Brain Rules For Baby

by John Medina

Having a first child is like swallowing an intoxicating drink made of equal parts joy and terror, chased with a bucketful of transitions nobody ever tells you about.

Ah. Truth. Key word here - transitions. Being a parent is constantly adapting to change.

“The mere existence of such a cell should be one of the greatest astonishments of the earth. People ought to be walking around all day, all through their waking hours, calling to each other in endless wonderment, talking of nothing except that cell.”

"You were born from something smaller than the period at the end of this sentence." 
"So were you!" 
"And all the living creatures around us!!"

What an endlessly fascinating thing to ponder about!

For most first-time moms and dads, the first shock is the overwhelmingly relentless nature of this new social contract. The baby takes. The parent gives. End of story.

I find this so amusing. I read this book before I had a baby, and I loved this little paragraph. Something about the finality of that taking and giving - no two ways about it, this is how it's done. I now have practical experience with this shock that he talks about, and wow. You cannot prepare for it. It is a singularly different life experience. I will just leave it at that. The result of this upended life of course, is the quote that comes next. The fights!

Many couples will fight in front of their children but reconcile in private. This skews a child’s perceptions, even at early ages, for the child always sees the wounding but never the bandaging. Parents who practice bandaging each other deliberately – and explicitly – after a fight, allow their children to see both how to fight and how to make up.

This again, was so important to me. It seems like common sense when you read it, but it isn't so common! I come from a background that was not very conducive to seeing anger in any sort of a positive light; so when I had a baby, I was utterly, utterly terrified of fighting or arguing with my partner in front of her. To be honest, I still hate it - it still makes me worry about the impact it can have on her. But, we make it a point to apologize to each other in front of our child, and we are always open to her questions. We speak about anger, about how the emotion itself is never a problem (and can, in fact, be extremely necessary in certain situations) but what is important is how we act when we are angry. We have open conversations about admitting to our mistakes, and apologizing when we are wrong, because ultimately, we love and respect each other. This little quote has been stuck in my head for all these years, and the idea of "bandaging each other deliberately" helps me get out of childhood-induced tunnel vision, and be able to see my child's life for what it is - not what I fear it to be.

Infants understand that size stays constant even when distance changes the appearance of size. They display velocity prediction. They understand the principle of common fate. The reason the black lines on the basketball move when the ball bounces is because the lines are part of the basketball. Infants can discriminate human faces from nonhuman faces at birth, and seem to prefer them.

I am so glad I read this before becoming a mother - it gave me an immense respect for babies in general, and for my baby in particular!

On the successful completion of a test, they should not have said, “I’m so proud of you. You’re so smart.” They should have said, “I’m so proud of you. You must have studied really hard.” This appeals to controllable effort rather than to unchangeable talent. It’s called “growth mindset” praise.

As I write this in 2020, I see ideas about growth mindset everywhere for kids which is great! But reading this was a revelation for me back in 2013. These words immediately gave rise to a mental montage of my childhood, when I was constantly praised for being smart, which led to a lot of self-induced performance anxiety in school. I was smart, right, so why was this particular topic in math/chemistry/whatever so difficult for me to understand? That must mean I wasn't smart at all, and everyone else was just mistaken.
Well-meaning praise turned into a downward spiral of negative self-talk, low self-confidence, no self-esteem. I grew up that way, never knowing any better until I came across these lines in this book. It was such a revelation for me. I have consistently praised my child's efforts instead of innate intelligence, and I see the results of it as she grows.

For each additional hour of TV watched by a child under the age of 3, the likelihood of an attentional problem by age 7 increased by about 10%. So, a preschooler who watches three hours of TV per day is 30% more likely to have attentional problems than a child who watches no TV.

Just having the TV on while no one is watching – secondhand exposure – seemed to do damage, too, possibly because of distraction.

Okay, I know. TV gets personal. My kid didn't watch TV till she was 3 years old - and no one else in the house watched TV when she was awake. This is not doable for everyone, due to various reasons which I fully understand. This blog is about quotes that have made a difference to me in my life, but I don't mean to preach or make anyone feel bad about their life choices. You do you. The APA has changed their screen-time restrictions since this book was written, and I suppose, going further, things will keep changing. Personally though, I am ever so glad I read this and avoided the entire screen-time business for 3 blissful years.

Parents who start their kids out on a vigorous exercise schedule are more likely to have children for whom exercise becomes a steady, even lifelong, habit (up to 1 and a half times more). Fit kids score higher on executive function tests than sedentary controls, and those scores remain as long as the exercise does. The best results accrue, by the way, if you do the exercises with your children.


Parenting is not a race. Kids are not proxies for adult success. Competition can be inspiring, but brands of it can wire your child’s brain in a toxic way. Comparing your kids with your friend’s kids will not get them, or you, where you want to go.

There are wonderful ways to maximise your child’s brain power. Focus on open-ended play, lots of verbal interaction, and praising effort – fertilizers statistically guaranteed to boost your child’s intellect from almost any starting point.


Individuals who are thoughtful, kind, sensitive, outward focused, accommodating, and forgiving, have deeper, more lasting friendships – and lower divorce rates – than people who are moody, self-centered, inflexible, and vindictive.

How to raise a happy child - raise someone who has empathy, and who can regulate their emotions.

Parents who raise kids like my friend Doug, the valedictorian, are fearless in the face of raging floods of emotions from their child. They don’t try to shoot down emotions, ignore them, or let them have free reign over the welfare of the family. Instead, these parents get involved in their kid’s strong feelings. They are four attitudes toward emotions:

– They do not judge emotions.

