Don't be surprised if your children just can't ignore the fact that there's still Halloween candy in the pantry. Their brains are designed to be obsessed with Snickers, Nerds, and Reese's Pieces. And that inability to ignore the candy is what makes them such amazing learners and discoverers.
Indeed, the past decade of research on children's brain development has shown conclusively that they are not little adults and that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain used for higher-order decision making, doesn't mature in humans until the teenage years or beyond. That's undoubtedly an evolutionary development, says Thompson-Schill, since there's no such difference between child and adult brains in other primates. She calls that delayed frontal lobe maturation "cognition without control," the title of her new paper in Current Directions in Psychological Science. Cognition without control is a good thing for children, the scientist says, even if it sometimes drives their parents bonkers.
Appreciating the talents of the tiny brain is a trend; it's also the topic of Alison Gopnik's wonderful new book, "The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25). Gopnik, a researcher at the University of Washington, has shown how preschoolers use probability and other sophisticated forms of thinking in figuring out how the world works—without any Baby Einstein videos, skills tutors, or flashcards, thank you very much.
Children's very different brains also make them uniquely talented at discovering and creating. "Adults are really bad at discovery," Thompson-Schill says, because we look for what we think we're going to find and filter out the rest. Children don't filter the world like that, but the downside is that they pay attention to everything. (So that's why all my pleas to "focus" on homework have zero effect.)
When her three children were young, Thompson-Schill says, "I was definitely more generous in attributing those behaviors to brain maturation and not disobedience." And she used a lot of the same tricks she uses in dealing with adult frontal lobe patients to discipline her children. Here is Thompson-Schill's advice on matching parenting tactics to children's cognitive abilities: