Scientific parenting

Learn the science behind parenting advice and enjoy a more harmonious home life, writes educator and child advocate Miriam McCaleb

Mothers-in-law aren't the only ones giving advice to new mothers. Modern parents have access to a dizzying array: from girlfriends, to books, websites, TV shows and, yes, magazines, devoted to telling you what to do. But they can't always tell you why you ought to do it. Here we look at the science behind some simple, effective strategies - the evidence to making this advice worth trying.   

Tell it like you want it
Scenario one: Charlotte is an active toddler who loves practising her climbing skills. Her mother, Leah, spots her about to launch herself from the couch, up onto the bookshelf. She yells "Charlotte! Stop climbing on the couch! You'll fall!"
Scenario two: Charlotte is an active toddler who loves practising her climbing skills. Her mother, Leah, spots her about to launch herself from the couch, up onto the bookshelf. She moves quickly - and somehow calmly - to Charlotte and says firmly (and somehow calmly), "Charlotte - feet on the floor. Climb down, and put your feet on the floor."
What is the difference? First, there is the difference between Leah yelling across the room and moving in close to Charlotte, using direct eye contact and closeness to get her message across. Scenario one also highlights several of the challenges present in forthcoming examples: knowing how to have "reasonable expectations" and knowing how to "keep cool".

But the key difference is in Leah's language. The first time, she hollers "Stop climbing on the couch! You'll fall!"

Let's unpack that. Think about how Leah is offering plenty of information about what she does not want to see happen but her language offers nothing about what she does want to see.

Would she tell her daughter to stop climbing on the couch if she knew that it would increase the likelihood of climbing? Would she caution, "You'll fall!" if she knew that those words were as likely to be a prophecy as a deterrent? How can that be true? It's biology, baby. Biology.
What has biology got to do with it?
Even the fully formed brain of a mature adult cannot override what happens inside our heads when we wrap a statement in "Stop" or "Don't". Let me show you what I mean: Right now...  Do NOT think about George Clooney. Please, STOP thinking about the gravelly voice and twinkling eyes of Mr Clooney!

Did it work? Or did you have a head full of images of that handsome devil and his distracting smile? That is the power of our magnificent brains in action. Leah's shouted command, "Stop climbing on the couch", just creates an image of climbing on the couch.

In the words of Dr Srinivasan Pillay, a psychiatrist, brain researcher and writer from Massachusetts, "We stimulate the same brain regions when we visualise an action and when we actually perform that same action."

That idea is explained in the book, The Intention Experiment, by Lynne McTaggart, when she outlines how a brain scan known as electromyography (EMG) shows how our brains treat the thought of an action in the same way as the real action. McTaggart described an experiment with a group of skiers, where EMG discovered that mentally rehearsing their downhill runs sent electrical impulses to the same muscles and in the same way as when they were actually physically skiing downhill.

That is to say, when we imagine something, our brain practises the action as though it were true. What an important idea to consider in the case of young children, whose brains are connecting at such a rapid rate, and whose habits of mind are still being formed.

So when Leah shouts, "Stop climbing on the couch!" and Charlotte's brain is fooded with the mental imagery of climbing on the couch, her little motor neurons fre as though she were actually climbing. She strengthens all the cell connections involved in co-ordinating her limbs, manipulating her centre of gravity and climbing.

Instead, in the second scenario, when Leah says, "Charlotte, feet on the floor. Climb down, and put your feet on the floor", she is using the power of her daughter's brain to visualise and rehearse the action (and behaviour) she wants to be reinforced.

Less distraction, please
Scenario one:
Jackson is almost one. He's cruising around the furniture in the lounge while the TV is on. His mum, Kelly, is at the other end of the open plan space, listening to the radio in the kitchen. The phone rings. She's cradling the phone on her shoulder as she swoops Jackson up and lies him on the couch for a nappy change, chatting on the phone all the while. Jackson wriggles to get away, infuriating Kelly.
Scenario two: Jackson is almost one. He's cruising around the furniture in the lounge, while his mum, Kelly, is at the other end of the open plan space, listening to the radio in the kitchen. The phone rings. She says, as she moves toward her little boy, "I'll let voicemail get it, and check it in a minute. Right now it's time for you to get a clean, fresh nappy on! Come on, Mister!" Jackson smiles up at his mum.
What is the difference? The first difference is that the TV is off. The recommendation from groups such as the American Academy of Paediatrics is that children under the age of 18 months do not have any screen time. Another key difference is that Kelly herself is exposed to fewer distractions in the second scenario: she lets the phone go to voicemail so she can give her son the gift of her full, focused attention during nappy change time.

Darcy Smith, PhD, a writer for Psychology Today, says: "Humans can focus only on one thought or task at a time." I urge parents to make their child be that sole thought, to make the care interaction the only task.

