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Parenting on the Brain

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Mildred M. Winter has watched the way teenage mothers sometimes resist their babies' exploring touches. She knows how these young parents brush away the tiny fingers that tug on their carefully coifed hair or threaten to smudge their makeup. Some of these inexperienced mothers are so self-conscious about their appearances that they rarely pick their infants up at all.

But research in neuroscience suggests that babies need to gaze at Mom's face up close and finger her mouth and eyes if the parts of their brains that control vision and sensory-motor skills are ever to reach their full potential. After all, there's a good reason that the distance from a mother's cradling arms to her face measures about two feet: That's roughly the distance at which a newborn's eyes focus.

Such observations have prompted Winter to look for ways to incorporate findings from neuroscience into her work at the Parents as Teachers National Center Inc., the St. Louis-based nonprofit organization that she directs. For 25 years, the program has taught parenting skills to expectant teens and new adult parents who are either poor, single, or never graduated from high school. The idea is to translate research findings for parents and to provide them with the information they need to maximize their children's chances of success in school.

Since its 1981 inception in four Missouri school districts, the program has built an enviable track record. Today, 1,907 programs operate in 47 states. Moreover, studies show that teachers of 1st graders who've grown up in the program rated the youngsters higher than their classmates in reading, math, language arts, social development, work habits, and physical fitness.

"But the research we use now comes out of the fields of education and psychology," Winter says. Wondering if research on brain development might also help parents in the program, she approached neuroscientists around the country. What she came away with convinced her that the additional research would not only benefit parents, but it might also motivate them to improve their child-rearing practices.

With the support of a $478,300 grant from the Charles A. Dana Foundation, the center is now working with neuroscientists from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis to distill 10 principles of prenatal and postnatal brain development and to translate them into scripts, videos, and other audiovisual materials that parent educators can use. Beginning inJanuary 1998, educators will start delivering this information to the doorsteps of 80 families inthe program.

To determine if the added effort makes any difference in those families, the center plans to monitor them over time and compare their parenting practices with those of 80 other families who will be receiving only the regular program information.

"We'll be enhancing what we tell parents now--not throwing it out," Winter explains. "But we think this is the place to start. Every parent wants the best for his or her child so we have a very receptive audience here."


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