Dr. Sarah (00:02):
Ever wonder what psychologist moms talk about when we get together, whether we’re consulting one another about a challenging case or one of our own kids, or just leaning on each other when parenting feels hard. Because trust me, even when we do this for a living, it’s still hard. Joining me each week in these special Thursday shows are two of my closest friends, both moms, both psychologists, they’re the people I call when I need a sounding board. These are our unfiltered answers to your parenting questions. We’re letting you in on the conversations the three of us usually have behind closed doors. This is Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions.
Hi everyone. I’m so glad you guys are here. So today’s question is from a listener who DMed me on Instagram to ask this. She said, “Hi, Dr. Bren. I’m aware that the first three years of a baby’s life is a critical time for brain development, and you often hear people say that parents should expose their children to a variety of experiences. Do you speak anywhere about what types of experiences to focus on? Do these experiences have to be extravagant or does daily life account for it?” So I think this is such a great question and I’m really excited that we’re going to tackle it.
Before we do, I just want to remind everyone listening, if you haven’t yet, please go ahead and leave a podcast review wherever you’re streaming Securely Attached. Your ratings and your reviews make a really big impact, and I just super appreciate you taking the time to leave a review for us. Okay, so of course joining me again are fellow psychologists and moms and my friends Dr. Emily Upshur and Dr. Rebecca Hershberg. So Emily, why don’t you kick it off? What should we get started by talking a little bit about brain development in the beginning of life?
Dr. Emily (01:55):
Well, I mean, when I heard this question I was thinking, wow, there’s so many ways you can go with this, right? There’s so many avenues we can take this. And I think what’s most important is in something I say all the time is you don’t always have to create something really new and exciting. Life is lived in the mundane, and I think there are great ways you can help your child’s brain development with your just day-to-day interactions. Children’s brains at this age are, they’re sponges. They’re going to respond to so much of what’s going on in their environment, but also so much of that is what’s right in front of them, which is you, right? You’re the parent. You’re the one who’s leading a lot of that. So I think that’s sort of the place I always like to start, which is what’s happening between moms and their kids or parents and their kids and how they’re reflecting that in each interaction is a big part of how to start with that.
Dr. Sarah (02:47):
Yeah. Rebecca, where, where’s your sort of standing starting point when you’re thinking about this idea that our brain deel development is a huge that we want to be thinking about as psychologists, right? But do par parents probably need a little bit of a baseline foundational understanding of what is happening in a child’s brain at different points in development?
Dr. Rebecca (03:14):
Yeah, I, so I have found the best resource for this, and it’s where I go over and over again, is the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, which I don’t know the website offhand, but if you Google that, it will come up. And Jack Schoff is the head of that, and he’s the one who coined the idea, which is a hundred percent science based of serve and return, which is a tennis analogy, obviously, but that what babies all the way through young kids, adolescents, humans need is sort of this serve and return type of exchange if you serve a ball as a baby that your caregiver is going to return that ball. And it might be that that’s when an infant says like that, you look at them and you say, ah, see the sort of baby mothery talking. It can be, again, it’s this idea that you are interacting on a social level with your facial expressions, with your body language in a way that is attuned to your child.
And as Emily said, wonderfully well, that can be in the mundane. That can be walking down the street and naming the different colors of the cars that you’re passing or when you’re making your child food, talking about the steps that you’re taking. And then again, if they’re pre-verbal and they start making noises, you’re sort of talking even though it doesn’t make sense. And if they’re have, they have language and they say, I don’t want that. You can return that with you don’t want this. So just really narrative reflective serves and returns. And that analogy and concept is something that I talk about with parents all the time and where I start when we want to think really simply and concretely about how brains develop.
Dr. Emily (05:13):
I love that. And I think the serve and return terminology that I use is often mirroring. There’s a little bit of, you show me something, my child shows me something and I reflect it right back to them. And it’s mostly most authentic sense. So even if it’s just to Rebecca, your point, if it’s a coup or a sound or a experimentation with words or other sort of body, gross body movements, spine motor movements, it’s nice to do a little bit of that mirroring right back to them. And you’re right. I think if we go down to the basics of how to build great brain connections, that’s really where it starts.
