Brain Rules for Baby

How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five

By: John Medina

Published: 2010

Read: 2020


What does it take to raise a happy, smart kid with a decent moral compass? The answer is simple: lead a healthy and social life.

During pregnancy, the book’s focus is mostly on leading a healthy life. The best way to help a baby’s brain develop is for the mother to eat well, exercise moderately and avoid stress.

After the baby is born, the focus switches from health to social as the book explores how to raise a happy, smart and moral kid.

For “smart”, the biggest priority is creating a learning environment that is safe, stable and stress-free. Parents ideally maintain good social relationships and praise their kids for effort, not outcome, encouraging curiosity, exploration and learning from mistakes.

For “happy”, the focus is on helping kids develop social skills: how to make friends and how to be good a friend. The best way to achieve this is by helping kids build empathy and by helping them regulate the impact of emotions on their behavior (impulse control).

For “moral”, it’s about establishing clear social rules and boundaries, explaining them and “enforcing” them in a fair and consistent manner (praise and punishment).

Worth Reading

A practical parenting guide sharing simple solutions that seem to work in real life. The book’s core claim may be that parenting is all about developing brains, but that’s not really what this book is about. It doesn’t bother going much go into the science of brain development, nor does it lean heavily on brain related research. And that is probably a good thing.

The book uses a simple and compelling framework to build its parenting approach around: how to be or to develop a healthy and social individual. Using a mixture of common sense and social science findings, its lessons are simple, convincing and powerful.

Key Takeaways

  • Build empathy.
    • Understanding the motivations of others improves predicting their behavior.
      • Removes perceptual asymmetry: what I do well = character, what the other does well = luck.
      • Leads to better social interactions and less conflicts.
      • Doesn’t require solving problems, only understanding them.
      • Improves with time and practice.
      • Helps to develop trust, long-term relationships.
  • Develop emotional regulation.
    • Regulating the behavioral impact of emotions.
      • Emotions filter our perception and drive our behavior.
      • It is difficult to change emotions.
      • It may be easier to change the behavioral response to emotions.
      • Less: reflexively acting on emotions.
      • More: regulating behavior given social context.
  • Grow discipline.
    • Setting clear and simple rules and values.
      • Explain them.
      • Apply them consistently (rewards and punishments).
      • Provide fast feedback.
  • Encourage learning: curiosity.
    • Praising effort, not outcome.
      • Effort = sustained focus.
      • Develop interests -> develop focus -> develop sustained focus.
      • Interplay of effort, curiosity, impulse control, delayed gratification allows for learning (from mistakes).
  • Encourage learning: imitation.
    • Learning is primarily a social, relational exercise.

Key Parenting Takeaways

  • Pregnancy: stay healthy (especially second half).
    • Eat well, exercise moderately, reduce stress.
  • Parenting: lower stress between partners.
    • Maximize sleep.
    • Reduce social isolation.
    • Share workload.
  • Parenting: early years.
    • Breast-feed for a year.
    • Talk to your baby.
    • No screens (before age 2).
  • Parenting: later years.
    • Open-ended play.
    • Praise effort, not outcome.
    • Selective screen time.
    • Avoid sedentary life style.
    • Demanding, but warm parenting style.
    • Track, acknowledge and verbalize emotions, empathize.
    • Clear, consistent rules and rewards (explain).

Key Concepts


  • Parenting is about brain development.
  • Brain has a need for:
    • Self (survival and adaptation)
    • Others (social animals).
  • Parenting research is spotty.
    • Every kid is different.
    • Every parent is different.
    • Kids are influenced by others.
    • Correlation yes, causation perhaps.
    • Behavior is complicated.
  • Knowing how kids behave and how their behavior changes over time is the only way to discover what will and will not work.


  • First half: do nothing.
    • Brain is being formed, no need to do anything.
    • Neurogenesis: embryonic cells being turned into neurons.
  • Second half: eat, exercise, low stress.
    • Baby becomes more sensitive to outside world stimuli.
    • Synaptogenesis: neurons migrate and start to wire together (83% of it happens after birth).
    • Senses develop: reception before perception.
      • First reception: neurons connect to senses (response to stimulation).
      • Then perception: neurons connect to command centers (awareness of perception).
    • Goldilocks effect: biology of brain development.
      • Just Right principle: homeostasis is best served by balance (not too much, not too little).
    • Four things to aid baby’s brain development.
      • Gain proper weight: larger babies are smarter babies.
      • Balanced diet: veggies, folic acid, omega-3
      • Avoid, reduce stress: avoid frequent stressors, severe stress, lack of control.
      • Exercise in moderation.

