Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina – Book Review

Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five by John Medina
Published by Pear Press

As a (now former) teacher and a math/science nerd, my husband has a significant fascination with brain-based learning research, thus it was only natural that he read John Medina’s Brain Rules, followed by his Brain Rules for Baby. When we found out that we are expecting this summer (before we learned that we are expecting twins), he pulled Brain Rules for Baby off of his shelf and stuck it at the top of my TBR pile, then proceeded to pester me about it any time he saw me reading anything else at all.

Here’s the publisher’s description of exactly what the book is about:

What’s the single most important thing you can do during pregnancy? What does watching TV do to a child’s brain? What’s the best way to handle temper tantrums? Scientists know.

In his New York Times bestseller Brain Rules, Dr. John Medina showed us how our brains really work—and why we ought to redesign our workplaces and schools. Now, in Brain Rules for Baby, he shares what the latest science says about how to raise smart and happy children from zero to five. This book is destined to revolutionize parenting. Just one of the surprises: The best way to get your children into the college of their choice? Teach them impulse control.

Brain Rules for Baby bridges the gap between what scientists know and what parents practice. Through fascinating and funny stories, Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and dad, unravels how a child’s brain develops – and what you can do to optimize it.

I am very conflicted as to how I felt about Brain Rules for Baby. On the one hand, it is full of fascinating and potentially helpful information for parents to understand how their children’s brains work and how their choices can influence their children’s brain development. On the other hand, it often comes off as if Medina is talking down to parents and Holy Mother of Metaphors is it ever overwritten. As far as the talking down, I don’t think that this was a purposefully disparaging move on Medina’s part. As a developmental molecular biologist he clearly needed to phrase things in layman’s terms to make it accessible to most parents, but I think he underestimated the education of parents who would be interested in a book on brain-based learning and parenting and often oversimplified or over-explained.

The overwriting may also be a symptom of Medina’s not knowing exactly how to approach the audience of this book. The main problem with his prose (there may have been others, but this one drove me so to distraction that it was all I could do at times to glean the important information he was presenting, syntax and the like were beyond me at that point) is his severe overuse on metaphors. There is a general, overarching gardening metaphor that in and of itself could be quite useful, and might of been had he primarily stuck to that. Instead, he seemed to just use whatever metaphor presented itself first for any general topic – at times I counted up to four discrete metaphors on a single page. In addition, many of the metaphors used are not particularly edifying, but instead add an additional layer that needs parsing, such the explanation, below, of the workings of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex:

This is oversimplified, but think of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex as the Golden Gate Bridge, connecting San Francisco (emotions) to its northern neighbor, Marin County (just the facts, Ma’am). Here’s how some scientists think the traffic generally flows:

  1. An emotional reaction occurs. When a child’s brain is confronted with a moral dilemma, San Francisco is alerted first. The child’s deep, mostly unconscious circuitry generates an emotional reaction – a Post-it note.
  2. The signal is carried across the bridge. That message is spirited across the VMPFC, the cellular Golden Gate connecting lower and higher centers of the brain.
  3. Fact centers analyze it and decide what to do. The signal arrives at the neuroanatomical equivalent of Marin County. The child’s brain reads the note and makes up its mind about what to do. It judges right from wrong, critical from trvial, necessary from elective, and ultimately lands upon some behavioral course of action. The decision is executed.
    – p. 233-234

That reference to a Post-it note comes from a metaphor Medina utilizes earlier in the chapter. I really think he’s making this much wordier and more complicated than it needs to be. Perhaps he feels that the metaphor makes it easier to remember, which might be the case if they were used sparingly and if they were much simpler, but in this case it simply distracted me from what he was really trying to get across.

Now, I don’t want the writing issues to completely overshadow the fact that Brain Rules for Baby really is chock full of interesting and useful information about the brain development of children in utero to about five years old. There is enough good stuff here that I would tentatively recommend it to parents of small children interested in developing their parenting style around brain-based research, but I wouldn’t ever pick it up just to learn fun and interesting new things, because of the annoyances of the writing.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Personal copy.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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3 comments to Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina – Book Review

  • I’m not sure about this one. I’m fascinated by the way a child’s brain works. I’ve been doing in-home day care for 18 years and most my kiddos are 5 and under so needless to say I talk a lot about how little brains are dong big things. But there’s something about this one the just doesn’t shout out to me. Thanks for such an insightful review.

  • I’m on my second round of listening to this on audio and I’m loving it so much that it was interesting to read your lukewarm review. Maybe the problems you have with it don’t come across in the narration? He’s the narrator of the audiobook and does a fantastic job.