David Walsh studies the brains of today's kids, a task their own parents might be reluctant to do.
Walsh, founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family and author of several books, has become an internationally known family-life expert and a go-to source for parents looking to better understand their children throughout their various ages and stages, from newborn to teenager.
Walsh, who lives in Minneapolis, has a new book called "Smart Parenting, Smarter Kids: The One Brain Book You Need to Help Your Child Grow Brighter, Healthier and Happier" (Free Press, 292 pages, $25), which tackles the subject of brain development as it relates to topics including intelligence, memory, connection, exercise and the impact of technology.
We asked Walsh to comment on a few of many key messages in his book on how, by acquiring greater understanding of the many facets of their child's brain, parents can enhance their parenting skills.
"A constant drumbeat of 'more, fast, easy and fun' undermines 21st-century parents' attempts to foster self-discipline in their children."
Walsh: The unintended consequence of the self-esteem movement, launched by the publication of "The Psychology of Self-Esteem" by Nathaniel Branden in 1969, is that parents started to develop an allergic reaction to kids feeling bad. This has led to an epidemic of what I call discipline deficit disorder in kids: distraction, disrespect, impatience, need for instant gratification, sense of entitlement, unrealistic expectations and self-centeredness.
If we constantly praise our kids, it can make them risk-averse. For example, if children are repeatedly told how smart they are, they want to maintain their identity as being smart. They won't want to risk doing something they might not be good at for fear of losing that identity. Kids can't control their innate ability, but they do have control over their efforts. And if we praise them for their efforts, they will work harder.
"The key to a child's language success is conversation. Social interaction with a child is critical for any number of reasons, and language is an essential ingredient."
Walsh: There are so many opportunities for parents to engage their child in conversation, and it is especially important for kids to learn how to express themselves, to spend time talking face-to-face and to learn how to read nonverbal cues and tone of voice. We need practice developing these skills and the time to do it is when you are growing up.
None of these skills are activated when we're doing online communication, which is one of the reasons it is so easy for kids to say mean things to each other online. I'm not against technology, but for some kids, technology is taking over their lives. I have an example in the book of a 12-year-old girl named Meaghan who got to the point where she was sending 1,000 texts per day.
Be clear with kids that technology can have a place in the world, but there have to be tech-free zones imposed around the dinner table and during family activities.
"Whatever the brain does a lot of is what the brain gets good at."
Walsh: There are two types of attention: reactive, which is an automatic response to a situation, and focused, which is important for critical thinking. There are so many triggers for reactive thinking. That is why I encourage parents to limit the distractions of media and technology.
Some of the classic games such as "I Spy" or "Where's Waldo" can really help kids develop focused attention. Any kind of sustained concentration helps build memory -- it's like building scaffolds and the more elaborate the scaffolding is, the more places the child has to build upon.
"While we've known for a long time that exercise builds strong muscles and a healthy heart, neuroscientists have found that moving and exercising our muscles directly builds better brains."
Walsh: Our brains -- which are the master control for our entire bodies -- don't do well with all the sedentary activity we have in our lives. When we exercise, our brains are energized. Recent research reveals the brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a chemical which is likened to "Miracle-Gro for the brain," is transported when our hearts are beating vigorously during physical activity, which can then strengthen the neurons in our brains. If we get kids moving, we are helping them to improve their brain function.
Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer.
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