The Intuitive Parent: Why the Best Thing for Your Child Is You

The Intuitive Parent: Why the Best Thing for Your Child Is You

by Stephen Camarata


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The scientific case for parents to put down the flashcards and follow their instinct

Parents are constantly overwhelmed with advice on how to raise smarter babies. All too often, fear is used to promote a particular cause (such as the vaccine-autism scare) or to market worthless products (such as “Baby Einstein” videos) that promise to make a child smarter or speed up development.

Now Stephen Camarata proves that educational fads and public health scares aren’t just stressful—they prevent parents from doing the things that would actually protect their child and promote learning and healthy brain development.

Camarata draws on research, case studies, and experiences with his own patients to argue for a return to instinct-driven parenting. Developmental milestones are misleading, and earlier is not necessarily better. He shows why the best things parents can do are almost always low-cost, routine activities such as playing “peek-a-boo”, reading books aloud, and simply paying attention to their child and responding naturally. This is the true “magic” that ultimately leads to intelligent, confident, curious adults.

This book will empower parents to recognize irrational fears and incredible claims that increase worry, steal their cash, and diminish their enjoyment of parenting.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781591846130
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/18/2015
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 9.00(w) x 6.30(h) x 1.30(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

STEPHEN M. CAMARATA, PhD is a Professor of Hearing and Speech Sciences and a Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. In addition, he was acting director of the John F. Kennedy Center for research on development and disabilities from 1999 through 2002. From 2006 through 2011, he was a chartered member of the scientific review panel on Developmental Disabilities and Child Psychopathology at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He lives in Nashville.

Read an Excerpt



What Is Intuitive Parenting?

During more than twenty-five years as a researcher studying child development at Vanderbilt University, and as a practicing clinician working with ASD, Down syndrome, and other developmental conditions, I have never met a parent who did not want to give his or her child the best possible start in life, or to raise that child to become a healthy, happy, successful, independent adult. But over the last decade, I have noticed a marked increase in the anxiety—and guilt—parents feel about how exactly to go about it. The glut of information, accurate and inaccurate; an ever more competitive, global economy; and the burgeoning market of books, shows, products, programs, “experts,” apps, and devices marketed as essential aids in raising the smartest, healthiest, best baby ever have many parents feeling either overwhelmed, insecure, or intensely driven to succeed at this most important job.

Recently, the Guardian newspaper in London publicly wondered why modern parents are so anxious about raising their children—especially at a time when the likelihood of a child dying young is at an all-time low:1 “Why is it that at the very time in western history when humans have finally been freed from the probability that our children will die young, that anxiety about children has become [so] rampant?”2 Best-selling author Jennifer Senior talks about how children radically alter their parents’ lives in the book All Joy and No Fun, and discusses the never-ending anxiety parents have about raising their children, from the moment of birth through high school. In my own work as a child development specialist, I have talked with hundreds and hundreds of parents and most seem worried—if not downright petrified—by the short- and long-term consequences of their everyday parenting choices. One mother recently told me that if her son didn’t learn to read by the time he reached his third birthday, he wouldn’t be admitted to the competitive preschool they were applying for. This in turn would mean that he wouldn’t be selected for an academic magnet grade school. The poor little fellow was only eighteen months old at the time! A father insisted that his toddler shouldn’t waste time playing with blocks because it was crucial that her developing brain be “wired” to learn vocabulary—while insisting that his wife pound flash cards rather than play with their daughter because it was vital that they take advantage of a “critical period” for “neural plasticity” as soon as possible. This couple believed that they had only another year or two to get their daughter’s brain properly constructed for lifelong learning. If they didn’t, they mistakenly believed the opportunity would be lost forever and she would be doomed to a life of intellectual mediocrity. This kind of anxiety is a major obstacle to living in the moment with your baby or child and creates pressure to accelerate development and micromanage learning in a way that actually derails healthy intellectual and emotional growth and undermines a child’s self-confidence.

I feel for these caring, conscientious, concerned parents. The world can be a difficult place to navigate these days; they want to give their children every possible advantage, and a vast industry leverages their fears, hopes, and love for their child in order to “get eyeballs” or simply to sell them unnecessary stuff. But what the information glut and relentless marketing obscures is this: Focusing on—and unleashing—your natural personal parental intuition is exactly what it takes to raise intelligent, confident, curious, and talented children who will develop into equally talented adults. A surprisingly large body of scientific literature supports this conclusion; and I can vouch for it personally, having raised seven children—three daughters and four sons—in light of its principles. But too many parents these days have lost confidence in themselves and in the genius of Mother Nature.

That’s why I wrote this book: to show parents that they are already equipped with all the “state-of-the-art” know-how necessary to “wire” their child’s brain and instill in him or her a love of discovery and of learning that will last a lifetime; and that they can best prepare their child to thrive in school and in adult life through a natural process I call intuitive parenting.

What is intuitive parenting? Simply stated, intuitive parenting emphasizes focusing on your child, enjoying the moment, and reacting naturally to whatever the baby is doing. It’s a style of parenting that allows you to concentrate on being a learning partner rather than a taskmaster or über-teacher, and helps you resist the panic that comes with thinking that there are other things or more things you should be teaching your child at a given moment. It is a way of parenting that supports clearing your mind of all the noise, worry, guilt, and anxiety that are part and parcel of parenting in the modern world and living in the moment with your baby and, later, with your toddler and young child. It even works great with teenagers!