I have powerful anecdotal experiences to suggest that children whose routines are attended to in this way are unlikely to try to wriggle away - it's not an unpleasant activity to avoid, but a chance for connection with a favourite adult.
What has biology got to do with it?
Keeping the television off until Jackson takes a nap means that Kelly is cutting down on superfluous chatter and images that will take up valuable real estate in her son's brain. At a time when Jackson's every experience has the potential to create and/or strengthen a synapse between brain cells, wise adults provide experiences and stimuli that will nurture.

There are other reasons to proceed with caution around the myth of multi-tasking. Again, Dr Smith writes: "The concept of multi-tasking is actually a misnomer, as it involves continuous 'switch-tasking', which is to say, moving back and forth between tasks."

She goes on to explain that the problem with this is that "no one task gets our full attention. Instead, tasks get our partial attention. With each switch, it takes time for us to re-orient to the task at hand. All that re-orienting adds up to an enormous amount of time wasted and we feel like we've been on an intellectual treadmill for hours."

Do you know the feeling? I know I do. And it makes me wonder: do we really want to teach our children to do that or would we all be better served by demonstrating how to focus on one thing at a time?

New research from the University of Chicago used the deceptively simple method of getting mothers to pay close attention to their infants as the starting point for building a rich relationship. They summarise, "A wide variety of parenting styles can be effective in rearing children, but helping a mother focus on her baby and make the baby a priority is key."

The quality of the relationship between a baby and his significant adult says a lot about his future mental health, intelligence, and school success. It affects the way his brain grows. It can affect the quality of his relationships with others.

And that brings us back to Jackson's nappy change. Here is the thing: There are routines that need to be done every day anyway (bathing, dressing, feeding, nappies), so they might as well be performed in a way that serves the relationship and feeds the baby's brain. That is, put down the telephone. Don't respond to that text message right this second. Turn off the telly. Gaze into baby's eyes, describe what you're doing. Smile, chat, sing. Imitate baby's sounds.

As Thames-based parent educator Pennie Brownlee says, "Full attention is the key to great partnerships - you could say it was love in action."

Reasonable expectations
Scenario one: Nina is two and a half. She loves running up and down the hall from the kitchen to her bedroom. It's nearly lunch time and her dad, Mike, is in the kitchen making sandwiches.

"Nina!" He yells. "For heaven's sake! Stop running inside!"
Scenario two: Nina is two and a half. She loves running up and down the hall from the kitchen to her bedroom. It's nearly lunch time and her dad, Mike, is in the kitchen making sandwiches. He finds her when she's near the kitchen, and holding her hands, crouches down and says:  "I can see you really want to run - we'll go outside and do that after lunch. But first, let's make a sandwich. Hey, we could eat it outside! What would you like to have in yours? Come and help me!"
What is the difference?
Wise daddy Mike knows that crouching at eye level will always be a better way to communicate with his daughter than hollering from room to room. He also does a fine job of validating her desire to run - there isn't anything wrong with what she wants to do, it's just the context that needs sorting out. This is an example of a reasonable expectation. It is reasonable that a child will want to run down a long hall. This is a well-known phenomenon among those who design classrooms and early childhood centres.

When we start with validation of the impulse - it's OK to feel like that  - then (and only then) is redirection an extremely powerful tool. In this case, Mike's invitation for Nina to join him, gives her an out from running.

It's a chance for relational connection, and children of Nina's age are ripe for "helping" (even when it slows the adult down and is technically unhelpful, do it!).
What has biology got to do with it?
When children are hardwiring the connections between new brain cells (also known as myelinating our synapses), it is as though their bodies command them to move. They need to practise their new skills over and over. It would be an unreasonable developmental expectation to think children will sit quietly during their upbringing. And unreasonable expectations breed parental frustration!

Children have lots to practise, whether it's running, climbing or asking "why?" incessantly to make sense of the world. A smart parent will find ways to make those behaviours tolerable, instead of attempting to squash them altogether.

Stuart Shanker is a researcher, philosopher and writer from York University in Canada. He makes an important point about validation, especially of emotions, and cautions against attempting to squash reasonable desires or emotion. "The problem is, you can't," he says. "The more you try to do it, the more you're going to get some sort of a problem somewhere else."

In Nina's case, running on the lawn is an excellent substitute, a way to make the behaviour acceptable. Leah, mum of Charlotte from the first example, might find a daily trip to the park is necessary for some serious climbing. During my daughter's phase of, ahem, experimenting with tone and volume, the washing line was the place for yelling and screaming.

