Category Archives: Brain development

What’s in a Village?

Lots of children.

So says Dr. Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College and the author of an article in Psychology Today entitled “The Culture of Childhood: We’ve Almost Destroyed It.”

“Children learn the most valuable lessons from other children, away from adults,” Gray says.

In fact, he turns the much-used African proverb around to suggest that the village raises the child because of the presence of many children within its boundaries. He quotes J.R. Harris (1998):

The reason it takes a village is not because it requires a quorum of adults to nudge erring youngsters back onto the paths of righteousness. It takes a village because in a village there are always enough kids to form a play group.

Gray says that children are biologically designed to pay attention to the other children in their lives, to try to fit in with them, to be able to do what they to, to know what they know.

Throughout most of human history, that’s how children become educated and that’s still largely how children become educated today, despite our misguided attempts to stop it and turn the educating job over to adults.

There are many lessons, he says, that children learn or can learn from other children that they cannot or are not likely to learn from adults.

  1. Authentic communication

For example:  an adult points to a red ball and asks “What color is that?” Gray argues that this is not an honest question, since the adult knows the answer. It is not really a question at all; it is a test.  A child would never ask such a question, nor would a child give false praise to another child, the way that adults praise a child’s artwork, for example.

2. Independence and courage

According to Gray, the ultimate goal of childhood is to move away from dependence on parents and establish oneself as one’s own person. Part of gaining independence is gaining courage to face the challenges and deal with the emergencies that are part of every day life. Children must learn to manage fear.

3. Creating and understanding the purpose and modifiability of rules.

Adults follow the rules when they play a game. Children make up their own. When playing with other children, they feel free to challenge ideas about the rules. They learn to negotiate. They learn that rules are not ‘fixed in heaven’, but made by humans to make the game more fair.

This is an important lesson, Gray says. It is a cornerstone of democracy.

4. Practicing and building on the skills and values of adult culture

Children incorporate into their play many of the skills and values that they observe among adults. That is way farmers’ children play at farming, for example.

5. Getting along with others as equals

The adult-child relationship is not equal. The adult has all the power. By playing with other children, children learn how to get along with peers: how to pay attention to the needs of others, how to share, how to negotiate, how to assert their own needs and desires.

And here’s something else that Gray turns inside out and asks us to re-think. We bemoan the ‘screen time’ that our children have; we want to ban or limit that time. But Gray says that children are using the Internet to connect because adults have prevented them from getting together anywhere else. They have creatively found a way to do what they have always done.

If we did ban or limit screen time, Gray says, while still banning children from public spaces without adult supervision, we would finally succeed in destroying the culture of childhood.

We would prevent children from educating themselves in the ways they always have, and we would see the rise of a generation of adults who don’t know how to be adults because they never had a chance to practice it.

Gray’s entire article can be found at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201610/the-culture-childhood-we-ve-almost-destroyed-it.

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Gardeners and Carpenters

An interview with psychologist and author Alison Gopnik in the August 22 issue of Macleans magazine is worth the read.

Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley.

She is an internationally recognized leader in the study of children’s learning and development and was the first to argue that children’s minds could help us understand deep philosophical questions. She was one of the founders of the study of “theory of mind”, illuminating how children come to understand the minds of others, and she formulated the “theory theory”, the idea that children learn in the same way that scientists do. In other words, they formulate a theory and then test it to see if it works.

Caring deeply about our children is part of what makes us human. Yet the thing we call “parenting” is a surprisingly new invention. In the past thirty years, the concept of parenting and the multibillion-dollar industry surrounding it have transformed child care into obsessive, controlling, goal-oriented labor intended to create a particular kind of child and thereby a particular kind of adult. In The Gardener and the Carpenter, the pioneering developmental psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik argues that the familiar twenty-first-century picture of parents and children is profoundly wrong – it’s not just based on bad science, it’s also bad for kids and parents.

Drawing on the study of human evolution and on her own cutting-edge scientific research into how children learn, Gopnik shows that although caring for children is immensely important, the goal shouldn’t be to shape them so they turn out a certain way. Children are designed to be messy and unpredictable, playful and imaginative, and very different both from their parents and from one another. The variability and flexibility of childhood allow them to innovate, create, and survive in an unpredictable world. “Parenting” won’t make children learn – rather, caring parents let children learn by creating a secure, loving environment.