By reacting—and acting—intuitively, you will actually become the very best teacher (and parent) your child could possibly have. As your child grows from baby to toddler and then preschooler, he or she will be naturally and continually signaling you as to what they currently know, what they need to learn next, and precisely the right input needed from you for them to learn and to wire their brain. An intuitive parent’s main job is to pay attention to your child and then respond normally. And fortunately, this intuitive parenting is seamlessly integrated into the daily caregiving that babies and young children require. Feeding, diaper changing, bedtimes, wake-up routines, bath time, and quiet moments together all yield extremely powerful learning opportunities for your child’s developing—and plastic—brain. Whenever you are engaging in any of these everyday tasks and following your baby’s developmental lead, you’re doing the right thing for your baby’s brain.

By giving parents a greater awareness of their intuitive parenting powers, I hope to inoculate them against feelings of inadequacy preyed upon by self-styled experts and manufacturers of educational products claiming to accelerate “brain development.” In addition, I hope that the information herein helps reduce the overwhelming stress parents feel raising a child in what has become a highly competitive and peer-pressure-driven culture. That stress not only produces undesired outcomes in child rearing but it also all too often robs parents, especially mothers, of the natural enjoyment of interacting with their infants, toddlers, and preschoolers.

One of the most striking things about children—and human beings generally—is just how variable we are in personality, temperament, and learning style. How can any book on parenting possibly provide accurate and relevant advice for all parents and all their children? Even a cursory survey of current how-to books on parenting illustrates this problem. There are books that advocate “laissez-faire” parenting wherein children are essentially allowed to roam free in the belief—and hope—that nature will automatically teach them what they need to learn. At the other extreme are books that exhort parents essentially to micromanage their children beyond what even the most exuberant “helicopter mom” could possibly imagine. The truth is that there is no one-size-fits-all parenting approach just as there is no one-size-fits-all child.

But wait a minute! Isn’t this book advocating a particular parenting style? Actually, intuitive parenting is not a one-size-fits-all or one-dimensional approach. The fundamental principles—paying attention to your child and responding intuitively and naturally—can and should be done within the context of an individual child’s traits and any parent’s normal way of responding. Indeed, the foundational basis for intuitive parenting—following your child’s lead and responding to him or her—automatically coordinates their temperament, current knowledge level, and stage of brain development with your individual parenting style. You can find your child’s—and your very own—learning “sweet spot.” Free-range parents, “tiger mothers,” and everyone in between can readily implement the basic principles of intuitive parenting within the rubric of their own personal parenting style and comfort level.

Every parent who has more than one child understands, no, lives the fundamental truth that no two children are alike. In my own personal experience raising seven children, some were cautious, others were daring. Some were introspective, others were outgoing and gregarious. Although all had—and still have—a love of learning and an ample supply of curiosity, the way that each one learned and their individual patterns of strengths and weaknesses were—and still are—strikingly different. Another universal appears to be that each has a strong, positive self-image, a well-developed sense of humor, and a high degree of confidence in their abilities. No doubt these positive traits were inherited directly from their mother, who needed an ample supply of both to raise them and to be married to me!

Some of our children preferred a relatively high degree of independence and wanted to learn things on their own. Others seemed to prefer learning in groups and enjoyed receiving relatively frequent feedback. Some were self-starters, others benefited from having us provide incentives and supervision as a way of supporting their development and learning. All had vivid imaginations growing up, but some were more imaginative than others. In short, our parenting required not only the inevitable adjustments that every child requires as he or she grows up, but sensitivity to each of our children’s individual temperaments, learning styles, and needs.

To be sure, there are certain common elements in parenting, especially intuitive parenting, that benefit all children regardless of their individual traits. Independence, resilience, creativity, confidence, and thinking ability should be nurtured in all children. But how these are nurtured can vary greatly, depending on the individual child. And these common elements can be readily adapted to your own, individual parenting style and comfort level. A “tiger mother”3 could never be a “free-range”4 mother, and vice versa. Yet, in the end, both want the same things for their children, and each is trying to foster the foundational traits described above. Given all this variability in children—and their parents—which parenting elements could possibly be readily adopted by all? More important, which of these elements would nurture their children, facilitate brain development, and harness brain plasticity while also meeting their individual child’s needs—and also readily be incorporated into their own parenting style?

The breathtaking diversity in human abilities and capabilities is a direct reflection of the flexibility and resilience of the human brain. Like snowflakes, no two human brains are wired precisely alike.5 But the good news is that this remarkable organ comes well prepared to efficiently develop in a wide variety of environments offering a myriad of learning opportunities.

Parents: Take a breath, slow down, and experience the sheer joy—and fun—that infants, toddlers, and preschoolers bring to the learning experience. In doing so you will lay the foundation for the school years, adolescence, and beyond. Your precious baby will learn what you teach, and so much more, if he or she is simply given the opportunity. And you will be forming a lifelong positive relationship with your child. As a parent, your challenge is to filter out the nonsense and concentrate on responding naturally, confidently, lovingly, and intuitively to your baby’s needs. Trust Mother Nature—and trust your own intuition. Your parenting mantra will be to do what comes naturally and focus on nurturing and enhancing your child’s natural curiosity and problem-solving abilities.


You already have everything you need to properly raise and teach your child and ensure optimal development of his or her neural architecture for lifelong learning: love and affection, common sense, and a positive outlook. Everything else will arise naturally in the process of caring for, nurturing, and naturally interacting with your baby—and your growing child. No special tools or software or apps are required.

