Brain Development in Children

by Holly Pevzner

Brain Development in Children

An age by age guide to child mental growth

I have brilliant kids. At birth, my sons already had trillions of brain cells just waiting to be connected and stimulated. “Their potential to learn so much was all right there from the start,” says Marcy Guddemi, Ph.D., executive director of the Gesell Institute of Child Development research, education, and advocacy center in New Haven, CT. (The same holds true for all kids—but still!) While I want to do everything in my power to ensure my little guys’ minds are top-notch, Guddemi reminds me that much of the recent drive to create future Nobel Prize winners (Read at 3! Learn Cantonese by kindergarten!) has made no difference: Children today reach cognitive milestones at the very same rate they did 80-plus years ago, says Guddemi, noting a 2010 Gesell Institute study. “There’s a clear path that all children’s brains take, but each child has his or her own rate. All of their new knowledge needs to be attached to old knowledge. You can’t skip ahead,” she notes. Curious about your child’s blossoming brain? Me too. Here, the highlights of kids’ wild ride—and why they do the crazy, annoying, head-scratching, adorable things they do.

6 to 12 Months: The Scientist

Milestone: Object Permanence/Cause and Effect

What You’re Seeing: “My almost eight-month-old is into tossing her high-chair toys (and food) over the edge, then peering down to see where they went. She’s so pleased (much more than me!) to see it didn’t all disappear.” —Alison Lenihan, Brooklyn, NY

Why? “Not to annoy you!” assures Sarah Nyp, M.D., a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Kansas City, MO. “This ‘game’ is really an experiment in ‘object permanence.’ Before now, your baby thought toys, people, everything, simply ceased to exist after they were out of sight.” (You can thank your baby’s maturing frontal lobe, the part of the brain that controls reasoning, for this turning point.) Once she wraps her head around this non-disappearing act, she’ll likely keep tossing things, though. “They’re tinkering with the idea of cause and effect. Like any good scientist, they conduct lots and lots of repeats to see if the results change,” says Dr. Nyp. You can almost hear them thinking it through: “Hmm. My cereal didn’t disappear when I threw it. Will it fly? Will Mom bring me more again? Let’s see.”

Help Him Along: The object-permanence and cause-and-effect milestones are connected to sensory-motor ones, like sucking and grasping. To encourage them all, set up a “yes environment” in your home. “It’s the opposite of childproofing,” says Guddemi. “Make sure every room has things that your child can safely touch and experiment with. Exploration with his senses helps your baby’s brain cells to form their connections.” And repetition strengthens them, so you don’t want to be yelling “No!” every time he goes near something. A few ideas: Move all the Tupper-ware to a bottom cabinet in the kitchen; keep a bucket of blocks in the dining room.

1 Year Old: The Impersonator

Milestone: Copycatting

What You’re Seeing: “My favorite is when my son picks up my cell phone and babbles into it. He pauses and listens so intently I sometimes wonder if he’s really got someone on the line.” —Michelle Stewart, Brooklyn, NY

Why? “While babies imitate your facial expressions from birth, around the first birthday they start to ‘imitate with intent.’ They use objects around them to copycat,” says Laura Rubin, Ph.D., a pediatric neuropsychologist at the Portsmouth Neuropsychology Center in Portsmouth, NH. Your little one’s frontal and parietal lobes, the parts of the brain that help bolster language and social skills, are in a growth spurt. Plus, “the exploring that comes with crawling and walking develops those parts of the brain, too,” says Alison Gopnik, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and author of The Philosophical Baby. You’ll first see your child pretend to stir a pot with a wooden spoon, instead of just hitting the floor with it. “And by about fifteen to eighteen months, he’ll be using that spoon as a microphone,” says Gopnik. “Imitation is the bridge to pretend play.”

Help Him Along: Break the TV-as-background-noise habit. The average American child is exposed to nearly four hours of such indirect TV daily, notes a new study in Pediatrics. It disrupts toddlers’ play, even when it’s a grown-up show, according to research in Child Development. And once you silence Anderson Cooper, don’t feel the need to bombard your child with educational thingamajigs. “Right now, they simply want to throw themselves into all the fun stuff Mom and Dad are doing. They don’t need to be ‘taught’ with any formal learning tools,” insists Gopnik.

