March 09, 2017


The Toddler Brain. By Laura A. Jana, M.D. Da Capo. $27.

     Parents who bemoan the fact that children do not come with instruction manuals have not spent enough time at bookstores or book-selling Web sites. There are tons of instruction manuals out there, and while it is true that a baby does not come prepackaged with any particular one, there are so many choices that parents can easily spend all their nonexistent spare time while raising an infant reading about all the ways they should be raising an infant but probably aren’t. The objective appears to be to make parents, who likely feel inadequate in many ways already, feel even worse.

     Well, to be fair, maybe that is not the objective, but it can certainly be the result. There is just so much out there purporting to know exactly what should be done to raise the best, smartest, happiest, most well-adjusted, best-prepared-for-the-future child that parents may be forgiven for wondering how their own parents – much less grandparents – managed to get through their child-rearing years without all the perfectly reasonable and undoubtedly accurate guidebooks available today.

     While wondering, they can read a book such as The Toddler Brain – as soon as they get past a title that seems determined to make them feel even more deficient than usual. Laura Jana’s work appears to have both a subtitle and a surtitle, or subtitle and sub-subtitle, or just an attempt to cram as much information onto the title page as possible so parents can be overwhelmed even before starting the text. One subtitle reads, “Nurture the Skills Today That Will Shape Your Child’s Tomorrow,” thereby warning parents that whatever they are currently doing is probably not nurturing the right skills or not nurturing them in the proper way. The other subtitle reads, “The Surprising Science Behind Your Child’s Development from Birth to Age 5,” thereby noting that everything in The Toddler Brain is based on science and therefore to be implicitly trusted, and if you don’t get with the program right now, you risk having a child who is woefully unprepared for the world by his or her fifth birthday.

     At the foundation of Jana’s book is in fact the notion of what sort of world our children need to prepare for, and in this respect the book is both insightful and timely. Jana, a pediatrician, believes that old-fashioned linear thinking, while appropriate to the now-ending Industrial Age, is inadequate for the increasingly interconnected Information Age and for whatever age will follow it. Perhaps two-thirds of today’s toddlers, she asserts, will grow up to do jobs that do not even exist today – an intriguing statistic if by no means an unexceptionable one. Preparing today’s young ones for the latest iteration of the coming brave new world requires parents to look at and practice parenting in a completely different way from the way their parents and their parents’ parents looked at and practiced child-rearing – as if today’s parents did not feel time-pressed and hamstrung enough.

     Jana has a somewhat overly cute way of presenting her recommendations. Instead of focusing on IQ, she argues, parents need to focus on QI, which is not only IQ backwards but also, as qi, means “life force” or “energy flow” in Chinese. Jana pronounces the letters as “key” to indicate that they refer to key elements of raising a child today, but qi is actually pronounced “chee,” although it is indeed a key element in traditional Chinese medicine. In Jana’s methodology, parents seeking to give their children QI skills need to focus on seven areas: Me, We, Why, Will, Wiggle, Wobble, and What If. There is no acronym for these, but there is plenty of description. In simplest form, Me involves self-awareness and self-control; We is people skills for an increasingly team-oriented world; Why refers to questioning and curiosity; Will is self-motivation; Wiggle has to do with a kind of physical and intellectual restlessness that makes action possible; Wobble is a form of resilience that makes it easier to learn from failure; and What If involves imagining ways in which the world could change and how an individual can be part of that change. Even in this very compressed form, these QI skills seem like a tall order, and indeed they are – with today’s parents having no readily available place to turn to learn and implement them except, ahem, The Toddler Brain.

     Jana’s focus on getting infants ready for eventual entry into the business world, and specifically into a fast-changing one that may make demands of them that it never made of earlier generations, is an unusual and welcome one in parenting books. She is clearly smart and thoughtful, and her ideas are by and large intriguing ones, if somewhat curiously or even tortuously expressed. However, her expectation that time-pressed, financially insecure, sleep-deprived new parents will be able to absorb an entirely new way of thinking about raising infants and then take steps to implement the method is wholly unreasonable. The Toddler Brain is actually a good book for pre-parenting: people considering having a child in the next several years and looking for a guide to what to do after the child is born will find many fascinating concepts here – although even they may be hard-pressed to implement Jana’s ideas after they actually become parents. “Reading books to young children can be a way to promote just about all the QI Skills,” notes Jana at one point. Reading her book is the way to learn about those skills and get basic guidance on how to help your children or children-to-come gain them. But any way you look at it, reading and absorbing and adjusting and simply coping with everyday life will take a great deal of time that parents – especially those with children under age five – are very unlikely to possess in abundance. The unfortunate result is that people who already may feel overwhelmed by the unending demands of child-rearing may feel even more so as they absorb Jana’s views on the best way to shape a toddler’s future life.

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