The Toddler Brain: Nurture the Skills Today that Will Shape Your Child's Tomorrow

by Laura A. Jana

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The Start-Up of Your Baby

Our children are the rock on which our future will be built… The rich potential in each child must be developed into the skills and knowledge that our society needs to enable it to prosper.

—Nelson Mandela, speech at the dedication of Qunu and Nkalane Schools, 1995

WHAT IF, DESPITE THE BEST of intentions, despite all our business-savvy, data-driven, technology-informed know-how and all that the Information Age has put right at our fingertips, we are, nevertheless, raising our children to succeed in a world that will not exist?

I am well aware this is not the typical way to start a parenting book. Especially not one meant to inspire parents of young children. Yet I have come to believe this single question raises what is perhaps the most critical issue that all twenty-first-century parents must consider. It is the question that should motivate us to think more strategically about the world our children will live in, better understand what skills they will need, and determine our role in more intentionally ensuring their success. It is also the question that compelled me to write this book.

Before taking on the task of addressing this question, however, allow me first to explain what, after more than twenty years in pediatrics and parenting, led me to ask it. After all, having been a practicing pediatrician and mother of three, the longstanding owner of a two-hundred-student educational child care center, a media spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, the founder of Practical Parenting Consulting, and the coauthor of two parenting books and three children's books (covering the topics of newborn care, nutrition, tooth brushing, potty training, and early childhood development), you could say that I was well situated and prominently involved in all aspects of practical, day-to-day parenting. That is, until a transformational conversation caused me to rethink my parenting worldview.

It was a couple of years ago, while attending a national conference, that I was introduced to a very highly accomplished fellow attendee who gave me a signed copy of his newly published book, and casually added, "I'd love to know what you think of it." I took his request seriously, read his book, and shared my thoughts. I told him that not only did his book read like an insightful parenting book but also it resonated particularly well with my own approach to the challenging task of raising productive children in the twenty-first century.

So far, this would seem like nothing terribly out of the ordinary, given that I have been both writing and reviewing parenting content for most of my professional career. What made this notably different, however, had to do with the part of the story that I left out: the fellow attendee was neither a pediatrician nor an established parenting expert. He wasn't even a parent. Rather, the book's author was none other than Silicon Valley visionary and LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman. And it's safe to assume that his book, The Start-Up of You,1 has never, and will never, pop up on any Amazon search for parenting books or show up on the shelves in the parenting section of any bookstore.

Now, if you're not familiar with The Start-Up of You, let me explain. Firmly established in the "Careers—Business & Economics" category, the advice in this particular book is intended to strategically help readers "survive and thrive and achieve [their] boldest professional ambitions" by empowering them to become the CEOs of their own careers and control their own futures.

Despite what on the surface seemed like an admittedly vast divide between our professions and the shelves on which our books reside, the connection between Hoffman's convictions and my own regarding the critical need to identify the twenty-first-century toolkit of skills necessary to succeed was striking. So much so that it left me with the idea that perhaps what the parenting world could really benefit from is more of a "Start-Up of Your Baby" approach. While Hoffman and many others in the worlds of business, economics, leadership, and innovation are clearly identifying this modern-day toolkit of skills needed to succeed in today's emerging "creative economy,"2 those of us in the business of raising children to be ready-for-life adults are ultimately responsible for and actively working to assemble this very same toolkit. We just work much farther upstream.

It is worth noting from the outset that although this book technically is titled The Toddler Brain, I propose that this upstream opportunity we have to start assembling our children's contemporary toolkit actually begins surprisingly early, even before they begin to stand on their own two feet. Sure, toddlerhood tends to be when the fruits of our early labors become more outwardly apparent as our protégés begin to more actively toddle, talk, and reach out to touch the world around them. But the fact of the matter is that successful brain building and mental mastery can and should start long before toddlerhood (and, for that matter, extend well past it!). Every parent needs to be aware of three key takeaways from the latest science in brain and child development:

1. The opportunity for foundational brain building begins right from day one.

The entire period leading up to toddlerhood and extending several years past it—specifically, between birth and age five years—offers us an unparalleled window of opportunity to facilitate the assembly of an invaluable set of life-enhancing twenty-first-century skills that will serve our children well throughout their entire lives.

