Books,  Education,  Health,  Parenting,  Pregnancy

How to Raise a Smart Baby: Interview with Dr John Medina

I have yet to meet a parent who’s not always on the lookout for the most educational toys and gadgets that claim to increase their child’s IQ. In my culture, great emphasis is placed on academic achievement and I’m sure many other Indian mothers would agree. However, culture notwithstanding, every parent yearns for their child to be smart, happy and confident. While some mothers may detest certain methods like those of the “tiger mum” (Remember Amy Chua? The Chinese-American professor whose stringent methods of parenting were criticised in her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother?), others are willing to do whatever it takes to ensure their child is successful in life.

In my quest to discover how to raise a smart child, I asked Dr John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist, whose book Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five was a New York Times bestseller. Dr Medina is an affiliate professor in Bioengineering at University of Washington School of Medicine, and  founding director of the Talaris Research Institute, a Seattle-based research centre originally focused on how infants encode and process information at the cognitive, cellular, and molecular levels. His book contains a wealth of information, backed up by scientific data, on the best ways to raise a smart and happy baby.


Parents all over the world want to know the secret to raising an intelligent and happy child. Is there a link between happiness and intelligence?

I am not sure if there is a link between happiness and intelligence genetically, but there certainly is a link between happiness and experiences that require optimal intellectual performance. For example, a child who is being raised in a safe, warm, happy environment is much more likely to mobilise his or her IQ than a child who is being raised under stressful conditions. If its survival instincts are satiated, it is much more likely to perform well in domains such as a classroom. This is because the brain is the world’s most sophisticated survival organ.


You mention the notion of empathy quite a bit in your book. Why is it so important for a child to learn to be empathetic? 

I spend a long time talking about how to raise happy kids in the book – a question I get asked virtually everywhere I lecture. One of the greatest predictors of human happiness is the ability to form lasting, interpersonal relationships. And one of the key ingredients in maintaining emotionally stable, long-term relationships is the ability to empathise with the people you care about. Thus, if you want to raise happy children, they need to learn empathy.


I also found that you stressed the importance of parents focusing on their child’s emotions and are encouraged to address their child’s emotions, rather than judge them. Why is this a crucial aspect of parenting and can you provide some practical tips for parents to address their children’s emotional needs?

I think feelings are mostly neutral. What you DO with those feelings is not. There is very little you can do about whether or not you feel something emotionally. If someone close to you dies, you will feel grief, for example. Most emotions have this automaticity. The big deal is how you choose to respond to the emotions you feel, not whether or not you feel them.

One of the biggest factors in healthy emotional regulation is knowing at any one time exactly what you are feeling. If you judge emotions too harshly in your kids, you may end up teaching your kids to repress their emotions, rather than teaching them to understand their emotions. If they don’t know what they are feeling, they will be in a weakened position to know what to do with those feelings.


Please tell me more about impulse control and how this affects a child’s academic performance.

Impulse control is part of a broad swath of cognitive gadgets we call executive function. Executive function includes things like planning for the future, regulating one’s emotions and prioritising various inputs in the outer sensory world. Executive function scores are actually a greater predictor of academic performance than a child’s IQ!


Why is stress in expectant mothers such a detriment to the unborn child?

Not all stress is bad for the foetus, actually. A little stress, such as the everyday normal experience mothers go through during pregnancy, might even be good for the unborn child’s brain, something we call the inverted-U, or goldilocks effect. (A goldilocks effect is not too hot, not too cold, but just right). There is a type of stress that is harmful, however. Years of research show us that the less control a person feels over an aversive stimuli coming at them, the more likely they are to disengage from their world, and the higher their stress hormone levels become. That can harm the baby, altering brain development. Complete loss of control over a sustained period of time can also lead to maternal depression, something that, if left untreated, also harms post-partum baby brain development.  It then follows that giving the person a level of control over the situation reduces the stress, and is better for baby.


You devote an entire section of your book to the relationship between the parents. Why is the happiness between the father and mother so critical to the child’s development?

Because the emotional stability of the home is one of the greatest predictors of emotional stability in the child. It can even affect a child’s academic performance. I often get asked this question in lecture, usually from an expectant dad. They ask “Dr. Medina, how do I get my child into Harvard?” My response is straightforward. I tell him “Go home and love your wife!”


You discuss the issue of raising a moral child and mention discipline. Many parents will disagree on certain methods of discipline (like spanking) while some believe the way their parents raised them worked best. What is the ideal approach in which parents can raise morally sound and respectable children? 

Kids are born with a certain moral awareness, but that does not always translate into moral behaviour. How that gets translated depends in part on what a parent does when their child’s emotions run “hot”. The bottom line is that you have to have a consistent set of enforceable rules with the unambiguous message that you love the child no matter what he or she does.


What are some of the most common myths/misconceptions that parents have about raising an intelligent baby?

Take your pick. It is a myth that playing Mozart to your womb will improve your baby’s future math scores. If you want your child to do well in math, teach her impulse control at a young age. It is a myth that to boost their brain power, children need Latin lessons by age three and a room piled with “brain-friendly” toys and a library of educational DVDs. The greatest paediatric brain-boosting technology in the world is probably a plain cardboard box, a fresh box of crayons, and two hours. The worst is probably a television. I could go on and on – and in the book I do – but I think you can catch my drift here!


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