Now let me show you why and how intuitive parenting works.

chapter 1

Mother Nature’s Instruction Manual

Whenever you purchase a complex product such as an automobile or a computer, it comes with an instruction manual that describes its operation. While you often can buy a more detailed technical manual that will delineate the intricacies of how each element in an automobile engine works or how the motherboard in the computer is configured, most manuals that come with your product are designed to simply and efficiently teach you how to operate it.

But a baby—a much more complicated “device” than any automobile or computer—does not come packaged with a technical manual explaining how to simply and efficiently parent her nor detailing the intricacies of her brain and how to wire it for future use as she grows into a toddler, preschooler, primary student, middle school student, high schooler, college student, or perhaps even graduate student on her way to becoming an independent adult.

Human beings have by far, at least by animal standards, the longest childhoods and require the most parental nurturing of any species.1 Single-cell creatures such as amoebae receive no parenting whatsoever; their “parent,” which is both mother and father, simply divides and the “babies” go on their merry way.2 Many species, including alligators, fish, and spiders, protect their eggs or nests but do not parent their offspring after they hatch. Their “babies” are smaller versions of the adults and enter into the Darwinian “survival of the fittest” without the benefit of parental guidance.

Mammals parent their offspring—at least to some extent—before the young strike out on their own. Sometimes, this parenting means simply feeding their babies. All mammals nurse their young, but some take care of their offspring even after the babies are no longer nursing; humans and other primates do so for a much longer period than other species. Mice and other rodents bid their offspring vaya con dios shortly after weaning them, which only takes a few weeks.3 Canine babies such as foxes, coyotes, and wolves will stay with their mothers and learn to hunt during their first year before striking off on their own.4 Whales also tend their young for about a year.5 Lion cubs stay with their mothers for about two years and polar bear cubs stay with their mothers for about two and a half years6—and of these, whales, wolves, and lions stay in family groups even after the young have been weaned and have learned to obtain food.

In contrast, humans and other primates have much more parental investment in their offspring, extending to nearly a decade in chimpanzees and often nearly two decades in humans.7 Of course, human parenting never really “ends,” but if we define the boundary as the moment a child is capable of living independently, the norm in modern human societies would be approximately two decades. As a human parent, you may sometimes envy insects, fish, reptiles, and other species that essentially provide no parenting whatsoever, so that no instruction manual or decision making in the absence of such a manual is required. One can speculate that no insect has ever felt any remorse or guilt about being an ineffective parent or has lost sleep worrying about its child’s future!

But for humans in an increasingly complex modern world, the problem of child-rearing is much more difficult. Parents face difficult choices and serious information overload. The Internet is replete with all kinds of conflicting advice from self-styled parenting “experts” whose only credentials may be a computer and access to WiFi (and, perhaps, an ax to grind). Thanks to advances in medical science, neuropsychology, brain imaging, and other fields, there is also a lot of genuine new data and information available about how babies grow, how brains learn, and how people stay healthy and thrive in the social world. But there is also a wealth of different interpretations about what the new information means, what findings are—or aren’t—definitive or important, and what, if anything, we should do with what we have discovered.

To make matters worse, there is the burgeoning child development educational industry offering a myriad of products claiming to properly “wire” children’s brains so that they can grow into adults who are well prepared to thrive in a rapidly changing world, to utilize modern technology, to multitask, and to gain a competitive advantage over the neighbors’—or a faraway country’s—kids.

How can a parent possibly know what to do without having an extensive database on child-rearing practices stored in his or her own brain? Thankfully, Mother Nature did provide her own version of a training manual: She provided parents and babies with a DNA map—and a plastic brain that predisposes them to interact in ways that ensures necessary parental input is provided at the time it is most needed.8

A child is born with the uncanny ability to elicit appropriate teaching responses from her parents. And parents’ normal, nurturing responses to their baby’s needs and their responses to the social contact the baby initiates give the baby everything its developing brain requires. Even more important, this feedback loop effectively wires children’s brains for problem solving and reasoning, the very skills that will be increasingly important to them in the future. And because this learning occurs in the context of natural, normal social interaction, these skills, unlike computerized learning or flash cards, readily transfer to other people and other social contexts, such as school. Moreover, building “people skills” in addition to intelligence will serve your child very well indeed, both in school and in adult life.

But because this interactive process is automatic and ubiquitous, it is all too easy to overlook how powerful and amazing Mother Nature’s implicit instruction manual really is. Parents do not need to be child development experts with PhDs in developmental psychology in order to be terrific mothers and fathers! Indeed, if a parent sets out to micromanage a baby’s brain development and learning by consciously seeking to teach everything the baby needs to know, that parent would inevitably fail miserably. Worse, that parent could even inadvertently derail the proper process for ensuring that their child develops a facile, intelligent brain and a healthy mind, especially if they push things before their child—and the child’s developing brain—is ready to learn that information.

Early on in infancy and toddlerhood, a child’s brain is biased toward learning through the experiences of interacting with the environment in natural ways. Problem solving is built upon trying and failing, and using the input—and experience from these successes and failures to develop more sophisticated approaches to solving problems—and learning to persist while regulating his or her emotions when things don’t go as planned. The time spent playing with blocks, exploring objects, learning about the different sounds that occur when their parents speak, and the literally thousands of pieces of information that are integrated in their developing minds is more than ample to get the job done.9 An extensive scientific literature supports the importance of intuitive play on shaping the brain—and on developing reasoning ability essential to problem solving. My own research—and that of many other scientists—has indicated that play-based interactive learning is a key foundation for language development and many other aspects of reasoning and social skills. Studies also show that intuitive play also has a vital role in shaping the foundations for a child’s understanding of science and math as well as learning to read.