Yes, the first five years are critically important, but brain building and skill building by no means end at age five. Rather, your efforts represent the start of a lifelong parenting commitment that can be kept all the more successfully when it rests on a strong, early foundation!

In an age when everyone is clamoring for innovative ideas, it has been said that the best chance for groundbreaking innovation occurs when diverse concepts, disciplines, and industries collide.3,4 I suggest that the parenting world is on the verge of just such a groundbreaking "collision," where business, economics, and workforce development are colliding with neuroscience, child development, psychology, and pediatrics to generate a powerful new set of shared twenty-first-century skills critical for success in today's complex, rapidly changing, globalized, technology- and data-driven world. As everyone from CEOs to economists and educators sets their sights on these critical skills, innovative parents will recognize the incredible opportunities now before us: the opportunity for brain building; the opportunity for cultivating these skills early; and the opportunity for applying what we now know about today's world to more purposefully parent our children for success starting from the day we head home with our newborns.

The Power of Mental Mastery

According to eminent developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky, children's mastery of mental tools early in life has the power not only to transform their cognitive skills and enable them to take charge of their own learning in an intentional and purposeful way but also to transform their physical, social, and emotional skills such that they can become masters of their own behavior as well.

A Strategic Parenting Plan

FOR DECADES, IF NOT CENTURIES, parents have bemoaned the fact that babies don't come with an owner's manual—a wish that by its very nature implies it is possible to precisely predict, plan, and prepare for every potential parenting challenge that might come our way as we strive to raise our children to live, learn, and thrive in a networked world. Yet the fact of the matter is that this is no longer possible, much less realistic. As Hoffman notes in his book, "You are changing, the people around you are changing, and the broader world is changing—so it's inevitable the playbook will evolve and adapt."5

Rather than an owner's manual that addresses the how and the what of parenting, I therefore suggest that what today's parents really need is a playbook in the form of a strategic plan, one that continually reminds us of why it is we do what we do, clarifies what it is we are ultimately aiming to accomplish, offers actionable goals to help guide us, and at the same time allows us to be flexibly persistent when faced with new parenting challenges.

As author Jennifer Senior reinforces in her book All Joy and No Fun, "Parenting may have become its own activity (its own profession, so to speak), but its goals are far from clear."6 With a thousand issues clamoring for precious hours in the day, committing time as parents to planning for the future is admittedly difficult. But operating without a plan is even more challenging. This last thought, by the way, comes almost word-for-word from yet another highly unlikely, yet surprisingly relevant book: Business Plans For Dummies.7

Recognizing that our changing world demands a parenting shift from owner's manual to strategic plan is a big step in the right direction. But taking it a step further, what if we were to develop a real, usable strategic parenting plan—one that infuses us with a sense of purposeful action and provides a North Star for us to follow as we approach the day-to-day decisions and challenges of parenthood? Doing so would simply involve a review of the core elements of a strategic plan and their application not to a company but to the business of parenting.

Before getting started, however, it's worth noting the difference between strategic versus long-range planning. According to the strategic-plan-focused For Dummies book, long-range planning (much like an owner's manual) is based on the assumption that current knowledge about future conditions is sufficiently reliable.8 As we will discuss in Chapter 2, this is a false assumption that no longer serves us well in business or in parenting. In contrast, strategic plans, which by definition are designed explicitly to be responsive to a dynamic, ever-changing environment, are much better suited for today's world and for our parenting needs.

Every strategic plan consists of the same basic elements:

A mission and vision statement

A description of long-term goals

Strategies for achieving these goals

Action plans for implementation

In a parenting context, that is exactly what the book you're now holding offers.

Let's start with mission and vision. When it comes to crafting a single sentence that clearly captures the inspirational long-term results we hope to achieve as a result of our parenting efforts, raising our children to be happy, healthy, successful adults represents as universal a vision statement as any. But true to strategic planning form, we shouldn't stop there.

