Every parent asks it at some point: What is going on in my kid’s brain?
And if you don’t understand kids, it can be hard to give them what they need to thrive. Lately the trend has been helicopter parenting and trying to get them ready as soon as possible for an increasingly competitive world.
But is that what 3-year-olds need? Or what 10-year-olds need? What about 15-year-olds? Turns out those three all require very different things.
Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and one of the leading experts on raising kids right. Her new book is The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children.
As a mother and grandmother, she’s well aware that just because we’ve all been kids doesn’t mean we always know what they need from us. In fact, much of what’s required can be downright contradictory.
“Human caregivers must both fiercely protect each individual child and give that child up when they become an adult; they must allow play and enable work; they must pass on traditions and encourage innovations. The parent paradoxes are the consequence of fundamental biological facts.”
So what does the science say about what’s going on in kids’ brains and what they need from you as they grow up?
Be a Gardener, Not a Carpenter
The current trend of micromanaging every bit of a child’s existence and being a helicopter parent isn’t the answer. Strict, well-managed plans don’t work with kids, and they’re not the best thing for them. Why?
Because most of the fussy detail-oriented stuff that parents engage in has no effect whatsoever.
“But it is very difficult to find any reliable, empirical relation between the small variations in what parents do—the variations that are the focus of parenting—and the resulting adult traits of their children. There is very little evidence that conscious decisions about co-sleeping or not, letting your children ‘cry it out’ or holding them till they fall asleep, or forcing them to do extra homework or letting them play have reliable and predictable long-term effects on who those children become. From an empirical perspective, parenting is a mug’s game.”
So if Patton-like plans of attack don’t work, what’s the perspective to take?
Turns out active “parenting” is a dirty word. Raising kids isn’t a measured, perfectionist activity like carpentry. It’s more of a loose, sculpting process like gardening.
“Caring for children is like tending a garden, and being a parent is like being a gardener. In the parenting model, being a parent is like being a carpenter. You should pay some attention to the kind of material you are working with, and it may have some influence on what you try to do. But essentially your job is to shape that material into a final product that will fit the scheme you had in mind to begin with…Messiness and variability are a carpenter’s enemies; precision and control are her allies. Measure twice, cut once. When we garden, on the other hand, we create a protected and nurturing space for plants to flourish. It takes hard labor and the sweat of our brows, with a lot of exhausted digging and wallowing in manure.”
Turns out that nature has built a pretty good system in the developing brain. It slowly moves from exploring the world to something that is ready to exploit that knowledge.
“Computer scientists and neuroscientists call it the tension between exploration and exploitation…Young brains are designed to explore; old brains are designed to exploit. One way to solve this problem is to alternate between periods of exploration and exploitation. A particularly effective strategy is to start out exploring, and then proceed to exploit. You begin by randomly generating lots of variation and then zero in on what works…A protected period of childhood is one solution to the explore/ exploit dilemma. We are allowed to explore when we are children so that we can exploit when we are adults.”
(To learn the four parenting tips that will make your kids amazing, click here.)
So you’re not scheduling every minute of your kid’s time and trying to turn them into a doctor or a lawyer from the moment their eyes open. Good.
But as their brains slowly transition from “explore” mode to “exploit” mode, what do you need to do to help them?
Kids Under 6? Let Them Play.
Little kids don’t need to be taking SAT prep courses yet. They need to build forts, have tea parties, roughhouse and pretend.
Let’s talk about rat brains for a second. Just like in humans, parts of their prefrontal cortex are devoted to social coordination. If those areas of the brain are physically damaged, how do the rats act?
The same way rats deprived of play do.
“In rats, and in people, too, particular parts of the frontal cortex play an especially important role in social coordination. If those areas are damaged, the affected rats look a lot like the play-deprived ones. They can master the actions of courting or fighting, but they can’t respond to other rats in a flexible and fluid way.”
Yeah, play isn’t just fun and games. It’s vital for learning adult skills.
“…rough-and-tumble play seems to help animals and children to interact with others. Exploratory play helps animals and children learn how things work. And pretend play helps children think about possibilities and understand other people’s minds.”
Even play that seems downright weird at first glance serves a purpose. Research shows kids who have imaginary friends don’t end up crazy—they end up far better at understanding other people.
Young kids are actually little scientists, and play is how they do their experiments.