Intuitive Parenting in Action

Several years ago I experienced one of the most spectacular events anyone can have in their life: I become a grandfather to a beautiful granddaughter. It has been wonderful watching my oldest daughter, Katie, and my son-in-law Brent raise their precious baby Nina, and it is a real treat to see them and her whenever possible.

When they were visiting several years ago, I happened to witness the following scene: Katie was holding baby Nina, who was about three months old at the time and had just finished her milk “dinner” in a rocking chair in their living room, rocking gently back and forth. Nina started cooing (making contented baby noises), which got her mother’s attention. Immediately, Katie lifted baby Nina while turning her so that the baby was now facing her. Katie smiled and began speaking in a happy, high-pitched singsong voice to her baby: “Oh, you are so cute. Now you have a full tummy and are soooo happy. Mommy thinks you are the best baby ever!” Nina looked into her mother’s face and smiled back. Naturally, this resulted in an even bigger smile from Katie and more happy chatter from her and reciprocal happy sounds from baby Nina. The back-and-forth went on for more than ten minutes. It was simply wonderful to watch the sheer joy of a mother and her baby discovering each other.

Fast-forward eight months: Now Nina is a toddler nearing her first birthday. She is not yet walking but can crawl quite rapidly and is into everything she can reach. Her father, Brent, is playing a game with her that he calls “Smash Boom!” He stacks a set of four or five foam blocks into a minitower and says “Smash boom!” Nina looks up at Brent from across the family room and smiles and then looks at the blocks he has stacked. She crawls as fast as she can to the tower and swipes with her hand, knocking over the blocks. This is evidently wildly funny: Brent and Nina (and Grandpa too) all laugh and laugh after she knocks the blocks over. Then Brent starts stacking the blocks once again. What could be better than watching a father play with his daughter while they have so much fun together? This seemingly mundane activity is laying the foundations for important father-daughter emotional bonds10 as well as teaching Nina about cause and effect—and she is learning about humor too.

Another year passes and now Nina has a baby sister. Like most two-year-olds, Nina has difficultly pronouncing some words. Her sister’s name is Gwen, so Nina does the best she can, calling her sister “Gong-Gong.” Mom, Dad, Grandma, and Grandpa all think this is hilarious and immediately start calling baby Gwen “Gong-Gong” too. But we also call her Gwen, especially after Nina has said “Gong-Gong.” A conversation between Brent and Nina went something like this. Nina: “Gong-Gong eat.” Brent: “Yes, Gwen is eating! You are eating too.” Nina: “Gong-Gong night-night.” Now Brent says “Yes, Gwen is sleeping. I will read you a book before you go night-night too.” Nina grabs a stuffed animal and a book and snuggles into Daddy’s lap.

This scene may seem mundane, but the power of these parent-child interactions is immense. Nina is learning how to pronounce “Gwen” while also learning new vocabulary, the grammar of English, and setting the stage for a lifelong love of reading and learning. Even better, Nina is forming strong, positive emotional bonds with her mother and her father that will empower and sustain her as she meets the inevitable challenges she will encounter growing up.

These are just a few simple examples of intuitive parenting in action. Intuitive parenting means simply responding naturally to a baby or a young child after he or she initiates, in what brain and behavior scientists call a “feedback loop.” In essence, a baby or a child’s behavior elicits a response from the parent—which in turn elicits another, perhaps different response from the child—with yet another parent response, and so on. The back-and-forth interaction between parent (or any caregiver) and child is every bit as important to a child’s development as the particular “educational content” of the activity they are engaging in.

The main scientific elements in this parent-child feedback loop were described by psychologist Arnold Sameroff more than thirty years ago.11 Technically, Sameroff named this parent-child feedback loop the “transactional model” of development. He was most interested in how parent responses fostered positive social development in children. But in subsequent years, scientists studying language development, math learning, problem solving, learning to draw, learning to read and to play music, and many other aspects of development have also come to recognize the power of the transactional model of development. Study after study over the last half century has shown that a parent’s intuitive response to their child’s initiations is one of the most powerful and positive learning experiences a child can possibly have.12

Research continues to support the importance of intuitive parenting—and transactional learning. For example, the October 16, 2014, Science section of the New York Times proclaimed: “Quality of Words, Not Quantity, Is Crucial to Language Skills, Study Finds.” Those of us studying typical—and atypical—child development have long known that simply throwing mass quantities of words, or letters, or numbers, or anything else at children—and at their developing brains—simply doesn’t work. The lead author of the study discussed in the Times article, Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek from Temple University in Philadelphia, sums up the results: “It’s not just about shoving words in, it’s about having these fluid conversations around shared rituals and objects, like pretending to have morning coffee together or using the banana as a phone. That is the stuff from which language is made.”13

Of course, the importance of parent-child interaction is not limited to language development alone, nor to early child development. Laying the right foundation is important, but so is building on that foundation as your child—and his or her brain—grows up. The relationship you build with your young child will blossom and help both parent and child navigate difficult school years that morph into even more daunting and turbulent teenage trials and tribulations. The intuitive parent is well equipped to handle—and actually enjoy (as I did)—not only early childhood, but all stages of their child’s growth and maturation, including the teenage years.

The Marketer’s Myth of “Enhanced” Parenting

A combination of factors has coalesced to cast doubt on the value of intuitive, transactional learning in favor of technology and artificially enhanced learning programs touted as a way to accelerate development and provide shortcuts to wiring the brain. Commonsense, intuitive parenting is continually being undermined, and it often comes under direct assault.

