Your Brain on Childhood

  • Gabrielle Principe
  • Prometheus Books
  • 356 pp.

A psychologist examines the unexpected side effects of classrooms, ballparks, family rooms and minivans.

Reviewed by Y.S. Fing

Any mother or father who reads a parenting book is likely to experience profound ambivalence. They may feel a surge of pride at receiving confirmation that they are parenting “right.” They may also feel an ebb of anxiety that they have been parenting “wrong” and that it’s too late to change course. In fact, any parent might feel this way without even reading such a book. It’s a thankless task to be a parent, and who would want to read a book about it anyway?

However, if you only read one parenting book this century, then let it be Your Brain on Childhood. Neither the pride nor the anxiety it provokes is too overwhelming, and Gabrielle Principe, chair of the department of psychology at Ursinus College, relies on non-judgmental science to make her case.

There are a few important exceptions. She castigates the toy manufacturers and marketers for warping certain scientific findings and willfully ignoring contradictory evidence. She accuses the media of playing to parents’ fears and conditioning them to irrationality. But she is gentle with her reader.

She understands that a mother’s and father’s instinct is to do what is best. But her thesis is that the human brain has not evolved for sitting in front of “educational” DVD’s and PBS programs, in playpens, classrooms and minivans for hours and hours on end. The point she makes repeatedly is that children learn by engaging their whole selves, physical as well as mental, in accumulating and synthesizing knowledge. We create passive learners, obese and unmotivated, by keeping children in the house under our control all day every day.

The scientific evidence is powerful. Principe marshals studies on the development of the pre-frontal cortex, language, emotional intelligence and joint attention (a key feature of human consciousness) to highlight that technology and homework and heavy scheduling of children’s lives is antithetical to their brains’ evolutionary expectations.

She is particularly harsh about the Baby Einstein and Baby Mozart manifestations of the infant education industry. These purportedly “educational” tools, she argues, isolate children from the social interaction that puts learning into a context in which they can understand and use what they are learning. By relying on such software, parents cram their children with information they can’t process.

And that seems to be the beginning of the modern way of parenting. Inflexible curricula and standardized testing in schools, which force children to sit indoors all day, and video games, television programs, commercials and Internet access, which flood children with useless information, teach them very little and undermine their attention by forcing what their brains are incapable of handling.

Principe is a scientist, so she doesn’t directly tie ADHD and autism to these methods of modern parenting. She does suggest that the increase of these disabilities corresponds with the trend of children spending so much of their time indoors.

The solution, of course, is to send the kids into the backyard and the neighborhood to explore and skin their knees and play pick-up games. A child’s brain has evolved to interact with nature, to learn by touching and being active. The author is at pains to get parents to “Remember that play is an activity. It’s not about the toys.” Play is where children learn. Scripted games and their narrow narratives take imagination away from play, and that, Principe insists, is a problem. Physical activity, engagement with nature, less parental guidance over play, these are the keys to returning to a natural childhood.

If you don’t take these lessons from Your Brain on Childhood, it’s not for Principe’s lack of trying. Her prose is as casual as any book you’d ever want to read. Too many sentences begin, “See…” and “Thing is ...” She lists her bugaboos so many times that one doesn’t need to refer to the book to repeat them: bouncy seats, Baby Einstein, batteries, organized sports, modern playgrounds, etc. The first half of the book consists of four chapters, and the second half is eight chapters of too much repetition. Judicious editing may be in order for a second edition.

However, Principe has struck the correct balance with her writing. She calls attention to the flaws in societal thinking without shaming the individual parent. And she urges dramatic changes in societal thinking without high-handedness. It’s really a remarkable achievement considering the inherent stress a parent feels in deciding what is “right” and what is “wrong” in how they raise their children.

Y.S. Fing, an instructor of English at a university in the D.C. area, is the author of such unpublished works as “Socialize Yourself: A Teacher’s and Student’s Guide to College-Level Composition” and “Event Horizons: Aphorisms on the Life of D. Selby Fing” (

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