Selfish Child, Selfish Brain? It May Be Built In

Every parent has witnessed their little ones being selfish at least once, but it turns out they may be ‘wired’ that way! It turns out that selfish behaviour can be blamed, in part, on an underdeveloped region of the brain.

LiveScience reports on a new study suggesting that this could in fact be the case. The study was conducted at the Max-Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany. During the study 146 children paired off and played two different games with each other:

In the study, 146 children participated in two games, played in pairs. In the “Dictator Game,” one child offered to share a reward, and another child could only accept what was offered. In the “Ultimatum Game,” one child could propose sharing the reward, but the other child could accept or reject the offer. If the child rejected the offer, neither child received a reward.

As was expected older children were more generous than their younger counterparts inferring that impulse control matured with the child. Brain scans were conducted on on both children and adults involved in the study that showed “a region called dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, located in the left side of the brain, toward the front, was more developed in adults. The area is considered to be involved with impulse control.”

LiveScience reports that “the results suggest that selfish behavior in children may not be due to their inability to know ‘fair’ from ‘unfair’, but rather an immature part of the brain that doesn’t support selfless behavior when tempted to act selfishly.”

Understanding how a child’s brain works is the topic of the Brain Power Conference, May 3-4 in Toronto. But just as important as understanding it is giving tools and insights to parents to know how to help their kid’s learn and grow – and when not to worry because sometimes a selfish act is all in the mind!

Playtime Now Means Brain Time Later

Play is important for a child’s cognitive development, and having Dad at home has an impact on the brain.

The Wall Street Journal has put out a press release detailing a fifteen-year study suggesting a strong link between a child’s early playtime and future academic success. It also found a positive effect from the contributions of a resident father.

The study focused on specific playtime activities including: encouraging and engaging in pretend play; presenting activities in an organized sequence of steps; elaborating on the pictures, words, and actions in a book or on unique attributes of an object; and relating play activity or book text to the child’s experiences.

University of Utah researcher Gina Cook puts it like this:

There has been extensive research done on the importance of early parent-child interactions on future educational experiences, but most have focused on the relationship with the mother…Our study looked at the combined long-term impacts of both maternal and paternal interactions in those critical stages of early development, and discovered that children not only benefit from the interactions they have with their mothers, but also their fathers.

Not only was it found that fathers contribute to a child’s future accomplishments but the study also suggests that when a father is at home, mothers themselves increase the learning activities with their children.

“Interestingly, when the biological father is living with the mother and child, mothers provide more cognitive stimulation to their toddlers, but it is the fathers in only these families who really add something more to their children’s early environments,” added Cook. “It is important for parents to engage with their children during the vital, early stages of brain development, because that early exposure to cognitive stimulation with both mothers and fathers can have a long-lasting and positive influence on the educational success of at-risk children.”

The specific kinds of play that help a child’s brain to develop are one of the many topics to be covered at the Brain Power Conference in Toronto, May 3-4. Join us as neuroscientists, experts in parenting, and teachers take us on a tour of how a child’s brain works and what practical things we can do to help it grow.

It’s all about play

While it may be thought that learning to read at an early age (18 months) or mastering facts such as simple addition is the key to success in school, early childhood educators say in fact that play is one of the most important areas in the development of a child.

“There is nothing wasteful or unimportant about play,” said Amy Oesterly. “Play helps your child develop physically, learn about the world, learn to express emotions, develop conversation skills, develop creativity and learn how to be sociable.” Oesterly is a former teacher and parent educator with Parents as Teachers programs in Washington and New Haven.

Play helps children learn how to handle arguments, problem solve and develop language skills.

What researchers have determined is that in the time babies, toddlers and preschool-age children are playing some very complex lessons are going on which are crucial later on in school and work.

“The lessons children learn through playing are really more profound than anything you could teach them,” says Jim Gill, a child development specialist, musician and author who earned a graduate degree in child development with an emphasis on the study of play. He illustrates the importance of play with an example from his own daughter when she was aged two years.

“We were sticking the letters on the side of the tub, and I was saying, ‘Here’s an A’ . . . then she finds the M, puts it on the tub, then turns it over and says, ‘Now it’s a W.’ Then she turns it over again and says, ‘Now it’s an M,’ then ‘Now it’s a W.

“And I thought, ‘Holy cow! I never taught her that . . . and we didn’t watch shows like ‘Seseme Streeet’ so this really was her own learning,” said Gill.

Even Plato knew how important play was for children to develop: “Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness: but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.”

While many parents believe schools should be drilling their children on their ABCs, child development experts say that a better indicator of success in school are executive brain functions. The lessons being learned in play are:

Theory of mind (being aware of your own feelings and sensitive to those of others). Children learn this through role playing like playing house whereby each child takes on a role of a family member. As they go through the activity, they experience how other children participating act out their role and this teaches them about how others view the world.

Executive function (being in charge of your own activity).  When a child goes into a play area in playschool and sees building blocks, he or she may wonder what to do with them. The steps the child takes to build something is called executive function. This entails being able to order the steps involved in creating a project as well as organization. This carries over into more complex activities occurring when the child is in school as well as in adulthood when handling job functions.

Self-regulation (being able to control oneself, i.e., sitting still, listening). Having self-regulation is key in classroom settings as well as later on in work.

“These are not things kids develop naturally,” said Oesterly. “They really only learn them through play.”

Oesterly pointed out that play is led by a child meaning that the child finds something of interest and becomes engaged in using and creating with it.

“When a child is engaged and having fun, that’s when he learns, and it’s the same way with adults,” she remarked. “If you are bored or uninterested in something, you’re not going to learn as much from it.”

However, adults do have a role to play, an important one too. Play begins with adults providing support.

“Adults support play by creating or providing the environment where play can happen,” said Gill.

“But there are some kids who don’t know where to begin, they don’t know how to engage in play, so adults are needed to help them get started.”