How has this happened? First, parents are working longer hours, live increasingly complex lives, and seemingly have less time to spend with their baby, toddler, or preschool child.14 A recent study by the Pew Research Center found “roughly equal shares of working mothers and fathers report in a new Pew Research Center survey feeling stressed about juggling work and family life: 56% of working moms and 50% of working dads say they find it very or somewhat difficult to balance these responsibilities.”15 This report also suggested that parents, and mothers in particular, feel guilty about not spending enough time with their babies and young children. In short, they are primed to fall prey to clever marketing pitches urging them to “make up for lost time” by buying educational products.

Another factor undermining intuitive parenting is that schools and preschools, especially in the United States, are becoming increasingly competitive, and the amount of information a child is expected to learn seems to get bigger and bigger every year. Worse, children are expected to accumulate this knowledge, and take tests, at younger and younger ages.16 No wonder parents mistakenly believe that every moment they get to spend with their baby, toddler, or preschooler must be designed for artificially accelerated learning and brain development—and that the “old-fashioned” way of relaxed, intuitive parenting dooms a child, and his or her brain, to failure.

This guilt and anxiety about whether we, as parents, are doing what’s best for our babies, toddlers, and preschoolers is leveraged and amplified by manufacturers pushing DVDs, educational toys, computer software, and other products purported to accelerate, enhance, and maximize learning. Forbes magazine recently reported that sales of Baby Einstein videos and DVDs and multimedia products aimed at preschoolers aged birth to four grew from $1 million in annual revenue to more than $10 million in just a few years, and the brand was rumored to be valued at more than $400 million.17 Another product, Your Baby Can Read, reportedly raked in more than $185 million in total sales at the peak of its popularity.18 In essence, these products emphasize a particular skill—in isolation—and repeat it over and over. In Your Baby Can Read, the target skill is memorizing letters and recognizing simple words. But this drill is akin to teaching a parrot to talk. A young child can be induced to recognize and parrot the names of letters and words using a DVD or set of flash cards, but this comes at the cost of bypassing the actual knowledge he or she needs—what the words mean in the real world and how words are assembled into sentences as a means of communicating ideas—to truly master reading. A more accurate name for the product could be My Baby Can Parrot!

Such programs claim to bypass (or do better than) intuitive parenting and often base their claims on new discoveries in “brain science” and how babies learn.19 The appeal of these products, and the kind of marketing used to sell them, is very powerful indeed. They target the premise that the time my daughter Katie spent gurgling, smiling, and simply doing what comes naturally could be far better spent by preparing baby Nina for what she will be expected to do in school and “preparing” her brain to excel in that learning environment. Modern technology and brain science must be able to do far better than Mother Nature and mom and dad’s intuition! Right? Wrong!

Actually, a look at the data from hundreds of studies on child development and the developing brain increasingly shows that Mother Nature, and mom and dad, are doing a fantastic job. If powerful, natural learning opportunities are replaced by plopping your child in front of a Baby Genius or Baby Einstein or Smart Baby DVD,20 playing them classical music CDs, or engaging them in educational games like Railway Line or Baby Flash Cards or ABC Alphabet Phonics on the latest tablet technology, the natural foundations for harnessing all aspects of brainpower for problem solving in the real environment will not be properly developed.21 The most important result from a study directly comparing DVDs to natural learning was that “children who viewed the DVD did not learn any more words from their month-long exposure to it than did a control group.” The highest level of learning occurred in a no-video condition in which parents tried to teach their children the target words during everyday activities. Interestingly, when the researchers interviewed the parents about what they thought their child had learned they found that “parents who liked the DVD tended to overestimate how much their children had learned from it.”22 This is a powerful finding, because it shows that parents assumed that the “science-based” DVD instruction was more effective than the naturally occurring learning and may, in part, explain the positive testimonials endorsing these products despite what research tells us.

The demise of the My Baby Can Read program is instructive in illustrating the advantages of intuitive parenting and the disadvantages of slick, prepackaged, rote parroting schemes that only appear to accelerate learning. This product was heavily marketed as a teaching package that would give kids a head start on learning to read. A kit including flash cards, books, and DVDs costing around $200 was widely marketed. The advertisements claimed that toddlers could be taught to read and that these gains would be a key to future success in school. Like all “too good to be true” products and get-rich-quick schemes for artificially accelerating development, the product did not deliver on its promises, and some parents complained to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that the manufacturer of Your Baby Can Read used misleading claims to sell the program.23 The FTC reported: “The amended complaint alleged the defendants failed to have competent and reliable scientific evidence that babies can learn to read using the Your Baby Can Read Program.” After reviewing the complaint, on August 22, 2014, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission announced that “Your Baby Can Read creator, Dr. Robert Titzer, and his company, Infant Learning, Inc. d/b/a The Infant Learning Company have settled charges that they made baseless claims about the effectiveness of Your Baby Can Read program and misrepresented that scientific studies proved the claims” (emphasis added).24 The defendants are now prohibited from using the term “Your Baby Can Read” in future marketing. But be forewarned, although the FTC has taken action for this particular product, there are plenty of other products being marketed to unsuspecting parents that are quite similar to “Your Baby Can Read” but are not included in the FTC action. Even the defendants in this case continue to advertise—and sell—educational products with titles such as “Your Baby Can Learn” and “Your Baby Can Discover.”25

