Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Science of Raising Healthy, Happy, and Intelligent Children

When my sons were growing up and being shuttled between athletic events and extracurricular activities, we often refueled at their favorite fast food establishments.  On one occasion, feeling guilty about wolfing down two more double cheeseburgers and fries, I reluctantly opted for a much healthier salad.  Not nearly as tasty, but better for you, right?  Imagine my annoyance when Eat This, Not That informed me that thanks to the dressing, croutons and assorted toppings, I had actually consumed MORE calories and fat than my usual order!

As parents, are we similarly misguided in our strategies for raising children?  While preparing a workshop series on Parenting, I reviewed the research of William & Mary Professor Peter Vishton (PhD, Psychology and Cognitive Science, Cornell).  Some of his surprising findings and recommendations:

Rewarding a child for being nice to others can be detrimental to social development.  Altruism is a basic human instinct - - sharing and helping is observable even in young toddlers.  Pairing this behavior with an external reward changes how they think about it… doing so only when being rewarded is likely.  Interestingly, children that recently engaged in group singing were more likely to be helpful in subsequent peer interactions.

Playing is important - - onlooker play (around two) involves mainly observing.  Parallel play (around three, mirroring each other but little interaction) and associative play (around four, involving the same activities or toys) set the stage for cooperative play.  This progresses to pretending (sociodramatic play) which is important in developing executive function, creativity, and self-control.

Math is commonly regarded as the language of science - - the Queen of the Sciences - - yet a source of anxiety and low self-esteem in children… and adults.  Unlike physical development - - a child who crawls two months before his peers enjoys a temporary advantage that will likely dissipate by one year - - progress in math is likely to persist.  Children who are ahead in math in first and second grade tend to maintain their advantage.  Competence in math is highly correlated with career success and average salary.  Developing ‘number sense’ early enhances later progress.  There is strong evidence that playing board games (one experiment used Chutes and Ladders) or using a hundreds board (Montessori) builds number skills.  Around age 8-10, developing an understanding of fractions had a significant impact on math success.  Using math workbooks and online guides that focus on fractions is a wise parenting strategy.  Learning a second language also enhances math skills.

Learning a second language increased general cognitive ability, reading comprehension and creativity… even in preschoolers.  Bilingual elementary students demonstrated significantly larger working memory capacity - - significantly correlated with academic achievement… especially in math.  Because their brains are more highly activated, increased neural development promotes brain health and overall development, resulting in more creativity, better memory, and more effective reading.  Exposing your child to a second language as early as possible is recommended, although grammatical rules and vocabulary - - and often motivation - - are more easily grasped by older children.

Too often, children entering adolescence tend to restrict their communication with parents.  Teens who talk with parents - - particularly regarding personal issues - - are more successful in navigating adolescent pitfalls.  The best parenting strategy is to keep asking - - especially ‘is anything wrong?’ if a teen seems more withdrawn - - even when they respond ‘Nothing; everything’s ok’ for a couple of weeks.  It’s also advisable to develop relationships with your teen’s friends and welcome them into your home.

John Slywka is a parent, marriage & family therapist, and former teacher at Dallas’ Townview Magnet Center, and certified in Math, Health Science, AP Psychology, Social Studies, and Gifted & Talented.