A Lakewood Lens

Advice on parenting is a mixed bag.

Our job as parents is to turn out kids that will one day be happy, healthy adults who are able to navigate an increasingly complicated world, and I won’t pretend it is an easy task or that I have the key to the magic kingdom.

But I do have something interesting to offer. And it’s called the neural net.

It’s not that science should have the last word on our parenting approach, but studies are giving way to new ideas about the growing brain, and it might be helpful to incorporate some of their conclusions into our tool boxes.

Think of the growing brain as a house that is being constructed, researchers say. The first step is to give it a strong foundation, especially the first three years of life when the cells of the brain are like the “raw materials” we use to build a house.

How do we direct those cells to create a more solid foundation in the brain and hang around long enough to build intelligence?

It’s rather simple: Interactions and experiences.

I’m not talking about the normal experiences a child can expect in his first few years of life. I mean exposure to a plethora of stimuli from art to people to languages to travel to books to music and more. The point is to increase the types of things your children are exposed to, being as creative and out of the box as you wish.

Think about this: When a child is born, he has 100 billion brain nerve cells (called neurons) and these cells build connections to one another as they mature. But herein lies the rub: the brain eliminates the connections (called synapses) that are not being used.

Are you starting to see the big picture here?

However unfair it might be, the synapses that aren’t used literally disappear.

What you want to do is form as many neural connections in your child’s brain as possible through experience and interaction, providing a strong foundation that will carry your child throughout his life.

Scientists, for example, know that language is most easily developed in the first 10 years of life. A child’s brain becomes wired (through the synapses I mentioned) during those years to how their own language sounds. The more words a child learns in the early years, the more words they will be able to learn later on because they’ve got the neural connections to support it.

Storytelling, reading books, repeating words and having your child interact with many types of people takes on new meaning once you understand how important it is to the brain.

And where does love fit into this process?

According to scientists at the University of Maine, a child’s experiences, good or bad, influence the wiring of his brain and the connection it has to his nervous system. “Loving interactions with caring adults strongly stimulate a child’s brain, causing these connections to grow and for the existing connections to grow stronger,” says Judith Graham, a human development specialist.

Remember: Connections that are used become permanent. If a child receives little stimulation early on, the synapses will not develop, and the brain will make fewer connections.

We don’t have to resort to heroic parenting to become better neural net builders. But we can certainly ramp it up a bit. The point is to increase your child’s exposure to a variety of things. And try to repeat those experiences.

The take away here is that experience plays a crucial role in “wiring” a young child’s brain, and we can do our children a world of good by granting them the experiences they need to become more well-rounded adults. And a lot of it is easy. There’s a whole world to explore in your own backyard or at the library. It’s easy to expose them to different kinds of music or develop a hobby with them.

Some of us do this intuitively, but now that science has identified this process as an important fact, we have another tool for our tool box.

Or at least something else to feel guilty about.