward by a couple of months. (You spin slowly, and hold the baby in different positions.) As an added bonus, babies, apparently, love this. Now, I don’t know about you, but this is not something that would have instinctively occurred to me. Similarly, while babies should sleep on their backs, to avoid SIDS, it’s a good idea to put them on their fronts while they are awake, because that lets them exercise their arms and heads. And some are somewhat surprising: baby walkers retard a baby’s own walking, for example. (Baby walkers are those seats with wheels that let babies move around by pushing with their legs.) The best guess is that it makes them lazy.

While much of the book concerns the various subsystems of the brain, from vision to language, the final three chapters concern intelligence. Apparently, about 50% of the variation in intelligence is genetic, and the other half due to environmental factors. (That fits with most of the numbers I’ve seen elsewhere, as well.) So, what can parents do to encourage their children’s intelligence?

This is another bit that isn’t terribly surprising. Teaching calculus to three-year-olds is not, apparently, much use. On the other hand, playing with them, and encouraging them to do things that use their brains, is.

One thing that struck me was the extremely close similarity between the parenting styles that seem to produce the happiest and brightest children, and what I think of as a good teaching style. Parents need to be responsive to the child, so that they always respond to the child as an individual. They should be as positive as possible, concentrating on what is good rather than criticising and correcting. And they should encourage the child to reach high standards. In fact, when you correct for subject matter, the two seem to be exactly the same. I’ve never had to teach anyone table manners, but teaching philosophy and English both work that way.

Finally, there was one comment which I will find extremely useful. The book says that parents should keep up their reading, in front of their children. This encourages children to read, and that has a massive positive effect on their intellectual development. So now I have the perfect excuse. “But honey, I am raising our child. I’m providing a good example, just like the book said.”







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