Parents: stable relationships

  • Parenthood drives parental stress:
    • Sleep loss.
      • Mood changes, cognitive changes, physiological changes.
      • Irritability, lower ability to regulate emotions.
    • Social isolation.
    • Unequal workload.
    • Depression
  • Parental conflicts: stress = baby stress.
    • Strong attachment to parents.
      • Baby’s brain: survival -> stability, safety.
      • Stability, safety -> attachment to parents.
      • Lack of stability, safety affects brain development.
    • Imitation.
      • Kids may not listen, but they are very good at imitating (bad behavior).
  • Source of conflicts: perceptual asymmetries.
    • Imbalance between:
      • What you know about your own feelings and behavior:
        • Influenced by changing conditions and constraints.
      • What you deduce the other person’s feelings and behavior:
        • Inherent to their (unchangeable) personality traits.
  • Lower conflicts: empathy
    • More symmetry = less hostility.
      • Affect detection: detect change in other’s emotions or mood.
      • Imaginative transposition: trying on the other’s changed feelings.
      • Boundary formation: realizing that the emotion is happening to the other person.
      • See also cognitive empathy (“EconTalk – Paul Bloom“).
  • Increasing empathy: doesn’t require a solution, only understanding.
    • Step 1: describe emotions you see.
    • Step 2: guess where emotional change comes from.

Smart baby – seeds (nature).

  • Nature.
    • Genetic influence on development of the brain.
  • Intelligence.
    • Limitations of IQ and IQ tests as measurements of intelligence.
  • Components of intelligence.
    • Crystallized intelligence.
      • Ability to record information.
      • Memory systems of the brain.
    • Fluid intelligence.
      • Adapt information to unique situations.
      • Recall, recombine, learn, adapt.
  • Ingredients of intelligence.
    • Desire to explore.
      • Ideas -> experience -> predictions -> tests -> adjust ideas.
      • Associate, asking questions, what-if, tinker and experiment.
    • Self-control.
    • Creativity.
    • Verbal communication.
      • Requires information-rich personal stimulation.
      • Learning is primarily a relational exercise.
    • Non-verbal communication.

Smart baby – soil (nurture)

  • Brain is geared towards survival.
    • Any learning is aimed at (more efficient) survival.
  • So, safety first.
    • Environment of safety allows child to learn (other things).
  • Start with these brain boosters.
    • Breast-feed for a year.
    • Talk to your baby (start early).
    • Open-ended play.
      • Mature dramatic play (Tools of the Mind).
      • Learn how to regulate social behaviors (agree on rules, role play, etc.)
    • Praise effort, not intelligence or outcome.
      • Willingness to focus and sustain that focus.
      • Impulse control, delayed gratification.
      • Learn from mistakes.
  • And avoid these.
    • External influences drive internal behavior.
      • Experience -> expectations -> behavior.
      • Before age 2: no.
      • After age 2: selective (see “Prepared”).
    • Sedentary lifestyle.

Happy baby – seeds (nature)

  • Best predictor of happiness: friends.
    • Relationships with other people.
    • Haidt: evolved to live in intensely social groups (Happiness Hypothesis).
  • So, help kids make friends.
    • Emotional regulation.
      • Emotions: filter what we perceive, pay attention to and drive how we behave.
      • Need to learn how to regulate behavior given social context.
        • Not reflexively acting on emotions.
    • Empathy.
      • Perceive the needs of others and respond.
        • Understand the other’s psychological interior.
        • Understand the other’s reward and punishment system.
        • Respond with kindness and understanding.
      • Develop trust, long-term stable relationships.
  • May be constrained by genetics.
    • Happiness has a genetic starting point.
      • Temperament.
        • May be fairly fixed, innate.
        • Characteristic way of responding emotionally and behaviorally to external events
      • Personality.
        • Based on temperament.
        • Develops over time.
        • More mutable.
      • Tendencies, not destinies.

Happy baby – soil (nurture)

  • Process of attachment.
    • Building a reciprocal emotional relationship.
    • Understanding what the other has an emotional reaction to and responding accordingly.
    • Takes time.
  • Watch, listen, respond.
    • Understand the emotional lives of children.
    • Ability to detect, react to, promote and provide instruction about emotional regulation
  • Ingredients.
    • Demanding, but warm parenting style.
      • Explain rules and values, encourage independence, communicate.
    • Emotions.
      • Track.
      • Acknowledge.
        • Emotions: no judgment.
        • Behavior: acknowledge that it can be emotional, reflexive.
        • Behavior can become a choice, emotions not so much.
      • Verbalize.
        • Soothing effect on nervous system.
        • Kids may feel emotions before they are able to talk about them.
        • Labeling them allows for self-soothing.
      • Empathize.

Moral baby

  • Morals.
    • Set of value laden behaviors.
    • Embraced by a group.
    • Function is to guide social behavior.
  • Moral development.
    • Make the “right” choices.
    • Withstand pressure to make the “wrong” choices.
    • Even in the absence of a credible threat or in the presence of a reward.
    • Internal sense of right and wrong.
      • [That is aligned with the social group’s sense of right and wrong].
    • Develops over time, needs guidance.
      • Requires emotional regulation, executive function.
      • Emotional reaction -> judgment, logical processing, behavioral decision.
    • Helping to develop moral awareness.
      • Clear, consistent rules and rewards.
      • Swift punishment (and praise).
      • Rules that are explained (consequences of bad actions).

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