In setting our sights on more specific big-picture parenting goals, research from Gallup can help us more clearly identify five essential elements of the overarching concept of well-being: career, financial, social, physical, and community.9 All five are important and clearly interconnected. But, for the purposes of this strategic parenting plan, let's start by taking a closer look at career success, a focus that you will soon discover inevitably leads us straight to the twenty-first-century skills and brain-building strategies required to achieve it.

To help bring all the elements of our strategic parenting plan together in an easy-to-follow framework, it makes good sense to address the following three basic yet clarifying questions: Where are we now? Where are we going? and, last but perhaps most important, How will we get there?10

WHY US This chapter serves the purpose of asking Where are we now? It offers an important assessment of the current state of parenting affairs that includes a discussion of how to build on our strengths and capitalize on opportunities while also giving necessary consideration to potential parenting weaknesses and threats to our ultimate goal of raising children to become ready-for-life adults.

WHY NOW Answering this question involves taking a much broader look at the increasing complexity of our rapidly changing world than what is typically found on the pages of parenting magazines, books, and blogs. By looking up from our day-to-day parenting realities and assessing what has changed from when we were young and from the last century to this one, we end up with a much clearer and more relevant picture of the world our children will be living in.

WHY EARLY Armed with important insights and a list of highly valued skills from WHY NOW, WHY EARLY helps formulate an innovative parenting strategy by addressing the critical question How will we get there? This includes, first and foremost, a description meant to reassure you that this book is in no way yet another tiger mom or helicopter parenting book. After making perfectly clear what starting early is not about, WHY EARLY offers an overview of the compelling early childhood and baby brain science behind twenty-first-century skill building that promises to pull together in even greater and more intriguing detail all of the surprising science behind your child's earliest development. WHY EARLY also offers clear objectives and actions that all parents can use to build these skills and reinforces the incredible opportunity we have to equip our children, starting in the earliest years of their lives, with the twenty-first-century toolkit of skills we now know all children will need to succeed.

The Current State of Parenting Affairs

If your actions create a legacy that inspires others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are an excellent leader.

—Dolly Parton

Be my teacher from day one

Be my sky, my moon, my sun.

—Rosemary Wells, Hand in Hand

IN 1946, DR. BENJAMIN SPOCK published the first edition of his book Baby and Child Care.1 At the time, it was virtually the only book of its kind on the market, and it continued to be so for several decades to follow. The parenting world was hungry for his tome, and Dr. Spock soon came to be recognized as the most trusted pediatrician of his time. His influence was so far-reaching that for much of the last century many parents considered his book to be the parenting "bible." And after its more than five decades in print, Baby and Child Care was in fact recognized as one of the best-selling books in the history of the world, second only to the Holy Bible.2

I was fortunate enough to have witnessed firsthand the effort Dr. Spock put forth in providing parents with all of the basic how-to's of baby care and teaching the fundamentals of child development. I had the privilege of working with him in the 1990s, first as a medical student and later as a consultant as he completed what would turn out to be the last revisions he made to his book before he passed away on March 15, 1998. In looking past just his parenting book, however, it is clear that Dr. Spock offered parents something that extended well beyond his practical, detailed, carefully explained advice. In convincing parents to "Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do," his words were embraced by new parents around the world, empowering them throughout his lifetime and for generations to come.

Trusting Yourself

EMPOWERING PARENTS IS AS RELEVANT and fundamentally valuable a goal today as it was throughout Dr. Spock's reign as "The World's Pediatrician,"3 if not more so. That said, the world has changed significantly since his time, and being able to sincerely and reassuringly convince parents today that we actually do know more than we think we do is a very different proposition. With 24/7 news cycles, a constant barrage of bits of parenting advice randomly splayed across books, blogs, magazines, message boards, websites, Twitter feeds, Facebook posts, and more, obtaining parenting information today can seem a lot like trying to drink water from a fire hose. Rather than quenching your thirst, it's easy to feel like you're drowning. In short, the problem is we're living in an age of information overload. This creates an echo-chamber-like effect in which ideas and information—parenting advice included—are continuously repackaged and recirculated long after they've reached their expiration date of being relevant, if they ever were. Although we may have the world at our fingertips and greater access to more information than ever before, what poses a real threat to modern-day parenting success and our ability to trust ourselves is, in part, the widespread lack of distinction between information and knowledge.