Despite the results of the FTC’s “Your Baby Can Read” review, there had been many claims and testimonials about how wonderful this product was. Advertisements included mothers talking about how their little babies learned to read and were subsequently successful in school. These children’s developing brains may have been artificially induced to parrot letter names and visually recognize words but perhaps without learning to actually comprehend the meaning of these words. One can only speculate about how these children ultimately fared in later school years, when reading comprehension and thinking ability become much more important than simply parroting letter names and memorized words.26

The truth is that intuitive parenting techniques are far better than DVDs for teaching babies and young children: A review of the impact of media-based learning in infants and toddlers revealed that “young children may better understand and learn from real-life experiences than they do from video. Moreover, some research suggests that exposure to television during the first few years of life may be associated with poorer cognitive development” (emphasis added). Stated simply, the claims that learning through media is faster or better than learning through real-life interactions with the environment—and with intuitive parents—are directly contradicted by the results of scientific studies.27

Artificially breaking learning into small parts and attempting to teach babies that way is an impossible task. The natural environment provides multiple learning cues that babies’ brains can “grab” when they are ready to learn the information. For example, consider how a child learns to talk.28 There is no possible way that any parent could set out consciously to school a child on everything about language using either direct instruction or “baby genius” programs.29 Speech and language development includes understanding and identifying the speech sounds or phonemes in a language; learning specific words and syntactic and grammatical rules for generating (and understanding) sentences; and a knowledge of the nuances of social interaction wherein humans use speech and language to communicate and exchange ideas. There are very few humans on the planet who even know the details of each of these elements for any given language—and virtually no parents possess in-depth knowledge of specific language components. Yet with very few exceptions, nearly everybody learns to talk and communicate in at least one, and in many societies more than one, native language.30 How could this possibly happen without special step-by-step instructions?

Talking involves multiple centers in the brain that must be properly wired and coordinated to generate speech and language. Motor control centers must move the lips and tongue and the other structures in the oral cavity that produce speech sounds. Reasoning centers generate ideas and then must translate these into meaningful words, organize the words into coherent sentences, and then tell the mouth how to say the sentences. Further, people also have to be able to understand what is being said to them, so the brain must also coordinate the auditory regions with the areas responsible for decoding meaning and translating the speech sounds back into meaningful ideas. In short, language and speech development is a highly complex “whole brain” process that can’t possibly be broken down into component parts and taught explicitly. Instead, the developing brain is designed to pick the component next needed from the ample language “data” it receives in everyday interactions.31

So babies come to the world prewired to receive information on speech and language and, by receiving naturally occurring input from their parents, learn to talk. That is, learning and neural development are a natural outgrowth of the responses the baby elicits from her parents and from the information she naturally hears from others in the environment. This process is described in detail in Steven Pinker’s excellent books The Language Instinct and Words and Rules. As Pinker explains, there is very little “formal” language instruction during development. Indeed, most children do not learn even the rudimentary aspects of grammar via direct instruction until they’ve been in school for several years, yet they learn to talk just fine. Naturally occurring input is all that’s needed for the baby’s brain to “turn on” the language wiring. Even better, there is a relatively wide learning window for this, so parents do not have to precisely time their delivery of this input to their child.

Many other aspects of brain development are similarly biased toward being activated by natural, ubiquitous (available in lots of settings with a high occurrence) responses that are broadly available during development. This means that the ever-increasing stress that many parents currently experience and the sense that they are somehow shortchanging their children with regard to “wiring the brain” within a very short “critical period” to optimize their development is unfounded. The “learning enhancement” tools they are encouraged to buy are a complete waste of time and money. Worse, attempts to circumvent natural processes or unnaturally accelerate learning may actually backfire and have unintended consequences because they may end up reducing—or even displacing—the beneficial parent-child interactions that are the authentic foundation of early learning and the source of brain activation.

When educational products are marketed to parents, there is always the explicit, or at least implicit, promise that teaching a limited, specific skill will somehow “unlock” a baby’s potential. For example, there has long been a myth that playing classical music to a baby will make him or her more intelligent. The movie The Incredibles made a joke about this and, in the 1990s, Governor Zell Miller of Georgia proposed providing a classical music tape or CD to mothers of babies born in his state in the hopes of “stimulating brain development.” The New York Times article on this story included the following observation from Professor Sandra Trehub, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto: “I don’t think we have the evidence to make that statement unambiguously. If we really think you can swallow a pill, buy a record or a particular book or have any one experience and that that’s going to be the thing that gets you into Harvard or Princeton, then that’s an illusion.” Playing classical music to babies wires their brains for listening to classical music. Nothing more and nothing less. Although parents may want their baby to appreciate classical music as a desired outcome, this will not make their baby generally more intelligent.

Study after study has shown that children will learn what you teach them. Showing them letters when they are babies will wire their brains for seeing and recognizing letters, it will not teach them to read or to comprehend what they read. Showing them numbers will introduce their brains to seeing numbers, it will not turn them into math geniuses. Conversely, if you want a child to read, he or she must be taught to read. This entails not only showing them letters and introducing them to the sounds that go with these letters but also learning the real-life meanings the written words represent. Both decoding, the ability to recognize the letters in written words, and comprehension of what these written words mean must be taught. And, reading comprehension requires engaging the mind by tapping reasoning ability. Teaching a child phonics is important, and doing so will help him or her learn to sound out words. But learning phonics will not teach a child to understand what he or she is reading.

