Recent studies of intelligence and neuroscience can aid parents in nurturing their children.
Claudia Wadzinski is the PTC’s Grassroots Chapter Director in Nashville, Tennessee, and has an interest and expertise in neuroscience and child development. While this piece is not directly related to PTC’s mission of advocating for responsible entertainment, we believe it provides useful information to parents, and are pleased to publish it for that reason.
Our country is struggling to respond to epidemic violence and a spectrum of mental health challenges. There are multiple fronts on both these battles; but one thing we can all agree on is that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
In her book 8 Great Smarts, Kathy Koch, Ph.D., says positive and negative behavior are often related to the different kinds of “smarts” possessed by individuals. Understanding these “smarts” gives us constructive insight into the way our “smarts” influence the way we process emotions, and and how they influence the way we interact with others. 8 Great Smarts is a practical distillation of the theory of “multiple intelligence,” which can be used to train children to use their differing kinds of “smarts” to help, not hurt, others.
Dr. Howard Gardner, the father of the theory of “multiple intelligence,” determined that everyone is born with each of the eight distinct intelligences, which have to be awakened. Gardner rejected the “either/or” scenario of “inherited” versus “learned” dichotomy, and stressed the interaction of both nature (genetic makeup) and nurture (lived experience and exposure to attitudes that surround and influence us). Koch has added that our eight intelligences rarely work alone, but nearly always work together. Koch insists that “smart” is a “power word;” if one believes that others are smart and oneself is not, basic needs may not be met. This can alter healthy development, and imperil necessary feelings of belonging, purpose, security, and identity.
Koch defines the “8 Great Smarts” as:
Word Smart: Thinking with words, talking to think, and sharing opinions. In this “smart,” language is power. Much of traditional classroom learning involves “word smart” skills. This is referred to as being “school smart.”
Logic Smart: Thinking with questions. Reactions either increase logic or shut it down.
Body Smart: Thinking with movement and touch. Many children diagnosed with ADHD are actually “body smart.”
Picture Smart: Thinking with pictures. Visual learners remember what they see, and use drawing to calm down. Often have a keen sense of humor.
Music Smart: Thinking with rhythms and melodies. Unconsciously connect everything with music, find joy in it, and want to share it with the world. Often tap their fingers, hum, whistle, and sing to reflect their internal emotions.
Nature Smart: Thinking in patterns, with a natural inclination, passion, and connection to the outdoors and animals. Often become negative and irritable if they are inside too long.
People Smart: Thinking with people. Connecting to others is powerful. Talk is often spontaneous, in response to their joy of discovery of others, and an automatic desire to exchange thoughts.
Self Smart: Thinking with reflection. Often shy and quiet, but know themselves well, and can have an intense struggle with internal conflict that can manifest in mental health issues if they do not understand their own “smarts.” Often utilize outlets of expression like writing or journalling.
If these “smarts” are awakened and nurtured in children in a healthy and age-appropriate way, they will likely develop into strengths. However, negative factors like abuse, poverty, neglect, age-inappropriate exposure (for example, sex and violence – these are especially destructive when combined), substance use or abuse (medications, alcohol, marijuana, et cetera), or illness can arrest physical, emotional, and spiritual development. Subconscious imprinting binds with the unconscious release of powerful chemicals, like the stress hormone cortisol, norepinephrine, and others, that can initiate a “fight or flight” response and literally shut off parts of the brain in adults and alter or impede healthy development in children. What we feed is what will grow.
The brain is the control center for the entire body; and neurons that fire together wire together. Chemicals are unconsciously released throughout the body and create the physiological response to all our experiences. Optimally, the brain develops physically and emotionally in age-specific order. Dysfunction can result if the brain is stimulated in the wrong way, at the wrong time, or both. For example, premature sexualization awakens a powerful and increasingly insatiable dopamine-driven appetite. This can grow and overpower the sympathetic nervous system, literally altering the physical and chemical release, growth, and brain development in an adult. This is especially toxic to an emerging adolescent brain via the process of synaptic “shedding” and “pruning,” and neuroplasticity (the brain’s continuous building).
The brain is extremely efficient; it is also the body’s biggest sex organ. The average age for a child being sexualized by pornography is now ten years old — before puberty or frontal lobe maturity. This easily makes porn the #1 form of child sexual abuse, as it wires and re-wires the brain. Autopsies on “shooters” reveal missing or damaged frontal lobes. The frontal lobe controls reasoning, risk-taking, impulse control, and decision-making. It is the last part of the brain to develop.
Fortunately, it is never too late to awaken some parts of the brain and re-train it. Brain science has undergone a revolution in the last twenty years, and we have discovered that we are not stuck with the brain we have. We have the power to change our brain in both positive and negative ways.
