Let’s start with the flashcard and Beethoven. Lord knows where this idea originated, but every NPR listening, PBS watching, back-to-earth organic eating parent believes it. Yet there is not one shred of scientific data supporting the theory that flashcards and Beethoven do anything more than bore both the parent and child to death. Time is better much spent simply hugging and reading to your child. And listening to maybe Twisted Sister or Coldplay.
While the first three years are important to brain development, the next sixteen are critical. Many parents believe that if they read to their kids six hours a day while they are very young (good but rather excessive) then their job is done. They forget that the childhood brain is still under development and it’s important to keep developing and nourishing it through high school. And those things like drugs, alcohol and environment can undo all the good work.
The first five years are important, but they do not write your child’s future. Experts used to believe—and many parents still do—that you can turn a child into a priest, a beggar, a doctor or a thief by age five. Neuroscience research has revealed the enormous capacity for change in a child’s brain. It’s this capacity for change that parents and teenagers need to be aware of and embrace. Just because your child was a flop in middle school doesn’t science doesn’t mean he won’t major in chemistry in college.
By age five, the child’s brain is about 95 percent of the size of an adult brain. But filled with gray matter. That’s thickening. Jay Giedd, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health who has spearheaded research on changes and growth in the adolescent brain explained the gray matter, or thinking part of the brain, continues to thicken throughout childhood as the brain cells get extra connections, much like a tree growing extra branches, twigs and roots. In the frontal part of the brain, the part of the brain involved in judgment, organization, planning, strategizing—those very skills that teens get better and better at—this process of thickening of the gray matter peaks at about age eleven in girls and age twelve in boys, roughly about the same time as puberty. But then the brain does something unexpected. It begins pruning or eliminating unnecessary “twigs”.
Every normal brain has the potential to be extraordinary. Or a hamburger flipper. Neuroscientists are now beginning to understand the incredible potential a pre-puberty brain possesses. With all of the “twigs” and “connections” it is forming it literally is wired to do about anything. But at age twelve or so is when the pruning takes place—the pruning to be a musician or an artist or an athlete or a video game player. In other words, the brain cells we use at age the onset of puberty are the brain cells we keep for the rest of our lives. This is the critical time in a child’s brain development, right at the moment she doesn’t want anything to do with her parents. The brain prunes the connections it isn’t using. Like that connection to read. Or do math. Or speak a language. Scientists believe if a child doesn’t use these connections, they lose them.
The same teenager who can develop the mathematics of a satellite radar system doesn’t have the frontal lobe development to understand the consequences of driving down a highway with six drinks under his belt. People are always asking, “How could such a smart kid do something so stupid?” But the fact is the frontal lobe of the brain, the part that’s in charge of planning and strategizing and organizing and thinking about consequences, it’s not fully developed until age twenty-five.
Physical activity helps develop the cerebellum’s ability to control cognitive processes. The cerebellum sits at the back of the brain and is responsible not only for muscle coordination but also mental coordination, the kind of thinking that helps a teen steer through the pressures and complications of her social life without appearing clumsy or nerdy. As teens get less and less physical exercise, scientists have little idea of the long term impact but believe that just maybe recess is more important to brain development more academic courses.
Boys’ brains and girls’ brains are incredibly different. This is not what many feminists want to hear, but deal with it. The differences are astounding. Boys are more prone to ADHD, autism, dyslexia, learning disabilities, Tourette’s syndrome, while girls are more prone to anorexia nervosa. The male brain is 10 percent larger than the female brain, but there is no difference in I.Q. But girls’ brains do seem to mature faster than boys’ brains though some parents of girls might wonder if their own daughter was born with a boy’s brain.
Teens think you’re mad at them when you’re worried sick about them because they can’t read facial clues. Every parent of a teenager knows the frustration of explaining to a fifteen year old you’re not mad at them, you’re not screaming at them, you’re just afraid for them. Take heart. Their brains literally cannot tell the difference. They are incapable of reading facial clues except the one that says you can have a raise in allowance. The scientific explanation for this by Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, director of neuropsychology and cognitive neuroimaging at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. is that their brains work differently than adults when processing emotional information from external stimuli. Whatever, it’s like arguing with a head of cabbage.
A teenager’s brain is still a mystery. Even with all the scientific imaging and research, we still don’t know how a brain actually functions. We know the parts but not why they do what they do. Or why a teenager like Alexander the Great led an army at sixteen, but why another child wastes away his years on the couch. So as a parent, remember you’re not alone in this. Science is just as confused as you are.