Most parents have the best of intentions, but it can be difficult to know which way to step when it comes to doing the very best we can for our children. Science is making it a little easier, with technology making it easier to study the developing brain.
Parenting, like all things, has gone through its phases, but modern beliefs and practices might be hindering healthy brain and emotional development in children.
One modern parenting practice that has attracted a rethink by experts is that of time-out, the practice of isolating children in a room or a secluded area when they misbehave. Another is the belief that leaving babies to cry for periods of time is good for them. Intuitively, these practices might have made sense to many but science has now found that they might not be as helpful to a young child as initially thought.
‘ …Responsiveness to crying, almost constant touch and having multiple adult caregivers are some of the nurturing ancestral parenting practices that are shown to positively impact the developing brain, which not only shapes personality, but also helps physical health and moral development,’ explains Notre Dame professor of psychology, Darcia Narvaez.
Research from the University of Notre Dame suggests that there are a number of parenting practices that will nurture social development and brain development in children:
- responding to a crying baby influences the development of conscience;
- touching a baby in a positive, nurturing way – cuddling, holding, carrying (and definitely no spanking) affects the reactivity to stress, impulse control and empathy;
- playing freely outdoors with other children improves social-emotional intelligence;
- having a group of supportive caregivers (beyond the mother) influences IQ, resilience and empathy.
‘The right brain, which governs much of our self-regulation, creativity and empathy, can grow throughout life. The right brain grows though full-body experience like rough-and-tumble play, dancing or freelance artistic creation. So at any point, a parent can take up a creative activity with a child and they can grow together,’ says Narvaez.
Recently, research from NYU Langone Medical Centre found that a mother’s presence has a wonderful effect on a crying baby. Not only can it help to soothe pain, but early evidence suggests that it might also positively influence brain development by altering gene activity in the part of the brain involved in emotions’.
‘Our study shows that a mother comforting her infant in pain does not just elicit a behavioral response, but also the comforting itself modifies — for better or worse — critical neural circuitry during early brain development,’ explained senior study investigator and neurobiologist Regina Sullivan, PhD.
Science is always evolving, and as it does, so too do our ideas on parenting. It can be easy to fall into the parent-guilt pit and question what we’re doing as parents or what we’ve done, but let’s not – it’s crowded down there and difficult to breathe. We’re building humans – great ones – and that’s not easy. There’s plenty of advice, and the research is important to open our minds to the influence we’re having on the wild tiny people in our care, but no research is infallible or 100% certain.
Amidst the noise of what we should and shouldn’t do, remember that children will rarely be broken by parents or carers who love and respect them (and let them know), hold them when they want to be held, engage with them and respond to them with warmth, curiosity and boundaries that are thoughtfully placed and enforced.