Neurogenesis, neuroplasticity, and epigenetics are some of the disciplines that have revealed that the brain is always creating new connections at every age – and that our brains change, like a landscape, in response to stimulation. In the one hundred billion neurons (cells that are the brain’s conduit of information), only about 20% are “hard-wired” to a specific function. And about 80% of those neurons are formed by life experiences prior to age twenty-five. Doing something a few times typically won’t result in a firm connection. But repetitive actions, beliefs, attitudes, and exposure do result in solid, “wired” neural networks and connections, to including the manipulation of our chemical production and response system. Exercise (which can produce as much as 70% of our new neurons daily), nutrition, sleep, and sunlight have all been found to play critical roles in optimal lifelong brain management and health. Music and reading have also proven to have powerful effects on the brain.
Understanding the brain and the “smarts” results in more objective perspectives, both for parents and for children. Parents, teachers, and others should avoid language which denigrates alternative “smarts” — “Your eyes are always glued to a book” (Word Smart), “You’re always asking ‘why’ “(Logic Smart), “Why are you doodling instead of studying?” (Picture Smart), “You’re constantly moving and touching everything! Sit still!” (Body Smart), “You pay more attention to your pets instead of your homework!” (Nature Smart), “You interrupt constantly” (People Smart), “You’re always daydreaming and ignoring others” (Self Smart). Such attitudes can be altered to benefit children. For example, “Spelling is hard for me because I am stupid” spurs feelings of inferiority and defeat; “Spelling is hard for me because I am stronger in ‘Picture Smarts’ than I am in ‘Word Smarts’ ” can be empowering. Such a perspective reveals ways in which self-understanding can enable and empower the individual.
And identity impacts behavior. “People Smart” individuals crave connection, intuitively and usually unknowingly “reading” and reacting to body language, tone, stress, et cetera. If nurtured, these tendencies can grow into natural leadership abilities.
“Picture Smart” individuals are often referred to as “creative” and “artistic,” because they visualize automatically. Paralysis can occur due to technology, if such children game or scroll through screens, but are not encouraged to draw, create, and imagine.They should be encouraged to create, and understand that this is just a different way of being “smart.”
“Body Smart” individuals think with movement and touch; when they are excited they move more. School can be difficult for “Body Smart” children. Their development can be paralyzed if their movement is repeatedly met with criticism; they may never know that moving well is their way of being “smart.” And fit children sleep better, have better attention spans, and movement is important for healthy hormone stimulation.
“Self Smart” individuals think deeply and personally. Quiet, peace, privacy, and space are essential to their development. They often don’t feel “smart,” and can believe themselves to be slow thinkers. They can be hard on themselves and internalize their conflict, resulting in feelings of hopelessness and fear.
Technology can also inhibit the awakening of “Nature Smart” and “People Smart” children — the first, because children spend more time indoors with video games and other media; the second, because “virtual” forms of communication like texting and “snapping” reduce the time youngsters spend actually “face-to-face” with their peers.
We are engineered by design to be uniquely-combined masterpieces of nature and nurture through our “smarts,” and have the power to utilize them in endless combinations.
Multiple intelligence and character intersect. But strengths not harnessed can become weakness. “Word Smart” people can gossip, tease, and want the last word. And differing “smarts” don’t excuse poor choices and bad behavior. Identifying the “smart” giving birth to a behavior helps us talk wisely to children and each other. Correction is appropriate, but criticism, anger, rejection, and contempt are destructive. A child who is “Picture Smart,” but who is taught that art is irrelevant ,will believe they are not smart. Their abilities and growth may be paralyzed for a long time; but the ability is still there and can be awakened or re-awakened. Paralyzing can partially destroy security; but apologizing can cause re-awakening to begin at almost any age.
Character is relevant when intelligences aren’t strong — and may be most relevant when they are. Listening, obedience, patience, respect, self-control, and so forth should be taught alongside “smarts.” for balance. Perseverance, teachability, responsibility, and problem-solving are products of our “smarts” and how we apply ourselves. When we work hard independently and interdependently, are compassionate, humble, helpful, grateful, take responsibility, and learn time-management, cooperation, diligence, and resilience, we are “smart.”
Children’s success will always be a combination of their “smarts” and their character. When we discover and respect how children are “wired,” it affirms them and gives them an opportunity to reach their full potential.
Children are not yet adults. They do not have fully-formed physical, chemical, or emotional brain function and maturity. They lack the capacity to be held accountable and responsible legally or financially for their actions and decisions. It is destructive to their development, and to all of society, to treat them as fully-formed adults, to fail to make their protection a priority, or to systematically allow them to be exposed to media or other influences in ways that serve primarily to exploit them financially or sexually.
A better understanding of the brain and its “smarts” helps us nurture our children’s development and well-being, navigate struggles, and direct our focus toward attacking problems, instead of each other. Increasingly, this is reflected in the ways children respond. The world seems to have lost the ability to manage emotions beyond a toddler/teen mentality. If plagues of violence and mental health struggles reflect symptoms instead of being the root, and fifty percent of solving a problem begins by properly defining it, it is time we all wake up, grow up, and use our “smarts” to help our children.