2 Years Old: The Rogue

Milestone: Independent Thinking

What You’re Seeing: “My twins insist on buckling their car seats themselves—‘I do it! I do it!’—and throw enormous fits if I try to help. It’s making me nuts.” —Eileen Brackenbury, Wellesley Hills, MA

Why: “Now having language at their disposal lets them explore and learn that much more,” says Gopnik. And all of that yip-yapping leads into your kiddo’s new independent spirit. “Now she starts to sense she is a separate entity from her parents. She can do things herself! She’s not totally dependent on you! She wants to—and now can—express that excitement with words,” says Gopnik. A factor feeding into the frustrated tantrums: You still don’t understand everything she says—and strangers can decipher only about 50 percent of a 2-year-old’s words.

Help Her Along: “Your strong-willed tot may not want to sit in your lap for a book, but don’t stop reading,” says Dr. Nyp. “It’s critical for improving language skills, of course, but also, children who are read to frequently associate a warm, positive feeling with books that carries over to learning in general.” Work with your child’s stubborn streak. Let her pick the book, then allow her to go ahead and continue playing while you read. “You know how background TV may impact kids negatively? Background reading does the opposite,” says Dr. Nyp.

3 Years Old: The Thinker

Milestone: Answer-seeking

What You’re Seeing: “I can’t even tell you how many times I hear ‘Why?’ in a day. I really try my best to answer every time, but sometimes I resort to ‘Ask your father.’” —Tracy Shahnamian, Framingham, MA

Why (No Pun Intended): Big-time growth in the left hemisphere of the brain, tied to language. Your child has banked 500 to 800 words and can speak three- to five-word sentences. Plus, kids “are starting to see that certain things happen consistently, but they can’t understand what makes them happen,” says Dr. Nyp. So you get why-bombed.

Help Him Along: “It’s hard, but try not to tune him out,” advises Susan Gelman, Ph.D., the Heinz Werner Collegiate Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan, whose study on this phenomenon appeared in Child Development. “My research has shown that three-year-olds simply want to get to the bottom of things. They’re not trying to monopolize your attention.” Gelman also learned that kids will keep at it if they don’t get an answer to the question they asked. If she asks “How do snakes hear without ears?” and you toss off “Maybe they can’t,” you’ll get the question again. But if you reply “They have ears on the inside,” she’ll move on.

4 Years Old: The Dreamer

Milestone: Imagination Explosion

What You’re Seeing: “She’s always playing these animal-family games. ‘OK, you’re the mommy. And you are the baby.’ And I love that she just as easily fights off bad guys.” —Kris Iorio*, Shrewsbury, MA

Why: Your preschooler is starting to hone abstract thought, has better impulse control, and has a sense of time, which allows for short-term goal setting, says Rubin. That makes for a fun playmate who can drum up silly scenarios, share, and keep her hands to herself (usually). Pretend play is also “their way of figuring out the thoughts of others,” says Gopnik. All of that you-be-Batman-I’ll-be-Joker bolsters social development, according to new research in Psychological Bulletin.

Help Her Along: Seek out nature-infused play spaces. A study out of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville found that playgrounds that incorporate natural elements like logs and flowers inspire more creative play than the metal-and-asphalt ones. While 4-year-olds do most of their pretending with sibs and pals, if you’re invited to join, dive in. “When children pretend with their parents, the play is more advanced,” says Angeline Lillard, Ph.D., coauthor of the Psychological Bulletin study. But leave the director’s chair for your kid. “You are like the National Endowment for the Arts: there just to ensure the show goes on,” says Gopnik.

* Name has been changed

5 Years Old: The Schmoozer

Milestone: Pleasing Others

What You’re Seeing: “I cannot go in my backyard without my five-year-old asking for a job to do. I’m all ‘play in the sandbox!’ But he’s determined to help me out. ‘Can I pick up rocks? Rake? Water plants?’ I hope it lasts!” —Janet McElroy, San Mateo, CA

Why: “Five-year-olds become suddenly aware that their actions impact others,” says Guddemi. “They get that if they share, their friend will be happy, that if they count to a hundred, Mom will praise. They also find that acceptance feels good, so they seek it.” All of this newfound understanding is, in part, due to their burgeoning prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for self-awareness and decision-making.

