Q&A with John Medina

Q&A with John Medina, author of the forthcoming Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five (Oct 12).

Latest news: Fall 2010 Book Tour Schedule

How important is "nurture" in brain development?

The nature/nurture debate is summed up in this old joke: A third-grade boy comes home and hands his father his report card. His father looks at it and says, “How do you explain these D’s and F’s?” The boy looks up at him and says, “You tell me: Is it nature or nurture?”

There are some factors parents can’t control and some they can. There’s seed, and there’s soil. All the nurture in the world won’t change the fact that 50 percent of your child’s potential is genetic. Good news: As a parent, you can only do your best. That said, even as a professional geneticist, I am convinced we can exert far more influence over our kids’ behavior than is popularly imagined. It’s a very, very big task that takes a lot of work. The hardest job in the world. And also the most important.

Isn't brain power a matter of genetics?

For all of us, nature controls about 50 percent of our intellectual horsepower, and environment determines the rest. This means two things for parents: First, no matter how hard your child tries, there will be limits to what his brain can do. Second, that’s only half of the story. Aspects of your child’s intelligence will be deeply influenced by his environment, especially by what you do as parents.

What's the best thing a pregnant woman can do for her baby to be?

If I were to give a single sentence of advice based on what we know about in utero development during the first half of pregnancy, it would be this: The baby wants to be left alone.

At least at first. From the baby’s point of view, the best feature of life in the womb is its relative lack of stimulation. The uterus is dark, moist, warm, as sturdy as a bomb shelter, and much quieter than the outside world. And it needs to be. Once things get going, your little embryo’s pre-brain will pump out neurons at the astonishing rate of 500,000 cells a minute. That’s more than 8,000 cells per second, a pace it will sustain for weeks on end. This is readily observable three weeks after conception, and it continues until about the mid-point in your pregnancy. The kid has a great deal to accomplish in a very short time! A peaceful lack of interference from amateur parents is just what you’d expect the baby to need.

What are some things parents can do for their babies?

Here are a few things to do:

- Address the Four Grapes of Wrath new parents face: sleep loss, social isolation, unequal workload, and depression
- Talk to your baby a lot. This is as simple as saying, “It’s a beautiful day” when you look outside
and see the sun. Just talk. At infancy, do so in “parentese,” those clusters of exaggerated vowel
sounds at high frequencies. A rate of 2,100 words per hour is the gold standard.
- Focus on face time, not screen time. Babies love to gaze at human faces. Mom’s is best of all. TV
before age 2 is harmful to children.
- Praise effort, not IQ. Praise your child’s effort (“I’m proud of you. You really worked hard on that”) rather than innate ability (“You’re so smart!”).

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