My brain on kids’ brains

One of the greatest sources of joy and frustration as a parent is observing my children’s cognitive development. It is fascinating, but the gap between what is observable and what is actually going on inside those cute little noggins is agonizingly large.

To attempt to close that gap, I’ve done a lot of child psych reading over the half-dozen or so years I’ve been a father. I try to stay several steps ahead of my kids. To that end, I just finished The Primal Teen, by Barbara Strauch.* As its title suggests, the book is about teenagers, in particular about what the latest science can tell us about their brains, how they change over the teen years, and what those changes imply for behavior, mood, reasoning, and so forth.

I’m not going to tell you a lot about Primal Teen other than to recommend it as a worthwhile read if your future (or current) life will involve cohabitation with a teenager. You can read a more complete summary and review of Primal Teen elsewhere. For example, in his review posted at Evalu8, Michael Valpy wrote,

[T]he shibboleth of attributing teenagers’ aberrant and flaky behaviour to hormones is, at the very least, an incomplete explanation.

In fact, the adolescent brain goes through a biological remodelling as critical to human development as that which takes place during the first two years of life — a discovery with profound implications for educators, behavioural scientists, pediatric health professionals and, with luck, bewildered and desperate parents.

Virtually every particle of the teenage brain is under reconstruction: Nodes, lobes, neurons, synapses, the long strings of axons that are the pathways for electrical signals speeding (or, in the case of teenagers, jolting and backfiring) from one part of the brain to another and the itsy-bitsy dendrites that carry chemical messages between neurons.

Nature should post “Sorry for the inconvenience” signs on their foreheads. (Bold mine.)

In fact, I found Primal Teen to be of some help in appreciating what my young children experience and in being more forgiving when they torture me with their, well, childishness. While under heavy and sustained fire of screeching, whining, and demands it is easy to forget that kids, young and old, are captives of their own developing brains. Are they really unable to appreciate how insane they behave? Yes, they really are!

So, I say to myself, relax. They’re nuts, but they don’t mean it personally. And they’ll outgrow it. Just keep them safe and try not to say anything you’ll regret.

While I’m talking popular child psych books, here are a few others I’ve read, with my brief reactions (look elsewhere for thorough reviews).

The Magic Years, by Selma H. Fraiberg: A fascinating journey into the anxieties of the first six years of childhood. This is an old (1959) classic. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of the ideas are out of fashion or discredited. But it doesn’t matter. The point, for me, wasn’t to diagnose my children. It was only to appreciate that a lot of their behavior is driven by the challenges of major milestones (separating, potty training, verbal communication, the development of self) and the anxieties they can provoke. When my kid is acting up, day after day, in ways never previously observed it is enormously helpful to realize that she is probably feeling anxious about starting kindergarten, though she can’t express it (because she doesn’t consciously know it).

Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child, by John Gottman and Joan Declaire: I barely thought about emotional intelligence before reading this book. Since parenthood is (or so far seems to be) far more about navigation of emotional waters than anything else, this book was of immense value. Actually, I haven’t revisited this book in several years so it’s probably time to take another look.

Baby Minds, by Linda Acredo and Susan Goodwyn: This is a book of games to play with kids up to age three. The authors claim (and cite evidence) that the games assist with cognitive development. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. Doesn’t matter. Kids love them. This book gave me some good ideas.

A Thousand Days of Wonder, by Charles Fernyhough: I love the idea of this book, but didn’t actually like the book. Fernyhough is a developmental psychologist, and the book is a close observation of his daughter’s cognitive development through age three. I can imagine it was great fun for Fernyhough. It’d be as if I had a young health care system all my own to observe, nurture, and help shape. Endless fascination! But I found the prose overwritten, as if Fernyhough was trying to make his journey seem deep and significant. He needn’t have worked so hard. The first three years of a child’s life and of fatherhood are deep and significant all by themselves. I only read the first 50 pages or so. (By the way, Fernyhough does have a lot of interesting things to say. Hear him on a recent episode of Radiolab.)

* Barbara Strauch also wrote a book about the middle-age brain, The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain. I look forward to reading it, not to understand my kids, but to understand my parents and my not-too-distant future self. 

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