Children don’t focus on established rules. They pay attention to what violates their little toddler hypotheses about how the world works. And that’s how they improve their ideas about life.
“When they saw evidence that contradicted their theories they were driven to experiment—only they did it by playing. A very recent study showed that this was true even for very young babies. Aimee Stahl and Lisa Feigenson showed systematically that eleven-month-old babies, like scientists, pay special attention when their predictions are violated, learn especially well as a result, and even do experiments to figure out just what happened.”
You, on the other hand, are probably a bad scientist. We adults are far more likely to engage in “confirmation bias”—looking for things that support our beliefs, as opposed to ideas that challenge them. And that’s one of the reasons why kids learn so much faster than we do.
So how do you use this info to make junior an even better scientist? Your mission, should you decide to accept it: Give them a safe environment to play. Give them interesting things to play with. And play with them.
But when you play with young children, the tyke has to lead and you have to follow.
When a little kid is explicitly taught, the play part of their brain shuts down. And they only learn exactly what you teach them. But when it’s a game, when you stop instructing, they explore and absorb much more.
“The children played with the toy longer, tried more different actions, and discovered more of the ‘hidden’ features when the experimenter squeaked the beeper accidentally than they did when she deliberately tried to teach them. So teaching is a double-edged sword. The children were remarkably sensitive to the fact that they were being taught…But teaching seemed to discourage the children from discovering all the possibilities the toy had to offer.”
Making suggestions or elaborating after they start playing is fine. That’s called “guided play.”
You can’t make young children learn. You can only provide a protected space filled with love and let them learn.
“So our job as parents is not to make a particular kind of child. Instead, our job is to provide a protected space of love, safety, and stability in which children of many unpredictable kinds can flourish. Our job is not to shape our children’s minds; it’s to let those minds explore all the possibilities that the world allows. Our job is not to tell children how to play; it’s to give them the toys and pick the toys up again after the kids are done. We can’t make children learn, but we can let them learn.”
(To learn how to raise happy kids, click here.)
Okay, so you’re not “teaching” a 4-year-old: You’re engaging in guided play. But what do you do with a 6-year-old?
Older Than 6? Teach’em.
Once kids are ready for school, they need to start balancing their natural exploration with practice in skills that will allow them to function in the world.
“The job for school-age children is to start actually becoming competent adults themselves. Their evolutionary agenda is to practice and master the particular skills of their own culture, especially social skills, while they’re still within the safe cocoon of adult care giving…”
Now’s the time to start showing them how to do stuff. You teach them something, they imitate, you correct them.
“School-age children observe and imitate like younger children. But they learn especially well when they interact with particularly skilled adults in a distinctive cycle of trial and error. The apprentice watches the master attentively, and then tries out a simplified part of the skill. It might be stirring the stockpot, cutting out a pattern, or roughing a carpentry frame. The master, in turn, comments (often quite critically) on what the apprentice has done and gets her to do it again. With each round of imitation, practice, and critique, the learner becomes more and more skilled, and tackles more and more demanding parts of the process.”
Kids under 6 can’t focus. They’re not supposed to. They’re exploring this new world.
But after 6, their brains start to develop some control. Helping them master simple skills increases this ability that will be vital as they get older.
“…as children grow older, the prefrontal area of the brain—the brain’s executive office—exercises increasingly greater control over the rest of the brain. Babies and young children pay attention to anything that’s interesting and informative, and they learn as a result. But as we get older more and more of our learning is directed toward particular goals. Mastery learning requires a kind of controlled focus that is just not possible for younger children. Other changes also contribute to the rise of mastery learning. Neural connections are extensively “pruned”; many connections disappear. The neural connections that remain, especially the connections that are used often, become increasingly covered with a substance called myelin, which makes them more efficient conductors. At the same time the brain becomes more specialized. Younger children typically use more brain areas to solve a task than older children or adults do. All these changes contribute to transform the young brain. The preschool brain is enormously flexible and changes easily, but it is also noisy. The school-age brain is much more efficient and effective, but it is also more rigid.”
(To learn how to be a better parent, click here.)
And now in the game show of parenthood, we move to the challenge round: the teen years. What the heck is going on with the teenage brain? And what do you need to be focused on to get them ready for adulthood?