Help Him Along: When your child is doing something thoughtful, like playing nicely with a younger sib, instead of just saying “I’m so glad you’re cooperating with your brother,” add “I bet he feels really good that you’re spending time helping him with his tower.” Recent research in Child Development found that when parents talked to their 5-year-olds about other people’s perspectives, the kids were better at anticipating others’ feelings in different situations.

6 Years Old: The Empathizer

Milestone: A New Perspective

What You’re Seeing: “I overheard Connor explain to his younger sister that we take turns ‘to make the other person happy, so you can pick first.’ Tears!” —Kimberly Flynn, Collegeville, PA

Why: You know how you’ve been saying ‘How would you feel if your friend did that to you?’ Well, he may finally get it. “Younger children can’t wrap their heads around other people feeling differently than they do,” says Pamela Davis-Kean, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the Institute for Social Research and Center for Human Growth and Development at the University of Michigan. But now, your kiddo’s frontal lobes, the brain’s hub of emotions and judgment, are hitting a growth spurt, taking his viewpoint beyond his own small daily reality.

Help Him Along: Because children’s brains are now capable of that kind of perspective, it’s a great time to enhance that growth through music. In fact, after just 20 days of any type of musical instruction, a 6-year-old’s brain can actually change, resulting in improved language and social skills, according to a study in the journal Psychological Science.

7 Years Old: The Comedian

Milestone: Clever Wordplay

What You’re Seeing: “Annabelle came out with ‘If there are ten cats in a boat and one jumps out, how many are left? None. The rest were copycats.’ I cracked up! It made sense!” —Kristen Svenson, Montclair, NJ

Why: “Children are learning that language is not always literal, and they experiment with it,” says Sarah Nyp, M.D., a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Kansas City, MO. Your child starts telling jokes that are actually funny—and maybe, just maybe—not about farts. At about age 7, children are able to comprehend phonological riddles, according to a study in the Journal of Child Neurology. The result: Kids get that some jokes use a sound change to get the laugh (When do astronauts eat? Wait for it…At launch time!).

Help Him Along: Be silly yourself. This sort of word-fun banter boosts a child’s creativity, according to research in the Journal of Education and Human Development. Bonus: The type of thinking required to create a joke is identical to what’s needed in scientific, literary, and artistic endeavors, as well.

8 Years Old: The Downsizer

Milestone: Realistic Assessment of Abilities

What You’re Seeing: “My daughter’s a decent swimmer, but she’s saying she doesn’t want to be on the swim team anymore. At first, she said it was boring. But now she confessed she’s afraid of dragging her team down. Breaks my heart!” —Nicole Walters, West Palm Beach, FL

Why: Eight-year-olds are totally into streamlining. “At eight, the brain starts to prune some of its connections to work faster,” says Davis-Kean. With this increase in efficiency comes an uptick in self-awareness. “Now kids are beginning to compare their skills to those of their peers,” says Davis-Kean. So a child who never noticed that her future was not with the Bolshoi may suddenly have that eureka moment and bow out. The upshot: “Your child’s starting to recognize his or her strengths,” says Laura Rubin, Ph.D., a pediatric neuropsychologist at the Portsmouth Neuropsychology Center in New Hampshire.

Help Her Along: Don’t BS. She can sniff out false praise now. Instead, help her suss out what she can be great at, and encourage practicing hard. “Continued exposure to failure in something she’s just not cut out for can shake confidence long-term,” says Rubin.

9 Years Old: The Manipulator

Milestone: Stretching the Truth

What You’re Seeing: “Amelia started lying to get her big brother in trouble. In the past, I usually believed her over him when they squabbled because she was always honest in an innocent way. It’s like she’s trying to use my trust to her advantage now.” —Christina Lauro, Babylon, NY

Why: Fibs don’t suddenly appear at 9, but they’re surely more sophisticated now. Your kiddo is being “thrust full throttle toward expressing independence by talking back, at times even subtle manipulation, and lying,” notes Allison S. Baker, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist and director of the Adolescent Program at the ColumbiaDoctors Midtown in New York City. But it’s not all negative. “Your child is figuring out how others react in different situations, which can only help in the future,” explains Dr. Baker.

