By Leslie Lindsay
Parents these days are inundated with a host of “Brainy Baby” products from DVDs to flashcards, educational toys, and so much more. Do they really work? Dr. Stephen Camarata debunks many of the myths of these so-called brainy products, and shares that what these babies really need above and all is their parents. Engaged, supportive, and tuned-in parents.
THE INTUITIVE PARENT (Penguin/Current, 2015) is a must-read for any new parent just starting out who desires to raise life-long learners. Dr. Camarata, a Vanderbilt University Professor and “veteran” parent himself, (having raised seven children; now grandfather to three), he holds an advanced degree in developmental psychology and has done much of his clinical work in late-talking children.
I’m honored to welcome Dr. Camarata to the blog.
Leslie Lindsay: You take on the marketing frenzy of “Brainy Baby” type products in THE INTUITIVE PARENT, suggesting that all of these DVDs, products, and flashcards don’t really work—how can they, they’re just 2-dimensional products after all—instead, you recommend getting back to basics: smiling, talking, and playing with your child(ren). Can you expand on that, please?
Dr. Camarata: A baby comes to the world predisposed for learning. Her developing brain is quite literally like a sponge and babies are naturally curious. Computer apps, DVDs and flashcards suppress these traits because the baby becomes a passive learner—essentially a “binge watcher.” In contrast, parent-baby interaction, including smiling, talking and playing engages a baby’s interest, attention—and motivation for learning while activating multiple brain regions. These activities also strengthen the emotional bonds between baby and her parents. Computer apps, DVDs and flashcards actually disconnect a baby from her parents while connecting her to the “screen.”
L.L.: Life is busy. Many households have two working parents, a whole host of other commitments, and outside pressures. How might we ‘slow down and smell the flowers’ when it comes to raising kids? Will popping in a DVD or allowing our 2-year old play with the tablet/iPad really be detrimental?
Dr. Camarata: Life is indeed quite busy and a baby makes it even more wonderfully full for families! The point of “The intuitive parent” is to empower parents to make positive choices—in tune with their inner parenting voice—to nurture their children. Sadly, there is an ongoing myth in today’s society that computer apps, DVDs and flashcards are better than human parents for “wiring a child’s brain.” In truth, parents are far better than any screen activity for activating neural plasticity and raising a confident, smart, well-adjusted child. When given a choice between talking to and playing with a child, pounding flashcards or plugging in an “educational DVD,” playing and talking win hands down in terms of what is best for your child—and their developing brain. Even if you only have a few precious moments while trying to juggle the demands of a busy schedule, play and talk with your baby whenever you can.
Although it is clear that screen time is in no way superior to mommy time or daddy time for a baby’s developing brain, including a screen as one would a book or letting a child enjoy a favorite show on DVD while parent’s are otherwise busy is not harmful. It is normal and natural for children to spend some time on their own and parents should make an active choice regarding what their child watches. This should be a limited amount of time and NOT the primary source of knowledge for a child.
L.L.: I still prefer paper books and email to texting. But this is a technology-driven society we live in. Where does technology and your model of intuitive parenting meld?
Dr. Camarata: Technology is indeed an integral part of our society and can readily incorporated into intuitive parenting activities. As you mention, one can read a physical book or an ebook: Parents can cuddle with their child and read an ebook exactly in the same way they would a regular “old school” book. The key is to integrate the technology, ebooks, DVDs and computers into INTERACTIVE episodes. Rather than turning a child’s brain over to technology, parents should be playing and talking while using the technology. Watch a DVD together, pause the video from time to time and ask questions. What do you think will happen next? What did they find? How do they feel? And so on. No one expects a book, by itself, to teach a child how to read, it is a learning tool. Technology should be treated the same way.
L.L.: I have to say, I really do love the suggestions in THE INTUITIVE PARENT, which I think we can boil down to this: be present, let the child(ren) take the lead when it comes to her play and interests, and be playful yourself. How is this different than free-range parenting?