Dr. Sarah (05:54):
And I think it’s very important to understand a little bit about the human brain when we’re thinking about child development and that the human brain is very social, hardwired to be always scanning other human people in the environment. And even from weeks, days old, an infant will stare longer at a image of facial features in the correct sort of order versus facial features that are randomly placed on a card because, and that’s like, that’s not learned, that’s biologically hardwired. We are looking at faces longer. Our brains are just wired to be attending to these social cues in our environment to determine, am I safe or am I not right? And this is part of the attachment theory. We born from this, the moment we’re born hardwired to form these attachments to these people, these caregivers that are going to keep us safe and help us have a higher chance of survival.
And so when we’re thinking about, well, what’s brain development? Yes, we want to talk about gross motor and fine motor and cognitive skills and executive functioning skills. All that’s super important. But the best way to facilitate learning any of those things is relationally through that sense, that felt sense of safety, that awareness of this safe person is here to be my secure base, and with that presence of the secure base, I can then go and explore and experiment and work on developing all these other skills. So I think both of you made this sort of point implicitly that when you’re talking about serve and return or mirroring, that, that’s a dynamic exchange between two people, the child and the parent. It’s I’m giving my child these really awesome toys that are going to teach them all these fantastic skills, and they will be, or I’m going to take them to all these experiences so that they have all this enrichment and then their brains will be 10 steps ahead. It’s really not about the stuff, it’s about the relationships that kind of contain the stuff.
Dr. Rebecca (08:27):
I had a supervisor say to me at some point, and it was just so perfectly simple, and I repeated it gazillion times, which is that if a child feels safe, a child will explore. And if a child explores, a child learns, which just sort of hammers out just how foundational that feeling of safety is, and explore may mean for a baby picking something up and putting it in its mouth, and they’re not going to do that unless they’re getting those social cues from their caregiver that it’s safe to do that, right? Exploring then as you get older, gets more and more complicated in the steps. But same thing at a playground. A child is not going to go explore with their peers in the sandbox if they haven’t gotten kind of the cue from their parent that it’s safe to do that. And then once they go explore, they learn they have more experiences with all their senses, with their E, everything that then contributes to the cognitive development that so often parents want to prioritize.
So when I give talks a lot of the time to preschool parents or preschool teachers, it’s like everybody’s sort of like, when is my child going to learn to read? When is my child going to learn to do math? Does my child need to know math in order to get into this kindergarten and then so on and so forth? And your child needs to feel safe because you can’t even get to this idea of learning to read until your child feels safe. And when we say safe, we obviously are privileged enough not to mean literal physical safety, although of course that’s always important as well, but safe to be in the world and make their noises and explore what they’re going to explore and see what they’re going to see knowing that they have loving caregivers there. If that second piece isn’t there, that learning just never happens and that’s why you see it.
Well, I was going to go off on a tangent and talk about the correlations between learning challenges and trauma and so on and so forth. The impact of your early caregiving experiences are what literally shape your brain. And so you do see, for example, children who have experienced abuse at young ages, the parts of their brain devoted to learning and memory are actually smaller than the parts of their brain devoted to fear and aggression because there’s a finite number of neural connections that can be made and it sort of use it or lose it. And so it really is, I mean, again, I’m going to, I’m getting passionate, so I’m speaking less clearly, but it really is, it’s foundational. It’s not, I’ve talked so much about this. It’s not just touchy feely psychologists sitting around saying, oh, kids need to feel emotionally safe. Let’s all like, no, it’s science. It literally shapes the structures in your brain, that feeling of safety and those feelings of attachment.
Dr. Sarah (11:23):
And is a precursor and a almost prerequisite, I should say, to learning. You cannot learn unless your prefrontal cortex is engaged. You can’t make meaning of the stuff coming in and stored in a way that you can recall it in a useful way if you are in a threat response, if you are not feeling safe, if you are, your prefrontal cortexes is not on, you can’t learn. And so I think we’re all kind of saying the same thing, which is like, okay, this person’s asking, what do you do to expose your kids to these experiences? And what experiences do you want to expose your kid for this window of critical brain development in the first three years? And that’s a good question, but before you can answer that question, you have to understand that whatever you expose your kid to has to happen in the context of a relationship that feels safe and also has a attunement.