Teenagers Need Apprenticeship
Neuroscientists believe there are two separate systems in the teenage brain: 1) motivation and 2) control.
The motivation part kicks in real fast when those hormones start transforming them into adults. Adolescent brains are actually very similar to those of junkies.
Their grey matter is highly sensitive to rewards. Good things feel much, much gooder to teenagers.
“This is the system that turns generally placid ten-year-olds into restless, exuberant, emotionally intense teenagers desperate to attain every goal, fulfill every desire, and experience every sensation…Studies by the neuroscientist B. J. Casey suggest that adolescents are reckless not because they underestimate risks but because they overestimate rewards—or, rather, find rewards more rewarding than adults do.”
The second system, control, allows them to direct that energy toward good uses. Sadly, this system takes a lot longer to develop. And that’s why teenagers have the reputations they do.
“But the second system involves control; it channels and harnesses all that seething energy. In particular, the prefrontal cortex reaches out to guide other parts of the brain, including the parts that govern motivation and emotion. This is the system that inhibits impulses and guides decision-making, that encourages long-term planning and delays gratification. And this is the system, as we saw, that enables mastery. This control system depends much more on learning. It becomes increasingly effective throughout middle childhood and continues to develop during adolescence and adulthood, as you gain more experience.”
But teenagers weren’t always such terrors. Part of it has to do with their place in society. Adolescence, as a time of life, was only created in 20th century. Before that you were either a child or an adult. No transition.
And they weren’t just surrounded by other teenagers. They had adults to guide and train them and they worked. Being a teen meant learning how to accomplish goals without your parents.
Plain, and simple, they had something to do with all that motivation instead of just crash the car, get pregnant and burn the house down.
“In the distant (and even the not-so-distant) past, these systems of motivation and control were largely in sync. In foraging and farming societies, children have lots of chances to practice the skills that they need to accomplish their goals as adults, and so to become expert planners and actors. In the past, to become a good gatherer or hunter, cook or caregiver, you would actually practice gathering, hunting, cooking, and taking care of children, all through middle childhood and into early adolescence, tuning up just the prefrontal wiring you’d need as an adult. But you’d do all that under expert adult supervision, where the impact of your inevitable failures would be blunted. When the motivational juice of puberty arrived, you’d be ready to go after the real rewards with new intensity and exuberance, but you’d also have the skill and control to do it safely and effectively. The relationship between the systems of motivation and control has changed dramatically.”
So now that the world has changed, what’s the best way to help teens? More homework and extracurriculars aren’t the answer. They need the modern day equivalent of apprenticeships: internships.
Something resembling real work where they can build skills, achieve goals and put that energy to productive use so the “control” system of their brain can get a handle on their relentless motivation to achieve rewards.
“What does make a difference is having a graduated system in which teenagers slowly acquire both more skill and more freedom… Instead of giving adolescents more and more school experiences—those extra hours of after-school classes and homework—we could try to arrange more opportunities for apprenticeship. AmeriCorps, the federal community-service program for youth, is an excellent example, since it provides both challenging real-life experiences and a degree of protection and supervision. “Take your child to work” could become a routine practice rather than a single-day annual event, and college students could spend more time watching and helping scientists and scholars at work rather than just listening to their lectures. Summer enrichment activities like camp and travel, so common for children whose parents have the means, might be usefully alternated with summer jobs.”
(To learn seven research-backed ways to raise kids right, click here.)
Alright, we’ve learned a lot about how kids learn. Let’s round it all up…
Here’s what you need to focus on to be an awesome parent:
- Gardener, not carpenter: Your job is to provide a safe space to grow, not to systematically build Frankenstein.
- Under 6, they need play: Having an imaginary friend who happens to be a dragon named “Larry” is a good thing.
- School-age kids need teaching: Help them build skills. Cooking, good. Bar tending, not so good.
- Teenagers need apprenticeships: They need to learn how to learn without you. And that means real world experience.
These phases are critical for kids. But it’s a mistake for us to ignore them for ourselves as adults.
We all could use some playtime. We all benefit from learning new skills. And we all should embrace new challenges in the world. As Dr. Seuss said:
“Adults are obsolete children.”
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Eric Barker is a writer who has been featured in the The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wired and TIME. He also runs the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog. Join his 205,000-plus subscribers and get free weekly updates here. This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.