Neuroscientists say that the effect of good parenting goes beyond an emotional or psychological impact. It has biochemical impacts on the brain. Let’s find out how.
Wiring and pruning
Every brain has the same basic parts. Yet each brain is ‘wired’ differently.This wiring is the connection between different areas of the brain. Genetics determine how open a baby’s brain is to wiring. But the wiring is only half the challenge. The other problem is in knowing which wires to keep and which ones to prune away.
A national tragedy illustrates a severe impact of neural pruning. In the 1980s, orphanages in Romania were critically overcrowded and underfunded. Children’s basic needs were not met. They had little to no human contact. The children growing up in these circumstances did not learn to recognize or make emotions. Yet, one out of every thousand children could. These children tended to be the favourites of the nurse or night watchmen. They may have had as little as 5-10 minutes of engagement a day. Still, that was enough for their brain to keep those wires and pathways responsible for emotional expression.
Each skill has a ‘critical period’ where the brain is very active and open to learning. After this, we can still learn but it goes slower. Most of the windows open early and close early. This is true for vision, hearing, emotional management, social skills, language, and even habits. Other skills, like executive function, have a window that stays open longer. Some scientists believe the critical period for executive function lasts until our early twenties. (Executive function includes things like sound decision-making, planning, self-understanding, etc.)
These critical periods are very important. It is when the majority of decisions are made about what gets kept and what gets pruned. We can still do some of this as adults, but it happens more slowly. As an example, a young child can learn any language fluently. As an adult, we can still learn a new language. But it is more difficult and we will likely speak with an accent. The critical period for hearing meaning in sound was already closed.
Engagement vs. Passive experience
Scientists did an experiment where they put 6-month-old babies in parent-child music classes or asked them to listen to baby Einstein CDs at home. There were remarkable differences. It was playing music, not passively listening to it that made a difference for children’s development. The same is true for language acquisition. If you want your toddler to learn a second language it must be interactively taught through a person. Audiotapes, TV shows and apps have little to no positive impact on language acquisition. Kids need to be engaged.
Best brains possible
You already know our brains need sleep. But they also need exercise. Exercise stimulates brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF). BDNF helps make new brain cells plus it keeps existing brain cells young and ready to connect. Studies have shown that exercise increases children’s concentration and cognitive performance.
Low stress is also necessary for making great brains. High stress impacts memory and executive functions. It can also slow the production of new brain cells and mess up brain wiring. Kids who are too stressed can’t learn. Their brains are overwhelmed. Remember, the key is low stress, not no stress. Some stress can be beneficial.
The brain, repetition, & parenting
Our kids get good at what they experience often. If you grow up in a house full of anger, you get good at detecting anger quickly. You get so good at it that you actually notice more anger than other people. And seeing anger repetitively causes increased stress and long term health impacts.
We can also use repetition to raise optimistic, thoughtful, caring children. We do this by repeatedly engaging them using these skills. And as we do so, the skill become ingrained in the wiring of our children’s brains. The skills become your child’s primary or habitual response to situations. They see more possibility and happiness in the world.
Parenting really does have a biochemical impact. But remember, it is experiences that are repeated over and over that produce the strongest connections. Occasional negative experiences are nothing to worry about.
This week we dig deeper into activities that build strong brains.
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