The Power of Environment

As your child’s most important teacher, it is your job to create an environment that is not only secure, but rich with printed letters and numbers as well as physical objects he can observe and manipulate. These tools can help him develop the cognitive and emotional skills that in turn contribute to intellectual, emotional, and social growth, ultimately leading to academic and personal success later in life.

Tiny Scientists

This is because, through the eyes of your baby, the world is an astonishing and captivating place. He is a tiny scientist discovering the world through familiar experiments. Throwing toys, bottles, spoons (or food) from the high chair is not just a test to see how many throws it takes to drive mom or dad crazy; it is an experiment in gravity. It’s also a test of your presence and responsiveness: “If l throw this, does mommy pick it up and give it back?”

These many little experiments stimulate your baby’s neurons to fire up and add to the associative mass of connections in his brain. With each outing into unknown territory, your child moves to a higher level of intellectual and emotional advancement. And, of course, through it all, you are Dr. Watson to his Sherlock, Clark to his Lewis.

The Right Environment

There are many ways to create a stimulating environment for your baby. Encourage him to explore toys in different ways, such as by touching, banging, stacking or shaking them. You can also turn everyday routines into playful learning moments. For example, during bath time, you can teach him about sinking and floating, being wet or dry, or being under or over the water.

You can also pay attention to what your child is interested in. Children learn best when they are excited. If he likes dogs, take him to watch dogs play at the dog park. Ask him, “What color is that dog?” “How many dogs are there?” “How many dogs are big? How many are small?” These questions will get him thinking and help him create classifications, labels, and interpretations about what he is seeing. When reading a book together, ask, “Why do you think the girl is smiling?”

At even earlier ages, you can watch and listen to see how your baby communicates what he is thinking and feeling. Repeat the sounds and words your child uses and have back-and-forth conversations. Narrate his feelings and experiences so he learns to put words to his emotions. For example, you might say, “You are so happy to be at the park!” As you talk about what you do together, such as grocery shopping, playing, or driving to grandma’s house, he also learns to put words to his experiences.

Helping your children learn and excel is neither time consuming nor difficult. And the results can start appearing in just days, not years. L. Madden, reporting on the remediation of poor readers in elementary school, found that parents who were taught how to interact with their children by reading in their own home over a six to eight week period multiplied their children’s comprehension rate by six times the normal rate.

Even more stunning, researchers today believe that 85 percent of all children in the United States labeled “educable mentally retarded” could have attained average intelligence had they received sufficient stimulation in their families of origin in their early years. What that tells us is that, regardless of your income or education level, you can expand your child’s learning ability ­– if you act during special times in their lives.

Personality Development

Lest we focus too much on cognitive development, it is important to acknowledge that the same goes for your child’s personality development. Take the trait of shyness, for example. It was once believed that a predisposition to shyness was permanent; if you were a shy infant, you were a shy kid and a shy adult. These were simply the cards you were dealt. But now, we know differently.

The expression of genes is not set it stone. Rather, they must be activated to be expressed, and they’re predominantly activated by family interaction. Even if your child has the genetic predisposition for shyness, if that gene is not turned on, or if genes that relate to a more outgoing personality are activated instead, he will not be as shy as he may have been.

In his book, The Relationship Code, psychologist David Reiss describes a 12-year study at George Washington University, in which researchers examined the effect of parental intervention on the shyness gene on 720 pairs of related adolescents. The study indicates that how you raise your child really makes a difference. “Biology is not destiny,” writes Reiss. “Many genetic factors, powerful as they may be in psychological development, exert their influence only through the good offices of the family.” More proof that you are your child’s true gene therapist.

Of course, genes do matter. However, it’s your response to their expression that can affect the expression and outcome of those genes, and ultimately, how your child turns out. If your toddler is difficult, cranky, and acting out in aggressive ways, you will most likely respond to his behavior in a heightened state. A problem child can bring out the worst in parents. When signs of antisocial behavior surface, it can trigger a negative response which in turn starts a loop of negative responses to this problem behavior. If you aren’t conscious and paying attention, you can get caught in a cycle that is actually being shaped by your child that only serves to stimulate your child’s budding antisocial characteristics.

In other words, if you’re not careful, you can end up unintentionally reinforcing the very trait you wish to eliminate. That’s because your social interactions and reactions to your child determine which genes are activated, and has everything to do with your child’s temperament.

Your decision to either take control and create an appropriate environment to address your child’s behavior, or continue a cycle of negative reaction and reinforcement, will determine whether your child sets out on a healthy course or develops a behavior disorder. In order to determine how to meet your child where he is and create an environment that amplifies or represses innate traits, you have to be there and know your child.

Source: L. Madden (1998), The Reaching Teacher, pages 194-199