– They acknowledge the reflexive nature of emotions.

– They know that behavior is a choice, even though an emotion is not.

– They see a crisis as a teachable moment.


Acknowledging the reflexive nature of emotions:

Some families deal with hot emotions by actively ignoring them, hoping their kids will “snap out of it”. But denying the existence of emotions can make them worse. (People who deny their feelings often make bad choices, which is what usually gets them into trouble.) Parents in the studies who raised the happiest children understood that no technique known to humankind can make a feeling go away, even if nobody wants the feeling around. Initial emotional reactions are as automatic as blinking. They don’t disappear simply because someone thinks they should.

How might the attitudes of discouraging or ignoring emotions play out in real life? Imagine that the family goldfish, the only pet your 3-year-old son Kyle has ever known, suddenly dies. Visibly upset, Kyle mopes around the house all day, saying things like “I want fishy back!” and “Bring him back!” You’ve tried to ignore him, but his moodiness eventually grates on you. What do you do?

One response might be: “Kyle, I’m sorry your fish is dead, but it’s really no big deal. He’s just a fish. Death is a part of life, and you need to learn that. You wipe those tears away, son, and go outside and play.” Another might be: “That’s OK, honey. You know, the fish was already old when you were born. We’ll go to the store tomorrow and get you another one. Now put on that happy face, and go outside and play.”

Both responses completely ignore how Kyle is feeling at the moment. One seems to actively disapprove of Kyle’s grief; the other is trying to anesthetize it. Neither deals with his intense emotions. They give him no tools that might help him navigate through his grief. Know what Kyle might be thinking? “If this is not supposed to matter, why do I still have this big feeling? What am I supposed to do with it? There must be something really wrong with me.”

Wow, going through these again for the purpose of putting it on this blog has been eye-opening. I can say that this behavior is not easy - to constantly acknowledge and talk about the emotional landscape of your child is not easy. Why? Because it is constant, isn't it? This doesn't stop when your child is 3, 4, 5. It continues, and it has to change and develop as they experience more and more complex emotions.

Knowing that behavior is a choice, even though an emotion is not:

These parents understand that kids have a choice in how they express emotions, reflexive though emotions can be. They have a list filled not with emotions that are approved and disapproved but actions that are. And the parents put teeth into it, consistently teaching their kids which choices are appropriate and which are not. Parents of kids like Doug speak softly, but carry an obvious rule book.


“You’re thirsty, aren’t you? Getting a big gulp of cold water would feel so good. I wish that drinking fountain was working so I could life you up and let you drink as much as you wanted.”

Empathy reflexes and the coaching strategies that surround them are the only behaviors known consistently to defuse intense emotional situations over the short term – and reduce their frequency over the long term. Note how you’re running towards your child’s reactions rather than away from them. Note how you verbalize her feelings, validating them, signaling understanding. This is empathy.

And it works!!

Moral Development:

Your parenting objective is to get your child to pay attention to and align himself with his innate sense of right and wrong.

When warm, accepting parents set clear and reasonable standards for their kids, then offer them praise for behaving well, children present strong evidence of an internalized moral construct, usually by age 4 or 5.

On Punishment:

Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Consistency must be there not only from one day to the next but from one caregiver to the next. Mom and Dad and Nanny and stepparents and grandparents and in-laws all need to be on the same page regarding both the household rules and the consequences for disobeying them.

Compliance rates soar when some kind of cognitive rationale is given to a child. The rationale consists of explaining with the rule – and its consequences – exist.

Parents who provide clear, consistent boundaries whose reasons for existence are always explained generally produce moral kids.


Five-year-old Jacob came home early from playing with the neighborhood boys. “Nobody picked me,” he said dejectedly to his mom, throwing his baseball mitt to the kitchen floor and turning towards his room. His mother looked thoughtful.

“You seem like your feelings really got hurt, Jake. True?”

Jacob paused, glaring at the floor.

“You look angry, too,” Mom continued. “It’s no fun when you feel sad and angry, is it, honey?”

Jacob now responded with force: “I was really mad! They picked Greg, and he told them not to pick me.”

Mom asked, “Do you think it would help if you talked to Greg about it?”

“No, I just don’t think Greg likes me today. Maybe I’ll try tomorrow,” Jacob said.

Mom gave Jacob a hug and later whipped up a batch of terrific chocolate-chip cookies. Which Jacob did not share with Greg.

The mother chose in that instant to pay close attention to her son’s emotions. She penetrated her son’s psychological space and empathized – but what she chose to focus on once she got there was his emotional life. She empathized with his obvious feelings of rejection. Mom did not try to hide them, neutralize them, or throw stones at them. This consistent choice separates the superstar parents from the rest.


Be willing to enter into your child’s world on a regular basis and to empathize with what your child is feeling.


As a new parent, you may feel sometimes that all children do is take from you, but it is just a form of giving in disguise. Kids present you with an ear infection, but what they are really giving you is patience. They present you with a tantrum, but they are really giving you the honor of witnessing a developing personality. Before you know it, you’ve raised up another human being. You realize what a great privilege it is to be a steward of another life.


In conclusion:

I love this book! It has been one of my parenting bibles, and I am so glad that I revisited it for this blog because I see lots of places where I need to brush up on my brain rules again. This is a must-read for all parents, especially before the baby is here – but I feel it works no matter what stage or state of parenting you are in.

Started – September 2013.

Finished – December 2013.

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