Monday, March 12, 2012

Bright from the Start, Jill Stamm

I just finished reading Bright from the Start, which is a kind of guide to making your baby smarter. I am a big believer in the inheritability of IQ (I think an honest view of the evidence will give anyone this opinion), but it's also true that children inherit an IQ range, not a particular number, and this can vary by up to 20 or 30 points (which is a lot, the difference between average and being smarter than 98% of the population). Since I want little R to be smart (even though I know this is not without its own problems), I was naturally immediately interested in the book.

It's a good overview of the available neuroscience and educational research, written in an accessible and easily understandable style. The author is a professional educator (her PhD is in learning and instructional technology, and she teaches education in the Department of Psychology), so she really understands how to teach children. The book is full of practical tips for parents to use to increase their children's abilities (like games to boost verbal skills, by age, with explicit instructions). Stamm's oldest daughter has severe handicaps (developmental and otherwise), so the book is also sensitive and usable by people with children with developmental disabilities, which is nice. I also like that the author recommends against fancy toys or gizmos as a waste of money, focusing instead on free or cheap enrichment activities.

The book explains that the first three years of life are absolutely crucial in the development of intelligence and future success, to the point that the author recommends economizing on preschool and grade school in favor of spending more effort/time on your infant/toddler. While the brain is able to change and develop throughout life, these early years are so crucial that if something goes wrong, the damage may be long-lasting and irreversible. As a parent, this is kind of a heavy responsibility; on the other hand, if I put in the effort now, then little R will be set for life in a very real way.

The important elements for making your child smarter are three: Attention (both from you, and training the child in focusing); Bonding (meaning affection and love); and Communication (meaning talking and reading to your child; for older children she also recommends music classes). Specific recommendations include:


  • No (or very little) TV for this age group: it is especially important to avoid all violent, aggressive or scary content. Shows should be low-key and on the dull side (think Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood).
  • Focus your undivided attention on your child for some period each day: this means no phone, TV or other distractions. 
  • Make sure the child has 'downtime' or time to do nothing; watching media does not count. Being bored is OK.
  • A child should have lots of playtime, both with an adult, and alone: this playtime should follow the child's lead (what they want to do) and does not need to be obviously educational (games like peekaboo, chase or fantasy play are recommended).
  • Learning should always be fun, and its tasks should be manageable (she recommends only doing things that they can succeed at 90% of the time).Anything scholastically-based is a bad idea for babies/toddlers (flashcards, Baby Einstein, etc.).


  • You cannot spoil a child with too much affection or love. More is always better.
  • Respond to your baby/toddler as often as possible in a positive manner. Ignoring them is harmful and can permanently injure their brain.
  • Design your baby's life to prevent as much stress as possible, by adopting a routine, being consistent, and soothing them back to calmness whenever they are upset.
  • Pet your baby constantly; the author also recommends baby massage for at least 15 minutes/day.
  • Your baby should passionately love all her/his childcare providers. You want them to bond closely, even if this makes you jealous.


  • The number and variety of words a baby hears is directly correlated to future IQ. You should talk to your baby constantly, either in conversation, by pointing out and naming objects, or just by narrating your actions. 
  • It doesn't matter what language the baby hears (or if he/she hears several). The important thing is hearing something.
  • Hearing language from media does not count and is not helpful to speech development. It must be personal interaction only.
  • Read to your child constantly, ideally several times a day (each time can be for just 5 minutes though). 
  • Encourage your child to explore books, by getting sturdy, non destructible ones and placing them in places the child can access independently. 
  • Point out text in their surroundings to older toddlers, like logos and signs. Understanding the use of symbols (like for McDonald's golden arches) is the first step towards reading.
  • Receiving training in the violin or piano makes children smarter, so it's a good idea for older children (3+).

I found the recommendations interesting and helpful. They made me a little sad though, because so few children experience all of them. The thought of millions of children rapidly becoming stupider because their parents are too ignorant, busy or stressed-out to raise them properly is very disheartening.

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