Science of Parenting: Children’s Brains

AMES, Iowa — There’s a reason that kids act like zombies sometimes, and it’s all in their brains. Children’s brains keep changing from birth through the teen years and into early adulthood, but parents can play a role in how those young brains develop. That’s the topic of this month’s Science of Parenting podcast from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

“A lot of parents don’t realize that their children’s brains aren’t complete at birth,” says Diane Bales, an associate professor in the Department of Child and Family Development and a human development specialist with the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension.

Everything that happens to children helps to develop their brains, and that’s where parents come in. During the 30-minute Science of Parenting podcast, program host Douglas Gentile, an associate professor of psychology and extension specialist at Iowa State, co-host Mike Murray, who brings a “parent-on-the-street perspective” to the program, and Bales discuss what parents can do to build their children’s brains.

The podcast is available for free download from the Science of Parenting website
or can be subscribed to in iTunes.

“Children need a lot of experiences for their brains to grow. They need to be active. They need to have connections with adults … and have chances to play and explore and experiment,” Bales said.

“The things good parents have always been doing are exactly what brains need to develop,” Bales said. “Spend time with your children, read to them, play with them … but don’t get yourself stressed out over whether you’re making them smart enough.”

Bales added, “Children also need some breaks; they need some down time. Brains can get overwhelmed, so giving children some time to just play and explore and be children — and not always having to have something scheduled for them — can be really helpful.”

As children approach the teen years, parents still can aid brain development, Bales continued, because the part of the brain that controls planning, judgment, decision-making and risk-taking isn’t fully developed.

“Parents can really support their pre-teen children by helping them assess risks and make good decisions,” Bales said. If they make less-than-good decisions, help them understand the consequences so they can make better decisions next time.

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The Science of Parenting offers research-based parenting advice from experts across the country. The monthly podcasts are available for free download from the Science of Parenting website,, or can be subscribed to in iTunes. Each month a new, 30-minute Science of Parenting program, as well as previous programs, will be available, as well as blog posts and other research-based parenting information.