This idea, you can sign your kid up for music class and art classes and all kinds of fun things, and that’s fine. Totally great. Nothing wrong with that, although I do caution parents against overscheduling young kids, but I think we want to remember zero to three developmentally what is a enriching experience for them? And it might not necessarily be a ton of organized activities because that’s not really what a three year, a zero to three year old’s brain is needing. Those sort of structural things. I guess I’m curious what you guys think about the enrichment classes, like the what after we sort of established the how.
Dr. Emily (13:16):
I was going to say, I think the fundamental thread through all of that is if you are thinking, okay, well my kid feels pretty safe, I really think we have a nice attachment. I feel pretty attuned to my kid. I think curiosity is the thread that then extends that a little bit more. And sure, that could be in enrichment class if that’s something you’re very interested in personally as a parent, that’s always a nice thing to share. But I think being curious about whatever you’re doing in each of those discreet moments is more of the learning that happens. So each child is able to, a parent can follow your child’s lead on what the things that they’re curious about is and be equally curious with them. And I think that can help sort of enrich that experience for any child and any experience that they have.
Everybody knows that children get a present and they play in the box. They’re frustrated because their kid’s not playing with the toy, they’re sitting in the box. And I think that’s a perfect example of what we’re sort of talking about in terms of we can spend a lot of time on the wrapping and all of those things and what’s inside, but some of the simplicity of B screening, really curious about what’s happening and the imaginary play and meeting your child where they are and being curious about what’s happening in their internal world is the growth.
Dr. Rebecca (14:47):
I think I was going to mention the box too, or just a pot and a spoon can be hours of play right there. But I think the other example that occurs to me, and it was something that happened to me with my son, although I’ve seen it with many kids, but we were going to the playground when he was a toddler and he stopped on our lawn on the way to our car and wanted to look at acorns. And I found myself saying, no, we got to go to the car, we got to go to the playground around the way, as opposed to he we’re not going to the doctor, we were going to the playground. Same thing, you’re going to an enrichment class, but if your child wants to stop and look at the acorns, they’re learning if you slow down and join them in that sort of attuned way to look at the acorns with them and talk about how cool acorns are.
Totally. So again, it’s not the what by all means, make your way to that enrichment class. But if you find that you’re sort of anxious about getting there or that you’re kind of rushing your child through other things to get there, maybe it’s because that’s your priority more than where they are in that moment. If that’s a conscious thing, like Emily said, if you have a real interest in this subject or if you’re doing it with another family because you really need social support and you see other moms there, great. But again, then just let’s be aware of that and own that as the reason that we’re doing it. I’m doing mommy and me music classes because of the mommy part, which is important, but different.
Dr. Sarah (16:24):
And I think it’s interesting when you’re talking about enrichment classes and what’s the function for me right now, for example, I have a three-year-old daughter and she wanted to do dance, so we signed up for dance, and she has, sometimes she feels a little anxious around separations. And so one of the things that I’ve realized this dance class has now become is less about dance and more of an exercise in separating. And I am tolerating that it sometimes takes her. The first day we went, it took her 20 minutes to go into the dance class, and then the next week it was 15 minutes and then it was 10 minutes, and now she’s going in and she’s doing it. But if I had this sort of idea, this sort of fixed idea that the goal of dance class was for her to learn this dance stuff and get enriched, have this enriched experience of learning this skill and doing this task, and I had a hard time seeing the value in allowing for the 20 minutes to took her to get into that class and separate from me, and then seeing the value of that class initially being an exorcist in separation rather than an exercise in learning dance, it would’ve been a lot more challenging for me, I think to tolerate that and to see be like, well, look, if you’re not going to do this, I’m not going to pay for dance classes because it feels like a very expensive exercise in separation.
We could do that somewhere else, but now she’s able to do the dance. And so I think we also want to think what are the many possible functions of these enrichment experiences and maybe perhaps some of the function is the task at hand or learning that skill. And some of it is some of the other learning that happens in those moments as well.