Dr. Camarata: Free range parenting is a laissez faire style that essentially leaves the fate of your child in the hands of a cold hearted Darwinian “survival of the fittest” outside world. Parents are encouraged to disengage from their child, give them space and let them learn on their own. To be sure, I am exhorting parents to let their child lead in terms of choosing activities, trying and failing and trying again rather than being led through development. But, rather than distancing themselves from their child, intuitive parenting actually means interacting more, responding more, and spending time with your child. A free range parent might turn their child loose on the New York subway system without supervision. An intuitive parent would go with their child, but allow her to buy the tokens, select the train and destination and so on. The intuitive parent would also let a child make mistakes (for example, get on the wrong train) without scolding or being judgmental while allowing her to learn form her mistakes. An intuitive parent is also in a position to debrief their child after the trip and also ask questions about how their child arrived at the decisions (right or wrong) they made during the trip. Perhaps more importantly, intuitive parenting conveys the benefits of free range parenting without the risk.
L.L.: I have to ask about late-talking kids. Being a mother of an older daughter with childhood apraxia of speech (CAS), this is something I struggle with even now that she’s 10 years old and considered “resolved.” I think it’s the guilt that seeps in—“I caused it, I didn’t talk to her enough as a baby, didn’t get the help she needed,” etc. Of course, now I know this is not the case, but when I was in the thick of it, I didn’t know what else to believe. What advice might you give to parents who are struggling with speech and language concerns in their older infants/toddlers?
Dr. Camarata: First, let me say that I am delighted that things turned out well for your daughter! Parents often do have guilt about their late talking child and some professionals mistakenly add to this guilt. The truth is that parents do not cause late talking. Sadly, some well meaning—but misinformed—professionals, friends or even family members may say things like “you should have talked more to her when she was a baby!” or “you should have gotten help sooner!” These comments can be hurtful and actually are not accurate. Parents talk a lot to their babies and young children, some more than others, but always more than enough to help their child learn to talk. Lack of input is definitely not the cause of late talking! With regard to early intervention, it can certainly be beneficial. But the wrong kind of treatment may not be helpful and, in some cases, can be harmful. For example, treatment for autism may not be effective for other forms of late talking. Treatment for apraxia won’t help autism or other language disorders and so on.
My advice to parents of late talking children is have a medical evaluation from the pediatrician or family physician and then to seek an accurate differential diagnosis to determine whether their child is likely to simply “grow out” of the late talking or whether it is a speech disorder such as apraxia, a language disorder, autism, intellectual disability or some other condition associated with late talking that requires treatment. Do not go to a clinic or a professional that applies a “one size fits all” label such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and then funnel their child to a one size fits all treatment. Be forewarned that there are many “snake oil” treatments out there that take advantage of parents’ anxiety and guilt. Finally, no matter what, do not forget to play, interact and enjoy your late talking child. No matter what, do not let guilt and anxiety crowd out those precious parent-child moments.
L.L.: How can we learn from our kids?
Dr. Camarata: There is some much we can learn. I find it especially interesting to learn about what they are thinking and why. When my second daughter was four, she noticed that my hair was thinning. She asked me whether this was because I was thinking so much that the heat from my brain was causing the hair to die and fall out. What an intriguing idea! Intuitive parents tune in to their child, and learn about of their own unique personality. Are they easy going or more intense? Do they like puzzles and numbers or stories and imaginary friends and creatures? It is so much fun to discover your child’s way of seeing the world.
But perhaps the most important lessons our children teach us is to enjoy the moment. Child are quite resilient and become deeply engaged in their play—and in their imagination. As a parent, being with my children—and now grandchildren—literally melts away the worries of the outside world as I leave them behind and join children in a world of wonder and delight.
L.L.: Thank so much for taking the time to chat with us, Dr. Camarata! It was a pleasure.
Dr. Camarata: Thanks so much for your thoughtful questions and your interest in the book!
Bio: Stephen Camarata, PhD, is a professor in the department of hearing and speech sciences and a professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He is a children’s speech expert and the author of THE INTUITIVE PARENT: Why the Best Thing For Your Child Is You.
[Special thanks to T. Fleming at Penguin/Random House for making this interview possible. Cover and author image used courtesy of author’s publicist]