Help Him Along: Guide his moral compass by way of dinnertime chitchat. The ol’ “How was school today?” generally goes nowhere. “Instead, zero in on who sat with whom at lunch, or what they played at recess—that’s when all the real action happens,” says developmental psychologist Melanie Killen, Ph.D., professor of human development and quantitative methodology at the University of Maryland. You’ll hear about the social interactions going on at school and be able to segue into the consequences of lying and gossiping.

10 Years Old: Social Explorer

Milestone: Expanding Social Groups

What You’re Seeing: “Shared interests—often, Minecraft—have become the focus of most playdates. They get together and just show each other the cool things they built.” —Kara Hill, Mechanicsville, VA

Why: A few years ago, they’d play with whoever was around. Now they’re looking for reasons to choose playmates. And belonging to a group is becoming super important. “Further cognitive development depends on something called schemas,” says Rubin. They’re like mental shortcuts that help kids quickly size up their surroundings, but they can also feed stereotypes (“girls wear pink” or “boys are good at math”). “A child this age doesn’t have the frontal-lobe development to see that how he or others are being labeled may not be the truth,” says cognitive neuroscientist Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D., chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas and author of Make Your Brain Smarter.

Help Him Along: Ten-year-olds often can’t see beyond the 20 kids in their class. “Diversify her portfolio,” says Killen. “Show her she can be a part of multiple groups.” Encourage out-of-school activities where kids can mix and mingle. And keep this finding from the journal Developmental Psychology in mind: Girls who played “boy heavy” sports (like basketball and softball) and boys who joined “feminine” classes (like art, music, or cooking) at age 10 showed more interest in math two years later than peers who didn’t.

11 Years Old: The Lawyer

Milestone: Debate Turns Logical

The Result: “I’d better save my money for law school. If I say no to something, Elissa refutes each one of my reasons…and what’s most annoying is, her rebuttals make sense!” —Dawn Ruffalo, Long Beach, NY

Why: While it may drive you bonkers to be handed a bullet-point list ticking off why she needs an iPad 4, it’s something to be proud of. “An eleven-year-old brain is amping up its judgment and considered decision-making ability,” says Rubin. This spurt also allows your kiddo to generate ideas outside of personal experience, which is a first. “She can think more abstractly, looking at things from different angles. And that makes for a pretty spirited debate partner.”

Help Her Along: Take advantage of the growing sophistication of your child’s thought process by working it harder. “Now’s the time to engage in what-if scenarios. And since bullying peaks at this age, make that one of your scenarios,” says developmental physician Adiaha I. A. Spinks-Franklin, M.D., co-chair of the Advocacy Committee of the Society of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at Texas Children’s Hospital. What would you do if someone asked you to text him a sexy picture? How would you react if you saw a fourth-grader getting bullied? “But the scenarios don’t all have to be serious. The goal is to give your child a safe opportunity to work out his or her thoughts,” she says.

12 Years Old: The Risk Taker

Milestone: Testing Limits

The Result: “A week after Hurricane Sandy, our street had no power and was strewn with debris. I told Michael he couldn’t go outside after five o’clock. But when I came home from a quick errand, I found him curbside with a friend. Anyone could have run him over. I could have run him over! Doesn’t he get that a pitch-black street is not a good place to stand around?” —Donna Marie Ray-Snyder, Babylon, NY

Why: The part of the brain that regulates the processing of rewards, social feedback, and emotions becomes super sensitive right before puberty, according to a recent study in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science. “Twelve-year-olds don’t have enough self-control in risky situations,” says Chapman. “They can see the immediate consequences—my parents are going to get really mad at me—but are worse at anticipating the long-term ones.”

Help Him Along: “You need to be a surrogate frontal lobe,” says Rubin. Keep up the what-would-you-do? drill with different scenarios you started last year. And when you’re not doing your best John Quiñones impersonation, make sure your child is clocking enough sleep. A new study found that getting eight to ten hours of sleep every night bolsters a child’s declarative memory—the kind that comes into play when he’s making decisions.