Monday, April 04, 2011

Review: Brain Rules for Baby

After Brain Rules, I've become a John Medina fan. I will read anything he writes, and to my surprise, he wrote Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five, so I naturally put it on hold at the library and read it.

Medina has a healthy disrespect for the common myths and folklore about kids. Baby Einstein DVDs? Worse than useless, actually harmful. In fact, any TV before the age of 2 is considered harmful. Listening to Mozart in the womb? No evidence of improved IQ. The stuff that works is stuff that's difficult for people to do: good nutrition, aerobic exercise, and stress reduction. Exercise, in particular is traditionally considered dangerous for pregnant women.

The relationships chapter is particularly sobering. Conventional wisdom, for instance, says that having a baby can rescue a marriage. Medina debunks that very nicely:
83 percent of new parents experience a moderate to severe crisis during the transition to parenthood. These parents became increasingly hostile toward each other in the first year of the baby's life. The majority were having a hard time.
Medina goes on to explain why the conflicts happen, what causes the problems, and provides a simple solution proven by research:
When you first encounter somebody's "hot" feelings, execute two simple steps:

1. Describe the emotional changes you think you see.

2. Make a guess as to where those emotional changes came from.
In effect, if the wife felt she was being heard by her husband, the marriage was essentially divorce-proof. I had heard of John Gottman's studies on marriages before, but had never looked into the actual studies. Medina summarizes the results and provides concrete things to do. This section of the book's worth paying full price, even if you never intend to have kids.

Other parts of the books are equally impressive. For instance, the difference between praising of effort against praising of talent is important. In another section, he describes the role of emotions, how a child develops them, and why it's important for parents to help a child label them. This section gave me insights as to how my parents brought me up and why I react to emotions the way I do. Again, very much worth reading, no matter who you are. One very impressive bit expressed in the book is the short discussion on what happiness is. In effect, Medina points out that all research has ever shown is that lasting happiness only comes from having good relationships with other humans, be it friends and/or family. People who make $5M/year, for instance, aren't appreciably happier than people who only make $100K/year. (The threshold seems to be $50K/year) This bears out with my life experience, but goes against the grain of what society values.

Finally, the book rounds out with a section on Punishment. This is a very cogent section and is relevant whether you're at work managing a team of engineers or whether you're at home dealing with a child. In particular, the section on praising correct behavior and noticing it is key to molding behavior, and I've never seen it expressed so well in any other written source. A small section on practical tips follow, though from reading it, I can only imagine that Medina's home is 5000 square feet large filled with specialized rooms and laboratories for every activity imaginable. I'd love to see how he cramps that all into a typical middle-class family's home.

All in all, this book comes highly recommended. There is absolutely no fluff in it, and much of it would be new even if you've already read Brain Rules. I'll probably end up buying a copy when I have to return this one to the library.
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