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What Makes a Smart and Happy Kid? Q & A with Dr. John Medina

The renowned author and scientists shares his secrets with new parents

Published on: December 30, 2013

Brainy kidBecoming a parent can be one of the most exhilarating and confounding experiences of our lives. When you have a baby, information and advice come at you from a million different directions. Everyone, including family, friends, "experts" and even marketers, have an idea about how you can best help your child thrive. We sat down and talked with Dr. John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and the author of the Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School and Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five about what science actually tells us (and doesn't) about raising a smart and happy kid.

In your book you explain that intelligence is more than IQ. What are the essential ingredients of human intelligence?

We have no idea [laughing]! IQ measures a form of something, but we actually don’t know what it measures. Some researchers believe IQ might predict nothing more than your ability to do well on IQ tests.

From the book: Given the range of intellectual abilities that exist, it is probably smart to reject a one-number-fits-all notion as the final word on your baby’s brain power.

Give us the 40,000-foot view of intelligence.

Human intelligence can be divided into two categories:

1. Crystallized intelligence: This is the ability to record information, to memorize something. There are probably 20 or 30 memory gadgets in the brain that are involved in stamping things into a database. (One of those for example is declarative memory: the brain substrates of things that you can declare openly – the third president of the United States is … )
2. Fluid intelligence: This is your ability to improvise off of those things you stored in the database by your crystallized intelligence.

The brain is the world’s best, most sophisticated survival mechanism. Our memory database plus improvisation equals our ability to learn from the past and then project into the future. For example, one day you see a big snake with red stripes and it bites you. Next day you see a smaller one, maybe even a similar different snake, and you learn to stay away. This allows us a survival advantage.

So is IQ malleable?

IQ is a little bit like your weight, as opposed to your height … there’s enough variability in the IQ number that if you are born in a lower socio-economic strata, if you’re stressed, if your parents talk to you when you’re a baby, if they don’t, it can vary. The problem is, IQ gives you a number that is supposed to range the entire breadth of human intelligence. How can one number ever describe that? If you sit down to a beautiful multi-course dinner, can you describe it with one word?

From the book: [IQ] has been shown to vary over one’s life span, and it is surprisingly vulnerable to environmental influences. It can change if one is stressed … living in a different culture form the testing majority … is influenced by his or her family.

raising kindSo is there another way of measuring intelligence?

There’s a concept called general cognition (“g”): A statistical relationship between a wide variety of cognitive gadgets in the brain. It’s a little controversial.

A neurobiologist, James McGaugh, has found a most fascinating woman who has a very uneven landscape of crystallized intelligence. She was not a great student.  Yet she has the most powerful episodic memory (another one of those 20–30 information-module processing systems or groups of neural substrates) ever measured. Her brain time-stamps events. This is a great example of how uneven intelligence can be.

But to this day we do not have a good way to measure someone’s intelligence.

How much brain development happens in utero vs. in early childhood and across a person's lifetime?

From the book: [In pregnancy] Embryonic cells are manufactured into neurons — 8,000 per second — in a process called neuro-genesis … in the first half of pregnancy. Then, in the second half of pregnancy, the neurons migrate to the region they eventually will call home and start wiring together. This is called synaptogenesis.

The best thing you can do for the first half of pregnancy is really just to leave yourself alone. Don’t buy pregaphones, don’t play Mozart, eat pretty much what you want (but do take that folic acid). The baby would love to be left alone.

In the second half of pregnancy, the mom gets to be treated as queen for the day for four-and-a-half months. The normal amount of stress a women experiences in pregnancy is perfect, you actually want that. But other types of stress, like deep marital conflict, or being fired from a job, or having the biggest fight you’ve ever had with your mother — we now know that stress hormones from the more abnormal, deep stress will leach into baby’s brain and rewire it.

So, buck it up, Dad — for the second half of pregnancy it’s manicures every other day, if she wants it.

So what happens after birth — what about these supposedly intelligence-enhancing products for babies?

None of these brain products for the first year of life have been shown to work. In fact your baby might learn fewer words with some of those products. You can take all those products and throw them out.

There is something that does work: What baby wants more than anything else are the cues of safety.

You give them this by just talking to your kid, using the canonical parentese lexicon — high-arching vowel sounds and low clicked consonant sounds — and close-in contact. Remember that the brain is a survival organ. It needs consistent feeding, consistent interaction, lots of looking and cues. You should understand the emotional landscape and repertoire of your baby better than you understand your own stock portfolio.

So that’s all we have to do, talk?

Well, here’s another thing. Even pre-verbal infants can pick up on marital conflict. So I tell parents to begin exercising a habit: conflict resolution. You will see the benefit of this by 3 or 4 years of age.

Sure, kids hate it when their parents fight. But ask yourself, is it really the amount of conflict that is upsetting? No. What they hate is the inability to see reconciling behavior with the same frequency as their parents fight.

Couples fight. Birth is the most stressful time in a marriage. But if they make up in private, the kid sees nothing but a series of unresolved conflicts. So what I tell couples is if you fight, also resolve the conflict in the front of your kid. A lot of couples feel this is artificial. You know what, it is. But resolving in front of the kids shows that the parents are communicating safety. And the kids see that anger and negative emotions are not catastrophic.

What is the difference between a smart kid and a happy kid? How do we ensure our kids are both?

The distinction between emotions and cognition is negligible. The neurons that govern happiness and smartness are so intertwined. You can’t separate them. Biochemically, dopamine makes you feel happy. But if you flood certain areas of the brain with dopamine, you open up for learning.

I always say, if you want to get your kid into Harvard, go home and love your wife.

Well that makes me wonder about screens, and screen time — bad or fine for young kids? Don’t screens make kids feel good, fill them with dopamine?

No screen time before the age of 2. Stop it. No iPad, no phone, no television. Between the ages of 2 and 5 is where the shadow lies; we just don’t know enough.

The reason why no screens before 2 years is this: The information that comes from screen time is too information-poor. The brain wants more information. On screens, there’s not enough that’s valuable. The brain wants the mother cooing, to feel the changes in air pressure as mom or dad talks, the feeling of skin.

What comes out of an iPad?: It’s primarily visual and a lot of really weird sounds. It does not communicate safety.

There are a lot of things we don’t know about what screens do to kids. I am not technology averse. But, for example, we know this: Long-term exposure to blue light hurts the ability of the human brain to go to sleep. So even for older kids, turn off the TV or screen at least two hours before bed.

Parenting is quite a journey; what is the most essential quality a parent needs to cultivate within himself or herself to be a good parent?

From the research literature, one of the greatest predictors of future outcomes of a child’s life is fought on a single battlefield: What a parent does when a child’s emotions run hot.

One of the things that predict your behavior is meta-emotion — what do you do when you have intense emotions and feelings. John Gottman talks about emotion coaching and the five elements of that [the parent notices emotions; sees them as an opportunity for teaching or intimacy; validates through empathy and understanding; helps the kid get verbal labels for all emotions the kid is feeling; sets limits, or helps the kid problem solve]. Pay close attention to these.

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