The same is true in math. Recognizing the number symbols is not enough. Children also need to learn the concepts that the numbers represent. Recently developed “brain games” also explicitly or implicitly promise generalized boosts in a child’s intelligence. But learning to solve Sudoku puzzles will teach a child (or an adult, for that matter) how to solve number puzzles of the same nature as Sudoku. It cannot teach algebra, calculus, or trigonometry. Nor does it generate the thinking ability to become a Sherlock Holmes or an Albert Einstein.

There is a computer game currently being marketed that teaches how to clap your hands and tap your feet to a particular rhythm (like following a metronome). The makers of this product claim that it will improve timing and rhythm, which is a credible claim, but they also claim that it will improve concentration, balance, memory, language, and general motor skills—and that it will improve clinical conditions such as ADHD. But both neuroscience and learning studies tell us that a person trained to clap their hands and tap their feet will learn to clap their hands and tap their feet—nothing more and nothing less. Now this may be a desirable outcome, but it is not the key to unlocking untapped brainpower and intelligence. Nor is there credible evidence it will “cure” ADHD, autism, or any other clinical condition.32

Consider the claim that computerized training for foot tapping and hand clapping improves motor skills in more detail with the idea that children will learn what is taught. Of course, it will improve the motor skills directly associated with foot tapping and hand clapping. But who cares about that unless they are only trying to improve hand clapping and foot tapping? The point of buying this computer training is to improve lots of other, more useful motor skills. I like to play basketball, but I’m not very good at it. I can’t jump very high, and I am not especially well coordinated. If I wanted to become a better basketball player, would it be better for me to play a computer game that taught me how to clap my hands and tap my feet in rhythm or would it be a better use of my valuable learning time to practice shooting and dribbling a basketball? If I became extremely proficient at the computer game for clapping and tapping, would I then be able to dunk a basketball with greater skill? Of course not! The same is true for golf, running, baseball, volleyball, swimming, or any other sport you care to name. The way to improve motor abilities for these sports is to practice the motor skills that directly impact performance. Common sense also tells us that not all people with well-developed timing and rhythm, such as dancers and professional athletes, are automatically highly intelligent, nor are Nobel Prize–winning geniuses necessarily good dancers or skilled athletes.

Parents should apply the same skepticism to get-rich-quick schemes for increasing their child’s intelligence or magically wiring their brains. There are no shortcuts. If a child watches an educational Baby Genius DVD that essentially presents pictures and the names of these pictures, they will learn to name these pictures as they appear in the video. Nothing more and nothing less. But, it will not make them into either a baby Einstein or, later, an adult Einstein. The take-home message here is to view these products and think through exactly what the child is experiencing. That is, what they are actually learning and what their brains are actually being wired to do.

Intuitive Parenting versus Preprogrammed Parenting

Because simple, relational interactions occur every day between parents and babies all over the world, it is all too easy to overlook the significance and sheer teaching power of intuitive parenting. Because it is intuitive and instinctive for mothers and fathers to respond to their babies by holding them in their arms, talking to them gently, and smiling at them, no one steps back and thinks about how important such activity is for developing the child’s mind in the proper way while also nurturing their physical and emotional well-being. The magic of those moments and the millions of times they occur in a child’s life, from birth until he enters school, is crucial not only for a baby’s emotional development but for ensuring that his or her developing brain is properly wired for a lifetime of thinking, learning, and social interaction. And because there is nothing “special” required to raise your children this way—no special gadgets, technology, or advanced degrees required—I worry that parents like Katie and Brent may not be giving themselves sufficient credit for the wonderful job they are doing in providing Nina—and now Gwen too—with exactly the right teaching each girl needs at that particular moment in her life.

Indeed, if a developmental specialist like me, who studies how children learn, attempted to design and deliver the absolute optimal early education program for my granddaughters Nina and Gwen, I would recommend exactly what my daughter Katie and son-in-law Brent are already doing. In fact, if I tried to design an “accelerated” learning program for baby Nina by attempting to teach a young mother like Katie specific, “preprogrammed” incremental steps she could take to deliver input to Nina’s developing brain, I would, in all probability, derail the intuitive process so essential for properly developing my granddaughters’ growing minds.

To illustrate this point, let’s pretend that I am a football announcer dissecting the intuitive parenting examples from my own family that I described above, using instant replay. I would probably start by identifying the various players on offense and defense and discussing the role each had on the play under discussion. Scientists do something similar, breaking down interactions like the ones between my daughter and granddaughter into a series of key steps using a process called “event coding.”33 Scientists then track these events as a way of understanding how the mind develops.34

Let’s start with the first example, of Katie and baby Nina cuddling and communicating in the rocking chair, and examining their relative physical positions in that chair. Katie is holding Nina in her arms while rocking. Nina’s head is being supported by Katie’s arm, and Nina’s face is oriented upward but not directly focused on her mother’s face. The next key event is my granddaughter making a cooing noise. As a young baby, Nina is simply responding reflexively to the situation: She has a tummy full of mother’s milk, she is dry and warm, she is being held in her mother’s arms, and she is being rocked gently in a soothing manner. What could be better than that? Naturally, Nina makes contented sounds. These sounds trigger a whole series of interactive events between mother and baby.