– from the front jacket flap, “The Gardener and the Carpenter”, Alison Gopnik 2016

Gopnik uses the carpenter as a metaphor for the 21st century parent. The carpenter knows from the outset what he wants to create; he has a plan. Using the tools at his disposal, he whittles and joins and sometimes hammers. The end product is his. If there are faults with it, they lie in his execution of the work.

The gardener, on the other hand, plants the seed and has no idea what will grow. But he gives the seed the best chance he can. He waters as necessary. He culls the weeds that come up around the plant. He keeps an eye out for pests. His job is to watch over the plant as it grows, but he has little control over what the adult plant will look like. It may look nothing like the picture on the seed package.

A carpenter actively participate in the creation of his project. When it is done, he gets to keep it. A gardener on the other hand oversees the process, but possession is temporary.

A person could play with the analogy for a very long time, finding much to think about.

 The concept of parenting as a verb is interesting and relatively new. As Gobnik says in her interview in Macleans, we don’t ‘child’ our parents or ‘wife’ our husbands or ‘husband’ our wives. So why do we ‘parent’ our children?

If you would like to learn more about Gopnik’s theory, read the Maclean’s article. Better yet, read the book.

Brain games

brain game

How do you build a tower with pipe cleaners and drinking straws?

From the bottom up. Carefully.

Exactly the way a brain is developed.

Judy Cameron, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh, told participants at the Canadian Association of Family Resource Programs conference in Hamilton last month that brains are built over time and that early life stress impacts lifelong health.

Some stress is positive – getting married, for example, or having a baby. Other stress is negative, but tolerable when there are supports in place – the death of a loved one or losing your job. Negative stress for which you have no buffers becomes toxic stress; sources of toxic stress for infants include neglect, maltreatment, postpartum depression and parental substance abuse.

Cameron then led participants in what she has called the “brain architecture game”, a game that is still in the developmental stages but will soon be available for everyone.

The object of the game is to build a tower (brain) using pipe cleaners (neurons) and supports (drinking straws). Tallest structure standing at the end of the game is the winner.

If your tower collapses at any point, you are out of the game.

We started with what I can only call a kind of  genetic lottery. You throw the die to come up with the number of pipe cleaners that will form the foundation for your brain tower. Six is maximum; our table rolled four. You fasten the pipe cleaners together, remembering that once connected, the pipe cleaners cannot be taken apart later.

Another throw determines the number of supports the baby will have – strong parent-child attachment, for example, extended family nearby, economic stability.

Our table threw  a one which entitled us to one straw.

By inserting a pipe cleaner inside a straw, you made it stronger. The brain you were building had more stability.

Now that our foundation was in place, we began the task of building upwards. For each year of the child’s life, the team draws three cards. In year one of our child’s life,  the cards we drew were ‘inherited disease’, ‘childhood illness’ and ‘malnutrition.’ Toxic stresses, each and every one of them.

For years one through five, each positive stress card drawn gives you a straw to use for additional support. Each toxic stress card gives you a pipe cleaner.

When you get to ages six through eight, you can no longer earn straws. Only pipe cleaners. And each toxic stressor earns you a small weight to add to the structure.

During the course of the game, our child experienced sixteen toxic stresses, nine tolerable stresses and eight positive.

Besides the inherited health conditions and poor nutrition, we suffered through the town’s destruction in an earthquake, a parent who lost a job, exposure to chemical poisons, conflicts with peers, an unsafe home, an awful teacher, drug exposure, domestic violence and bullying at school. On the positive side,  we had a language-rich environment, good friends in the community, a clean and safe playground and popularity in school.

Our brain structure was a bit ragtag but it did not collapse. It stood tall and we were proud of ourselves.

Did we learn something? You bet.

We learned how important those first years are in the development of a child’s brain, how connections made cannot be unmade and how supports can make toxic stress into tolerable stress with positive outcomes for the child’s future.

Playing the  game also reinforced something we already knew. Still we welcomed the reminder.

Play IS learning.

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