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'90S FAMILY | REAL LIFE

Interaction (Not Inaction) Needed

May 04, 1997|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An April White House conference on the brain has confirmed what anyone who ever studied wire versus cloth monkey mothers already knows: The young do better if their parents and caretakers nurture them.

Exactly how and how much might startle some of those who have automatically hugged, sung, talked and read to their babies. One study from the University of Iowa has concluded that 4-year-olds whose parents talked to them more, using warm and encouraging tones, from infancy were better able to think rationally, solve problems and use abstract reasoning than others whose parents talked less. Another study showed that children who experienced positive emotional relationships were 20 times more likely to have "normal or superior intelligence" than those without them.

Scientifically speaking, neuroscientists say hearing more sounds increases the number of neurons used for listening; more touching releases hormones that grow brains. While the White House and others suggest this news has implications for common sense public policies that improve the quality of day care, it also has a familiar, somewhat anxious, ring for parents who are ever alert for ways to raise a better baby.

We have already been stimulating our children with chatter and Mozart in utero, mobiles and flashcards in the crib, and expensive educational toys for years--and not always with the best of results. One mother wrote an article describing how, as a result of her zealous parenting, she couldn't get her preteen son to stop talking.

At the same time, most parents understand it's not a good idea to leave infants alone in their cribs, trying to figure out the world on their own.

Researchers working to implement the findings of the conference suggest a middle ground where parents and caregivers focus on building a give-and-take relationship with newborns from birth on. Dr. Stanley Greenspan, clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at George Washington University Medical School, says, for instance, parents needn't talk incessantly to infants. "You have to capture the infant's attention and have a back-and-forth rhythm of sound," he said. "Simply talking or reading to a child is not nearly as good as interactive dialogue where you're making sounds and the child is making sounds back.

"The key is interaction."

As children move through developmental stages, adults can challenge them to do more and more. From birth to 3 months, adults can discover which sights and sounds, touch and movements infants prefer to keep them calm or foster their interest and attention.

From birth to 6 months, infants need at least half of each day sharing intimacy with one or two loving caregivers who will be part of the child's life for years, not just months.

From 3 months to 1 year, adults can learn to read baby's "emotional signals" and engage in give-and-take dialogues made up of smiles, frowns, funny faces and noises.

From 12 to 20 months, toddlers can be challenged to explain what they want, without words, by walking you to the refrigerator and pointing to favorite foods. Adults can share curiosity about how toys or games work as well as teach the child about discipline.

From 18 to 30 months, adults can "ham it up," playing characters in pretend dramas, or using toys, games or TV to spin off long conversations.

From 30 months and up, they can create pretend dramas with logical plots.

As time-consuming or aggravating as it may be, Greenspan also advocates engaging in debate with preschoolers over TV or bedtime. Parents who enjoy debate and children's opinions--and who can set limits--are more likely to have children who are creative, understanding, cooperative, thoughtful and sensitive to others, he said.

In general, to build a healthy relationship with a child, Greenspan said parents can try to remember not to expect more before they give more.

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Lynn Smith's column appears on Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or via e-mail at lynn.smith@latimes.com. Please include a telephone number.

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