Not all information is created equal, and with so much parenting information swirling around us, it's often difficult (if not impossible) to tell what's reliable and fact-checked. Parents run the risk of trying to take it all in without being able to adequately filter out the contaminated, dangerously inaccurate, or fear-inducing hyperbole. As behavioral neuroscientist and author of The Organized Mind4 Daniel Levitin puts it, "We are overloaded with junk… [and] it's becoming harder and harder to separate the wheat from the digital chaff."5 Parents today are left feeling like they know less than ever. Confused and overwhelmed, parents have become conditioned to constantly question, compare, and even compete among ourselves as we search for answers, reassurance, and validation. And with helicopter parents and tiger moms in the mix, the competition can seem mighty tough.

In the half century after Dr. Spock wrote the first edition of Baby and Child Care, parents used to confidently say, "Dr. Spock helped me raise my child." Now there are literally thousands of titles in the parenting space, and although they continue to multiply at an impressive rate, they're failing to instill that same sense of confidence. Today I hear parents lament that they've read "all" the baby books out there and still feel lost at every turn. The onslaught of information is making us feel less empowered than ever. To be able to truly trust ourselves, we need to think clearly and strategically about what we're doing and why we're doing it, and then establish a clear plan of action for ourselves. Beyond the day-to-day aspects of parenting, this plan will guide us toward finding the answers we need and instill in us the ability to adapt when inevitable parenting challenges arise.

Switching Gears: From Owner's Manual to Strategic Plan

WHILE CRADLING A FRESHLY SWADDLED newborn, it is a rare parent who doesn't wish babies came with an owner's manual. After all, there's nothing quite like the reality and unfamiliarity of heading home with a newborn to immerse new parents in the here-and-now of parenthood. In an effort to introduce parents to this "brave new world" and help guide them through it, I coauthored a book akin to an owner's manual, Heading Home with Your Newborn.6 My aim was—and continues to be, as the book heads into its third edition more than ten years later—to provide parents with a trusted source of critically important, much-needed, and commonly sought-after information, especially during those early days. Even while writing it, however, my goal wasn't to give parents everything they'd ever need to know or answer every possible question that might arise about how their babies "work." In fact, I didn't want parents to feel like they needed to carry my book (or anyone else's) in their back pocket at all times. Rather, my goal has always been to provide parents with enough information to build a foundational framework they can use to make their own best decisions about caring for and raising their children.

Once you're up to speed on the nuts and bolts of parenting, the next necessary step in making parenting decisions is making sure you also take time to remember your bigger picture and purpose: how to help your child develop into a ready-for-life adult. Although it's understandably tempting to put off thinking about this all-encompassing goal until a later date—preferably one that no longer involves diapers, crying, and spoon-feeding—waiting until after you've made your way through the early (and admittedly most overwhelming, tiring, and physically taxing) years puts you at risk for potentially missing out on having a tremendously positive early impact on your child's future.

To maximize these crucial early years, I propose a much more empowering approach. That approach begins with a review of the current state of parenting affairs. In doing so, we'll take a motivational look at our parenting strengths and opportunities as well as an honest look at our potential parenting weaknesses and threats to our parenting success and how best to avoid or overcome them.

