Sunday, May 29, 2011

Here's how to raise a genius

May 29, 2011

By Irene Tham

Parent alert: Turn off the TV set and computer if you want to raise smart children.

Far-fetched? Not compared with this: Fathers, if you want to get your children into Harvard, start cleaning the toilet.

These suggestions from University of Washington molecular biologist John Medina, 55, may sound radical or, as some would put it, absurd.

This is because most parents have little scientific knowledge about how babies' brains work, said Dr Medina, who specialises in the genetics of psychiatric disorders.

Applying the understanding of brain sciences to early childhood education is his lifelong interest.

Dr Medina was the founding director of the Seattle-based Talaris Institute, which was established in 2000 and supports early childhood research projects as well as developing parenting programmes for caregivers. And he is director of the Brain Centre for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University.

Dr Medina is adamant about this one rule: 'Get the blue light out of their eyes.'

He is referring to exposing children to television and computer screens before they are two years old.

It is a no-no because blue light emanating from electronic media keeps them awake, and can lead to attention deficit disorders later in life.

'Exposure to electronic media of any kind can be very dangerous in the first couple of years of life,' he stressed.

The conservative scientist also believes that children above two years old - if allowed to be glued to digital screens - will be robbed of the opportunity to form competent human relationships, thus affecting their 'theory of mind'.

A psychiatric term, theory of mind refers to the ability to shift perspectives - a trait lacking in children with autism or those experiencing severe pain.

The ability to shift perspective reflects a child's quantitative reasoning and therefore his ability to do maths, he said.

His lifelong interest in how brain sciences influence the way children learn has been captured in his latest book, Brain Rules For Baby: How To Raise A Smart And Happy Child From Zero To Five, published last October.

He spoke to The Sunday Times recently, when he was here at the invitation of early childhood training institute Asian International College.

Over two days here, he spoke to more than 100 early childhood educators from global education group Knowledge Universe, which operates the Learning Vision, Pat's Schoolhouse and Odyssey, The Global Preschool brands.

Dr Medina spoke with conviction and passion about how parents and educators should 'start over' if they want to raise smart, happy and moral children.

And the answer is not teaching children to read French by the time they are three, or do differential equations by the time they are six.

'The single greatest predictor of academic performance that exists is the emotional stability of the home in which the kid is being raised,' he said.

Breaking what may be bad news to fathers, he said that men should do more housework for the sake of their children.

The second biggest source of conflict in the United States - the first being sleep deprivation once the baby arrives - is the inequity of household chores, with women doing 70 per cent of the housework. The numbers may not be very much different in Singapore.

'Guys, get a clue,' he said in a thunderous voice.

'If you want to stop the source of conflict, stop the World Of Warcraft and fix dinner.'

How a child's parents get along at home affects his 'executive function' score - a measure of impulse control and the ability to do well in maths, said Dr Medina.

'It is only with emotional stability that the kid can mobilise whatever IQ he already has,' he added.

Because babies' brains are highly stimulated, they can sniff out parental conflict.

And perceived unresolved conflicts can 'rewire their nervous systems in a way that hobbles their ability to do maths, language arts and certain motor skills', he said.

The human brain is designed to 'solve problems related to surviving', so the child will feel threatened by unresolved conflicts and will grow up particularly scared, and not creative or bright, he explained.

'It doesn't matter how much calculus maths you give them.'

Conversely, a child's nervous system will be fine if the amount of fighting and resolution is equal.

'They will also learn that conflict and its resolution are a normal part of life,' said Dr Medina.

His earlier book, Brain Rules: 12 Principles For Surviving And Thriving At Work, Home And School, was a New York Times bestseller for nine months in 2008.

Although it was his first visit here, he had heard about Singapore's stressful education system and would like parents to hear this: 'Education is not a race.

'Tiger Mum Amy Chua is wrong. The more stress you produce in children, the more likely they are to not mobilise their IQ.'

He was referring to the Yale law professor whose book Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother recently created a stir and became a bestseller.

Stress, in particular, stubs out creativity, or what Dr Medina describes as 'fluid intelligence'.

Fluid intelligence is the ability to improvise as soon as something is learnt - a skill employed by jazz musicians.

It is as important to the process of learning as 'crystallised intelligence', which is characterised by memory work or repetition.

The interview was peppered with lots of laughter as he explained how an over-emphasis on either of the two forms of intelligence will create either a robot - which does not win Nobel Prizes - or an air guitarist, who does not have knowledge.

Drills are important, but just as crucial is playtime, which unlocks the creativity in children, he added.

It is for the same reason that he thinks that an accelerated syllabus is bad.

'Make education a race and the learning is destroyed.'

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