Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Brain Rules for Baby: The seeds for a happy baby

When we say we want our kids to be happy - what does that mean?  I think it has different meanings for different parents.  I think for my parents, it meant that some day we would all be doctors making a good living, which didn't happen much to their disappointment.

Here are three different types of happiness:
1.  Emotional (I think this is the kind that's most popular with the non-Asian/tiger mom parenting crowd - i.e. most of non-immigrant America.)
2.  Moral (I think this is the kind my grandmother always wishes me, since she prays for me every Sunday in church.)
3.  Judgemental (meaning being happy about or for something)

Where does happiness come from?  George Vaillant, a psychologist, researched this topic and his answer:  "The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people."  Friendships, or close relationships with family and friends, are the best predictor of happiness.

Other behaviors that predict happiness:
1.  Altruistic acts
2.  Making lists of things for which you are grateful (I started doing this in high school - my current list is on the main page of the blog and is called my "Living Like Weasels" list after the Annie Dillard essay.)
3.  Cultivating an "attitude of gratitude"
4.  Sharing new experiences with someone close to you
5.  Readily forgiving the people that are close to you, rather than holding a grudge

Money is not on the list, because it doesn't seem to have a big impact on happiness as long as they don't live in poverty (meaning an income of at least $50,000 or so - I'm assuming they mean that income for the family not per person).

In order for kids to be successful at making friends and having close relationships, they will need to master 2 major social skills:
1.  Emotional regulation
     - One thing that kids will need to learn is how to identify and communicate their emotions.  To help kids with this skill, parents need to pay close attention to emotions as well as behavior.
     - It will also be important to teach children how to filter their emotions and adjust their behavior so that it's appropriate for the social context. 
2.  Empathy
     - This skill is partially out of the control of parents, as is the case if your child is autistic.

Genetics and Happiness
    There are two basic ways to react to new things - high-reactive and low-reactive.  Most babies are low-reactive and are more socially fearless, prone to take risks, and confident.  20% of babies are high-reactive, and are more anxious, tentative, cautious, and less interested in exploring.  Interestingly, high-reactive kids also grow up to be more compliant, better socialized, and generally earn better grades BECAUSE they are more sensitive to their environment.
    However, temperament isn't completely controlled by genes.  For example, identical twins do not have the exact same personality.  They have found that there are genes that determine resiliency.  So far, three have been identified:
1.  Slow MAOA (monoamine oxidase): A person with the slow version of this gene is immune to traumatic childhood events.
2.  DRD4-7: A person with this variant of the gene will not be as negatively affected (develop insecurities) by emotionally distant parents. 
3.  Long 5-HTT:  A person with the short form of this gene has normal stress reactions that vary depending on the severity and duration of the event.  (Those with the short form are much more stress sensitive.)

Additional information can be found on Medina's website. 

Next up, the soil for a happy baby...

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