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What Makes a Child Smart? 8 Myths Debunked
  • This article first appeared in the June 2004 issue of Smart Parenting magazine

    With society’s quest to raise a smarter generation, we hear more and more scientific breakthroughs on brain development. And these developments are now challenging our old ideas about intelligence, most of which are based on wishful thinking than on hard evidence.

    Here are some common myths about intelligence and what experts have to say about them:  

    1. A wide forehead or a bigger head indicates greater intelligence.
    According to Diane Bales, an American human development specialist: “A bigger head doesn’t necessarily mean a bigger brain. And having a bigger brain doesn’t make you smarter. Dolphins actually have larger brains than humans. And rat brains have more cells per cubic inch. Humans are more intelligent because our brains have been fine-tuned to be more efficient.”

    2. Listening to Mozart and other classical music makes for a smart kid.
    In 1993, a study called the “Mozart Effect” suggested that children who listened to classical music at a young age developed higher IQs than those who did not. Findings were widely reported and applied, but recent studies in professional journals have debunked it as “illusory.”

    Common knowledge in the field of developmental psychology now holds that young brains develop through multi-sensory stimulation, which may include any type of music -- whether it’s pop, classical, or even a child’s own compositions on a xylophone.

    Thus, while listening to Mozart is not bad at all, you could just as well sing lullabies, or play any other type of music you want. “Music is wonderful for a child. It has its benefits too. It influences him and sets his moods and emotions,” says Mariel Labayen, program director of Action Kidz Child Center.

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    3. “Maybe it’s the milk!”
    Maybe not. While most of the nutrients found in milk formulas are good for the child’s brain and body, brain development doesn’t happen by drinking milk alone. It may be true that some gifted children used brain-enhancing milk, but not all babies who drank the same milk became smart.

    “Learning happens when we provide children with rich educational experiences and expose them to different challenges and first-hand learning. But if a child is happy with the milk he drinks or the food he eats, he has a better disposition in life. And if they are happy and content, kids can better appreciate things around them,” adds Labayen.

    4. Brain development is completely genetic.
    Studies point out that early experience is very important in brain development. Says Bales: “The baby’s day-to-day experiences help decide how her brain cells will connect to each other. And if the baby does not have certain kinds of experiences, some areas of the brain will not make the necessary connections.”

    5. What happens before birth does not affect learning.
    Not so. Poor nutrition and exposure to drugs and alcohol can lead to serious problems in brain development even before birth. A developing fetus needs adequate nutrition to develop properly. If the fetus does not receive enough folic acid early in development, certain neural birth defects can happen.

    “A fetus exposed to alcohol or other drugs before birth may not develop normally. If the mother drinks alcohol during pregnancy, the baby is at risk for developing Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). Babies with FAS tend to have heart problems and be hyperactive. And most FAS babies have below-normal intelligence,” claims Bales.

    6. The brain is completely developed at birth.
    Bales’ research shows that most of the brain’s cells are formed before birth. But the cells actually make most of their connections with other cells during the first three years of life. And even after age three, the brain’s structure continues to change as connections are refined based on experience.

    7. The brain grows steadily across childhood.
    The human brain actually develops in spurts. There are “prime times” when the brain is best equipped to learn certain skills. “Babies and young children learn languages more easily than adults because their brains are still developing language connections,” adds Bales.

    8. Expensive toys develop brain power.
    Such products that seem to give children an intellectual advantage have collected endorsements from various prestigious sources. But interviews with those organizations would reveal that such products are recommended because children like them and parents trust them for safety. But do they increase intelligence? Not likely, even according to those who gave the thumbs up.

    “What children need most are loving care and new experiences,” says Bales. “But these experiences don’t need to be expensive. Talk and sing to your baby. Go on a daily walk and point out some of the things you see. Visit the library and pick out a book on a new topic. Sharing time with your child and exposing him to new things goes a long way toward helping his brain develop.”

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