In the not-too-distant past, conventional wisdom held that our potential was determined by the time we were born. Babies, it was thought, were wired with a genetic code that spelled out what their strengths and weaknesses would be; proper child care, then, simply involved meeting their basic needs and waiting for them to realize their aptitudes. The tide has turned. You can't walk two feet into a children's store without being bombarded with "stimulating" crib mobiles, and video games to teach grade-schoolers advanced math. So what's the real scoop on child development? What can – and should – parents do to help their kids reach their full potential?
Nature Versus Nurture
The perennial debate fascinates new parents and academics alike. Are our children born little doctors, painters or writers? Good at math and not biology? Slow on the track and precise on the golf course? Or, are babies a clean slate, infinitely malleable, their talents decided solely by the quality of care they receive as they grow? Lise Eliot, Ph.D., neuroscientist, parent and author of What's Going On in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life (Bantam; $18) supports current research that finds the answer between these two extremes. "Cognitive development is the product of two interacting influences – brain growth and experience – both of which exert their greatest impact during the first few years of life," Eliot explains in her book. Genetics play a big role, but experience is just as important in the mental, emotional, physical and social development of your child. Your child's brain triples in size in the first year and keeps growing until around kindergarten. Experience continues to change the mind throughout life, but researchers all agree that the first few years – when all the brain's synapses are forming are the most critical for development. So what does this mean? The best thing you can do for your child's development is to give them a variety of experiences. But don't feel obligated to take them to a museum every day or spend a fortune on stimulating toys; everyday experiences will do. There's no evidence to support that kids reared on specially designed developmental products and activities grow to be anymore well-rounded and successful than kids who grow up playing with regular toys, books and games. The key ingredient, it seems, is parental involvement.
Help Them Feel
Touch, for instance, is the first sense to develop. Therefore, a parent's loving touch has the first impact on a young mind. Hug, hold and caress your babies (as if I had to tell you that!). Babies develop touch from head to toe; even at 1 year, a child's face is more sensitive to touch than the hands which explains why everything goes in the mouth! Don't discourage this, as long as the item being mouthed is not dangerous. It's the way babies discover, and touching a variety of things will actually increase their brain size. "Touch is obviously essential to babies' sensory-motor development, but it also has a surprisingly potent influence over their physical growth, emotional well-being, cognitive potential and even their overall health, because of some fascinating effects on their immune function," Eliot says.
Read to Them
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends reading to children daily from 6 months of age and on to stimulate not only brain development, but also emotional bonding between parent and child. According to Eliot, the critical period for learning language is through age 6 or 7, but language skills continue to grow through puberty and beyond. Talking to your kids and reading to them is the most effective way to improve language skills; hearing new words and seeing you speak them literally stimulates growth in their brains. Pediatricians agree – less TV and more reading and conversation is essential.
Feed Your Children Well
Much has been made of the benefits of breast milk for a baby's brain, but the importance of nutrition for brain development continues far into childhood. Lisa High, M.S, R.D., a clinical nutritionist says, "Certain foods are very important for a kid's developing brain. Omega 3's [fatty acids], for example, have been proven essential. A good source of these is in various fish and eggs that have been fortified with nutrients." And Ruth Yaron, author of Super Baby Food (F.J. Roberts; $19.95) recommends avocados as a great "brain food" for kids, as it is high in good fats.
Open Their Eyes
Touch, smell and taste are well-developed at birth, but vision isn't. It's such a complex and important sense that it seems Mother Nature thought the best time for it to develop was in post-natal life. For the first two years, your child's vision center in the brain is growing and developing at its highest rate, and will continue to develop, though somewhat less, until age 8 or 9. What's the best way to help it grow? Experience, once again. The actual act of seeing generates brain activity, which develops the mind. Also, the act of seeing new things teaches your children about the world around them. Take your kids for walks, go to a museum, a gallery or even the grocery store – the more scenery they take in during those first couple of years, with your narration to help it all sink in, the more their brain will develop.
The Common Denominator
All of these things require one similar ingredient: parent and caregiver involvement. Current research shows that the quality of care children receive, and the quality of the interactions with their caregiver, is directly linked to children's intellectual and academic success. More important than hugging, reading to or singing to your child, suggests the research, is the sentiment which propels you to hug and read to and sing to your kid. This sentiment creates your parenting style; the concern you have for your child's well-being. Parents who are nurturing, involved and responsive are giving their children a leg up in development. And of course you can easily track your child's development with your pediatrician. Regularly scheduled well-child visits can help you and the doctor work together. These appointments not only keep your kids up to date on vaccinations, but let the doctor evaluate development and give you a chance to ask questions. A parent's involvement and a doctor's professional observance (and reassurance) is more valuable than a truckload of trendy books and developmental DVDs.