The Most Important Job(s) in the World

ONE OF THE GREATEST OPPORTUNITIES we have going for us as parents is that we hold not one but several of the most important jobs in the world. We serve as highly influential role models. We are our children's first and, if we do our job well, very best teacher. And if we rise to the challenge of engaging our children day in and day out—an approach we'll discuss further in WHY EARLY that has a far greater impact than simply keeping them entertained or out of trouble—we also earn ourselves the long-overdue distinction of CEO: Chief Engagement Officer. These positions share the same job description of raising ready-for-life adults, and each offers us the opportunity to assume a whole host of pivotal roles in our children's lives. Wrap all these roles together and it's not surprising that parents today are being recognized as ultimate leaders.

Although Simon Sinek's book Leaders Eat Last isn't about parenting per se, the title alone conjures up an image of what it means to be a parent—after all, what hungry parent hasn't pulled together a meal of scraps long after their child has been fed, bathed, read to, cuddled, and put to bed?7 Sinek shares my underlying belief that everything about being a leader is like being a parent, recognizing that we are the ones, after all, who fully commit to the well-being of those in our care. We're willing to run headfirst into the unknown, rush toward danger, and routinely put our children's best interests before our own in what can be viewed as a real-world game of follow-the-leader, a game we can "win" if we stay true to our course.

You've Got Their Whole World in Your Hands

FROM THE DAY WE ENTERTAIN the idea of taking on the world's most important job as parents, one of our greatest strengths becomes our unconditional love for and unwavering commitment to our children. We want to give them the world and are willing to do just about anything to achieve this noble goal. It is this dedication, after all, that sends us on our parental quest for answers, keeps us up at night, and has us calculating the cost of college tuition right around the same time we start comparing the cost of cribs. It's what causes us to turn our lives upside down and redefine our purpose.

Yet in today's world of guilt-driven, competitive parenting, what has long represented our greatest strength now runs the very real risk of becoming a threat unless we carefully consider what best really means. We need to realize that wanting what's best for our children doesn't mean giving, doing, or answering everything for them. Nor is it synonymous with coddling them or keeping them happy at all costs. All too often best also gets translated into clearing all obstacles from our children's path without realizing that their ability to overcome obstacles is integral to their growth and development. To capitalize on our greatest strength—our unconditional love for and commitment to our children—we need to keep in mind that parenting is a delicate balancing act. Giving our children the best is about maximizing their potential, not their possessions; it's about cultivating their sense of purpose and passion, not subjecting them to unnecessary pressure; and it's about fulfilling our role as protectors without becoming so overprotective that our kids are never allowed to trip, stumble, or tumble and, as a result, miss out on experiencing what it takes to get back up again.

Giving Parenting a Real-World Checkup

ALTHOUGH I WHOLE-HEARTEDLY BELIEVE IN the power of positive parenting, it's important to take a realistic assessment of several common ailments that routinely plague today's parenting world. These parenting "diagnoses" can be contagious and, when allowed to spread unchecked, can really knock parents off course and take a toll on the very well-being of our best-laid plans. Fortunately, simply being aware of the risks works wonders for taking the necessary steps to effectively immunize ourselves against them. These parenting-world afflictions can be broken down into the following four primary conditions:

Breath holding. This ailment is characterized by the tendency, upon entering new parenthood, to put our heads down, hold our breath, and hope for the best as we simply aim to survive the next five (or eighteen) years. A single-frame cartoon I came across several years ago all-too-accurately illustrates what this particularly common ailment can look like: a harried-looking mom in a cluttered kitchen, accessorized by a toddler hanging on her shirt and an infant wailing on her hip, stands with a phone to her ear and a caption that reads, Can I call you back in five years?8

Nearsightedness. An equally common condition in which the further into the future our parenting goals extend, the more likely they are to become blurry and hard to keep in sight. Although parenting nearsightedness can become chronic if parents don't learn to broaden their focus, this short-term thinking is most common in the earliest years of raising children when all of the crying, clothing, car seats, and diapers understandably cause us to lose sight of our parenting big picture. This singular focus on the here-and-now without any added big-picture perspective qualifies as a "Parent's Dilemma"9 because it causes parents to get lost in the short term and (at the risk of mixing potentially unfamiliar metaphors) stuck in the parenting equivalent of living by quarterly earnings.

Chronic parenting fatigue (CPF).

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