Dr. Emily (18:17):
Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense. I think being really clear on what our goals are for that in enrichment is a really important piece of that. And I love that example, Sarah, about your daughter, because I think that that happens quite often having to shift our sets. And that really does relate right back to what we were talking about before with brain development that’s still enriching your brain working on separation. And so I think that solidifying down what are my goals and what am I looking at? And again, it’s following your child’s lead though. It’s a little bit of the serve and receive that Rebecca was talking about earlier and the mirroring that other language of mirroring is sort of meet you, meet your child where they are, be curious and be open to the different types of development that might be occurring then.
Dr. Sarah (19:10):
And I do think along those lines, this woman who asked the question was, do these experiences have to be extravagant? These variety of experiences that someone’s saying that we have to have our kids give access to our children or does daily life account for it? And I cannot be more emphatic that daily life is just chock-full of the potential for very, very rich learning experiences, relationally gross motor problem solving, sensory sensory integration. All of it happens in daily life, and it’s wonderful to sign up for a class. And I don’t, again, I have nothing against classes and activities, but I definitely think parents, so often I feel like I spend time when I’m working with families to reorient them, to shifting their view of what’s our goal with skill acquisition and learning about one’s self and relationship to others and mind body connection and all this stuff can happen. It kind of happens all the time anywhere. And it’s more about us slowing down and taking a moment to notice it’s happening in our daily life and creating these opportunities to reflect on it when it’s happening with our kids. Be like, oh yeah, I’m, I’m going to make dinner right now. Do you want to help me get the plates out? Can you help me put the plates on the table? And being able to give kids these opportunities to learn and solve problems within daily life, I think is unendingly valuable and free.
Dr. Emily (21:00):
And also I think I’m always very cautious to not overburden parents. I think parent, this parent is trying really hard and there’s so many ways that you don’t have to add more to add value. And I think that’s sort of what you’re speaking to.
Dr. Sarah (21:16):
Absolutely. And I think ki kids are very hardwired, just like they’re hardwired to form a relationship with their attachment figures. They’re hardwired to learn. I know everyone who’s listening probably knows that I’m a big fan of the rye parenting philosophy, but one of the things that Magda Gerber, like the woman who sort of created this pedagogy is says, do less enjoy more like the allow children to, when we overschedule kids and fill in all the time with the sort of stuff of learning, there isn’t as much time for them to learn because children learn through play and they learn best through self-directed play and especially zero to three. And so I think recognizing that I would wait honestly on a lot of enrichment classes until after zero to three because I think kids can engage in those actually a little bit more effectively at those ages.
I think zero to three, your kid is going to, don’t underestimate the value of an infant playing with their hands and allowing them and not interrupting that and allowing them to have that. That’s play right. And recognizing what play is in zero to three year olds, especially in infancy. It doesn’t always look like what we think it’s supposed to look like, and yet it’s there and it’s happening. And if we can start to notice it more and appreciate it and interrupt it less and provide space for it, I think we might start to appreciate a lot of the sort of micro moments of learning these kids are having all by themselves.
Dr. Rebecca (23:07):
Yeah. No, Sarah, I couldn’t agree more. I think that parents are trying really hard to weed through a lot of what feels like conflicting information, and your child is going to be happy banging a spoon on a pot and so sucks. If that’s all you can get to today, then you’re doing a great job because your child’s going to be happy and you smile at them when they smile at you. And honestly, what we’re saying is that that’s the foundational piece.
Dr. Sarah (23:34):
A amazing, couldn’t agree with you more. Thank you guys so much for coming on. I love talking with you. I love hearing your thoughts on all these beautiful ways of looking at parenthood and the brain and that serve and return is like, yeah, I think that’s just, it’s not so much what we do, it’s how we do it. So let that be something good to take away from this episode because I feel like parents feel so much pressure to do all the things and like, eh, you can do less. You can do so much less, but do it with presence and intention and you’ll be good. All right, thanks so much.
(24:12):Thank you so much for listening. As you can hear, parenting is not one size fits all. It’s nuanced and it’s complicated. So I really hope that this series where we’re answering your questions really helps you to cut through some of the noise and find out what works best for you and your unique child. If you have a burning parenting question, something you’re struggling to navigate or a topic you really want us to shed light on or share research about, we want to know, go to drsarahbren.com/question to send in anything that you want, Rebecca, Emily, and me to answer in this new series Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions. That’s drsarahbren.com/question. And check back for a brand new securely attached next Tuesday. And until then, don’t be a stranger.
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