Another factor to consider on the joyful rollercoaster of parenting is temperament research. Temperament is the study of individuality, the idea being that there are several consistent, observable traits throughout all people, and that each of us has an inborn tendency to react to the world in a certain way. In this example, Nina may be expressing that she is naturally at the "highly active" end of the spectrum. Learn more about this at

Time-out: it's for adults too
Scenario one:
It's nearly dinner time. Three-month-old Harry is crying for a feed. Two-year-old Bella is on the verge of melting down, pummelling mum Sarah's legs. Dad's not due home from work for half an hour, and Sarah is hot from the steamy stove, where she knows that if she stops stirring the cheese sauce it will burn. "Enough!" she yells. Everyone is tired and frustrated, with tantrums and yelling just around the corner.
Scenario two: It's nearly dinner time. Three-month-old Harry is crying for  a feed. Two-year-old Bella is on the verge of melting down, pummelling mum Sarah's legs. Dad's not due home from work for half an hour. Sarah temporarily removes her cheese sauce from the heat, crouches down to hold Bella close for a moment, whispering, "Gentle, Bella. Be gentle with Mama." She then scoops baby Harry up, saying "We're all hot and bothered: We all need a time-out. I'm going to take a break from cooking."

She one-handedly fills an egg cup with frozen peas which she passes to Bella, grabs a cracker dunked in peanut butter for herself and invites Bella to the couch where she feeds Harry. She deliberately takes long, slow breaths on her way. She makes up a song to the tune of "Twinkle Twinkle": "Bella's eating frozen peas, Harry's having breast milk, please".
What's the difference?
Here, Sarah uses specific language to describe what she needs ("Be gentle..."), and embraces reasonable expectations of her infant and toddler. She knows that infants need gradual introduction to delaying gratification and that toddlers lack the neurological equipment to filter their emotions. Sarah is willing to abandon her plan to have dinner ready at a certain time, knowing that keeping herself calm is the best parenting strategy of all. She understands that, in the words of neuroscientific rock star Bruce Perry, "The stress response network allows it to 'take over' any part of the brain... including the 'thinking' cortex." That is to say, once stress hormones get hold of our brains, we're unlikely to act logically or wisely.

When the emotional temperature starts to rise, it's time to try something different. As they print on T-shirts in my husband's native Tennessee: "If Momma ain't happy, nobody's happy."

Sarah uses the powerful technique of loving touch to kick-start her kids' calm-down and she knows the value of a healthy snack for re-regulating all involved.

A quick protein and carb hit for a breastfeeding mother and a slow-to-eat vegie snack for toddler Bella buys some time to get baby Harry settled, and the deceptively simple act of taking deep, slow breaths is key. This is a mighty weapon in the war against domestic craziness - it disrupts our biological stress cycle like nothing else.
What has biology got to do with it?
Our brains are linked to our heart, lungs and stomach by the vagus nerve. It takes our brain's stress messages to the heart ("Beat a little faster!"), the lungs ("Breathe more shallowly!") and the stomach ("We're too stressed to digest food right now!"). These bodily reactions send a reply via the vagus nerve to the brain: "You were right. We are stressed!"

Left unchecked, those stress messages go around and around in a stress cycle, unless something is done to override them, like taking long, slow breaths.  This exercises your higher brain (cortex) to command the lungs to move slowly and deeply. This simple act causes the vagus nerve to bring a new message to the brain stem: "Actually, things can't be too stressful. We mustn't be running for our lives. There's time to breathe slowly."

So it's wise to have a couple of relaxation techniques up your parental sleeve. Practise them in times of calm so you can do it when your children are wringing out your last little bit of patience.

Go ahead and put your hand under your belly button and see if you can get your hand to move out when you breathe in, and to move in when you exhale. Go on. Try it. Right now. You go.

Your cortex will reactivate, allowing the wisest bit of your brain to be in charge. If you're super wise, like Sarah, add the magic of music to your family mix. Singing produces learning-enhancing, feel-good hormones such as endorphins in our brains, guaranteeing a good time.

Miriam McCaleb worked with children and families for many years before becoming a lecturer at Tennessee Tech University and the Christchurch College of Education. A founding member of the Brainwave Trust in the South Island, Miriam also works as a presenter in private practice, sharing her passion for understanding human development with anyone who'll sit still long enough to listen. She invites parents to join her at her website, She believes, "Love and science just might heal the world!"   

Further reading:

  • Trees Make the Best Mobiles, Jessica Teich and Brandel France de Bravo, St Martin's Press
  • Dance With Me in the Heart, Pennie Brownlee, NZ Playcentre Federation
  • The Philosophical Baby, Alison Gopnik, Picador USA
  • Parenting From The Inside Out, Daniel Siegel with Mary Hartzell, Jeremy P Tarcher
  • Born for Love, Bruce Perry with Maia Szalavitz, Harper Paperbacks
  • The Science of Parenting, Margot Sunderland, DK Publishing
  • The Intention Experiment, Lynne McTaggart, Harper Element
  • 2010/07/15/neuron-therapy-listen/


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