The next event is Katie’s response to these contented sounds. She holds Nina in both arms and raises her face so that mother and daughter are now looking at each other from approximately one foot apart. Katie probably doesn’t even know this is the optimal distance for a baby’s eyes to focus on an object.35 Then, Katie smiles and starts talking to Nina in a happy, singsong tone of voice. Little do they know that all babies’ ears are specially tuned to the frequencies that their mother’s voice produces and that by exaggerating the suprasegmental envelope, that is, the intonation contours, Katie is providing Nina with input that draws attention to the specific acoustic characteristics of her speech. This will lay the foundation for Nina’s speech perception and help wire her developing brain to notice the key features of what her mother is saying, including the speech sounds, words, and intonation of spoken language. Not only that, Katie’s singsong words are tuning Nina’s developing brain to the specific features of English, the language her mother speaks, and the one that, since she’s growing up in the United States, will be her primary language as well. (If my granddaughter were growing up in Thailand and subject to the same kind of interaction, but with her mother speaking Thai, her little brain would be automatically exposed to the key features of that language, which has even more intonation contours than English.)

Scientists studying the development of perception in babies have concluded that

infants 18 to 20 weeks old recognize [that] the correspondence between visually presented speed sounds and the spectral [auditory] information contained in the sounds is critical to the detection of these correspondences. Some infants [verbally] imitated the sounds presented during the experiment. Both the ability to detect the auditory-visual correspondence and the tendency to imitate may reflect the infant’s knowledge of the relationship between audition [listening] and articulation [watching her mother’s mouth pronounce speech sounds while she is talking].36

In plain English, this study shows that my daughter Katie is teaching Nina’s brain about English phonemes (speech sounds) and what these phonemes sound like—and how to pronounce them. Their interaction is also laying the groundwork for reading, because baby Nina is learning about the speech sounds that later she will use in phonics. How fantastic is that? Isn’t my daughter an amazing mother? And equally cool is that all mothers and fathers doing this are equally amazing! Who knew?

The next event in our instant replay is Nina smiling back at Katie. Now, new sets of brain circuits are being activated. Instead of the listening (auditory) centers in the brain, which are unconsciously paying attention to the singsong patterns of Katie’s speech, baby Nina’s visual centers are now being activated. Not only that, Nina’s brain is automatically coordinating this visual input with the emotional regulation centers in her brain. That is, Nina’s initial reflexive vocalization arising from contentment has now become associated with positive social engagement with her mother. In effect, baby Nina’s internal happiness is being transferred to her mother, who in response is transferring her own happiness back to the baby. The visual signal for this in humans and in some other primates is smiling.37

Of course, baby Nina’s face is not very coordinated and the smile looks a bit like a grimace. But because my daughter is actually (and intuitively) exaggerating her own smile—it’s as big as it can possibly be—she is helping baby Nina notice the key features of the smile and to learn how to replicate these by coordinating motor movements in her own cute little face.38 In fact, Katie is actually training Nina’s visual cortex to link up to and synchronize with the movement (motor) centers in her developing brain. And this is simultaneously being integrated with the auditory information and the emotional aspects of the moment. Because this interaction and social engagement is rewarding to both mother and baby, they seek to repeat the process over and over again. Indeed, this kind of engagement is one of the most sustained kinds of focus a baby is capable of producing.39 Stated simply, my daughter Katie’s intuitive actions are precisely in Nina’s sweet spot for learning and brain development.


Excerpted from "The Intuitive Parent"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Stephen Camarata.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface to the Paperback Edition xi

Introduction: What Is Intuitive Parenting? 1

Chapter 1 Mother Nature's Instruction Manual 9

Chapter 2 Brain Science for the Intuitive Parent 39

Chapter 3 "The Critical Period": Truth and Lies 65

Chapter 4 Enhancing Intelligence Using Intuitive Parenting 95

Chapter 5 Raising Lifelong Learners 139

Chapter 6 Confidence, Resilience, and Persistence: Natural Benefits of Intuitive Parenting 152

Chapter 7 Behavior-and Consequences 175

Chapter 8 Intuitive Parenting, Education, and Schools 203

Chapter 9 The Perils of Too Much Too Soon: ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Learning Disabilities 223

Chapter 10 Follow Your Intuition to Enjoy the Journey 263

Acknowledgments 287

Notes 289

Index 305

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Stephen Camarata is the world's expert on late-talking children, and one of the world's experts on cognitive and social disorders of childhood. In addition to being a distinguished researcher, Camarata is known for his judicious evaluations of diagnoses and treatments of childhood disorders, many of which are closer to snake oil than solid science. Camarata mixes scientific judgment with common sense and a humane concern for the well-being of children and their terrified parents. This book is guaranteed to improve the welfare of children, protect the sanity (and wallets) of parents, and infuriate the quacks who prey on them. "— STEVEN PINKER, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature

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The Intuitive Parent: Why the Best Thing for Your Child Is You 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Kristi-Reads More than 1 year ago
I got this book for free through the GoodReads FirstReads program in exchange for an honest review. Camarata chimed well with me for several reasons. First and foremost, he assured me that I'm a good parent--using science. I come from a family of overachievers so you can see why I would really, really, REALLY want my daughter to have a great head start. Everything from carrying her a couple extra days and delaying the cord cutting to breastfeeding and taking many, many walks were all for the development of her precious little brain. I know. I sound like one of THOSE parents. I would swear I'm not crazy but I really don't know anymore. Anyway, Camarata also had a good mix of assuming his audience is smart, but not so smart that some things need to be explained. At no point did I feel patronized or talked (written?) down to. I understood the things that weren't explained and it was a nice surprise to find things that were explained. Mixing in personal examples as well as leaving detailed source notes only served to make the book interesting as well as credible. It bugs me SO much when a book says "According to a study...." and then doesn't tell me which study. Makes it seem made up. Last but not least: Would I buy it? I would buy this for myself, and then my sister. And then any time someone at work gets pregnant I'm buying a copy for their baby shower.