Your Kids Can’t Say No to Candy? Blame It on Their Brains

And skip the formal lessons if you want your child to be a great soccer player.

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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.

That's what I just heard from Sharon Thompson-Schill, a professor of psychology and neurology at the University of Pennsylvania. For 15 years, she's been studying adults who have trouble remembering things because of damage to the frontal lobe of their brains. Along the way, she realized that young children act a lot like brain-damaged adults. "Learning and behaving without a frontal lobe is different than learning and behaving with one," Thompson-Schill says. "[Children are] impulsive, they don't follow rules, don't stay on task."

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:

  • Children's behaviors are driven by their environment, not by the little voice inside their heads—or your own voice—telling them to behave. Tired of arguing over eating too much of that Halloween candy? Hide it, or get it out of the house. (Our dentist recommends a two-day pigout before donating it all.)
    • If you want your child to be a great soccer player, don't sign her up for lessons. Adults teach children sports the way adults learn, with drills and verbal commands. But kids learn best just by playing and figuring out for themselves what works. Thompson-Schill thinks that's why Americans fare poorly in soccer compared to other countries, where children are outside all day, kicking the ball around with their friends.
      • Don't expect a small child to be good at focused tasks. "A lot of what goes on in early childhood education is trying to get that brain to do something that it's not going to do," Thompson-Schill says. Let children work on projects for short amounts of time and switch between tasks. Most of all, let them play.
        • Focus on the amazing things that children can do easily and adults can't, like learn a second language, write stories, draw, and create imaginary friends.