Having just become a grandparent, I’m struck by the complete and total strangeness of suddenly having another human being in my life, one who I don’t know at all and won’t know well for a while, and yet love completely - I can actually feel the pull on my heartstrings!
When I was a new mother, I didn’t have those feelings of strangeness, this feeling of a miracle taking place right in front of me, probably because I was overwhelmed by carrying on my marriage, parenthood, career, and dealing with a burgeoning midlife crisis. I saw other people around me having babies, so it never occurred to me to look upon it as special. But grandparenting is definitely a different, amazing, and startling experience, one that can be felt and seen with a lot more perspective than parenthood.
Watching my son become a father has also taken me off guard. I was always his protector and teacher, and now he is doing that for his baby, and making it clear to me and my husband how he wants his child cared for and introduced to the world. This new role has knocked our old relationship off kilter, and that too, is an adjustment of sorts.
And of course, I wonder about my grandson’s future, how his personality will emerge, and what course his life will take. I want the best for him, and part of that means living a creatively rich life. But how do we ensure that for our children? As it turns out, there are many ways to ease their path forward, especially if we’re aware of a child’s brain development from a very young age.
One thing I didn’t realize when my kids were growing up, is that a child’s brain develops as a response to early needs. Any kind of stimulation will cause the brain to respond by making connections and growing as a result of that stimulation. For instance, if there is a lot of stress in a young child’s life in the form of some kind of abuse, their brainstem will be larger than normal to regulate the fight or flight response that they will need if in danger. It prepares them for a lifetime of stress, because that’s the world they were born into.
Human babies, unlike most animals, are helpless for several months after being born. For instance the zebra, by contrast, is designed to start running almost immediately after birth, because it has to in order to avoid being someone’s dinner! But as humans evolved, the hip area and therefore mother’s birth canal shrank, so babies are born earlier in their gestation than most mammals.
But the thing that most astonishes me is that although we are born with all the brain cells we’ll ever have, they haven’t yet begun communicating with each other. Those first years of a baby’s life are incredibly active ones in terms of hooking up the system, in fact, so much so that subsequent “pruning” must take place later where the brain went a little nutso in making connections. So, this means it’s absolutely critical to the development of the brain that it has LOTS of input, so it knows how to hook stuff up. Making a connection is sort of like setting up a stereo system - you know it’s right when the sound comes through the speaker clearly. Babies and toddlers are making millions of connections every moment.
And part of those hookups are decided by genetics, as the brain decides what connections to make. Did you ever wonder why a father and son, for instance, seem to “think” alike? It’s because genes regulate, at least to some extent, the connections our brains make during the first years of life. So if the father loves math, the son’s genes may order the math connections to be made as well. Or not - maybe the mom hates math, and her genes win out.
I remember when I had my first child, I invited a friend over to meet him. “Oh, no thanks,” she responded. “Babies are boring until they’re older.”
I was a little taken aback by this, since I could be with my son for hours and not be bored, although, after all, he was my son. But also, what a misconception! If I could go back in time, I would let her know of all the miracles taking place in a baby’s brain every nano second.
Now, when I’m with my grandson, armed with this new information, I never stop with the input. I sing to him, talk, touch and cuddle, tickle, read, show - anything that will engage his brain to encourage making those vital connections. We can’t see it, but the brain is responding to everything going on.
When we look at the opposite kind of treatment in infants, those in orphanages for instance, it’s now known that the children have difficulty recovering from any neglect they suffered as babies. Researchers have noted how quiet these orphanages become, since crying often brings no relief. Without stimulation, the brain has no idea how to make its incredible connections, and after a certain amount of time, gives up. There is apparently no way to recoup this loss, and the children growing up this way struggle through life.
When it comes to start creating their own stuff, it seems it’s never too early to start on this with children. That’s why it’s important to introduce the concrete tools to create early on as well. Kids can try and replicate what they see and hear by practicing with tools we give them: crayons, paper, clay, child-sized musical instruments, etc. But they won’t start making up their own stuff until they’re more comfortable with the tools and have reached the age of four or five. That’s when they have an idea first, then find a way to make it a reality.
We often hear about “wunderkinds” (or “wonder child” in German) who are effortlessly playing full concertos at a very young age, say five or six. That doesn’t happen unless the child was primed, their brain fed all the vital information and given the right tools early on. But again, genes regulate a lot of this brain predisposition, so if the parents don’t like/aren’t good at/have no interest in music because of their own genetic makeup, it’s less likely the child will be good at it or want to do it either.
So, it seems that front end loading an infant and toddler with tools and information is the best way to ensure a richly creative life, one that a little one can take with them on their life’s journey.