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How To Help Your Child's Brain Grow Up Strong

In a new book, neuroscientists Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt detail how parents can help their children learn the ABCs and self-control. The book, Welcome to Your Child's Brain, explores how the human brain develops from infancy to adolescence.


Other segments from the episode on September 14, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 14, 2011: Interview with Will Arnett; Interview with Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang.








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TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Will Arnett, stars with Christina Applegate and Maya Rudolph in the new NBC comedy series "Up All Night" about a married couple trying to adjust to their lives as parents. The series premieres tonight.

Arnett was nominated for an Emmy for his portrayal of Gob, a member of the dysfunctional Bluth family in the series "Arrested Development." This year, he was nominated for his guest-starring performance on "30 Rock" as Jack's rival Devon Banks. Arnett co-starred with his wife Amy Poehler in the movie comedy "Blades of Glory," about rival ice-skating teams.

Let's start with a scene from "Up All Night." Arnett plays a lawyer who's put his career on hold to stay home with the baby while his wife, played by Christina Applegate, returns to her job as the producer of a TV talk show. The host of that talk show is played by Maya Rudolph.

In this scene, the baby has been crying all night, but Arnett and Applegate are so exhausted, they just want to sleep.



WILL ARNETT: (as Chris) Oh, my god.

CHRISTINA APPLEGATE: (as Reagan) At least you don't have to work.

ARNETT: (as Chris) Yeah, because raising a human's not work at all.

APPLEGATE: (as Reagan) I got no sleep last night. I mean, I was up with Amy from one to four.

ARNETT: (as Chris) Well, I was up from 10 to midnight. You probably don't remember that because you were asleep while I was awake.

APPLEGATE: (as Reagan) No, you were asleep when I got up at one because I saw you, I mean, because I was awake.

ARNETT: (as Chris) No, I'm sure you were groggy from being in such a deep sleep that you did not see that my eyes were wide open, and I was indeed awake.

APPLEGATE: (as Reagan) No, you were asleep because I saw everything because I was wide awake, totally awake with my eyes open.

ARNETT: (as Chris) Except for when you were completely asleep. I mean when your eyes were closed in what I would call in a sleep-like fashion...

APPLEGATE: (as Reagan) Are you kidding me?

ARNETT: (as Chris) Because I was wide awake. I watched you sleeping. I stood over you and watched you sleep. Do you want to do it real quick?

APPLEGATE: (as Reagan) No, I don't want to do it real quick. I can't even think about mmm, mmm, mmm.

ARNETT: (as Chris) That's not even your real sex face.

APPLEGATE: (as Reagan) Stop talking.

ARNETT: (as Chris) I wish it was.

GROSS: Will Arnett, welcome to FRESH AIR. So is it weird to have a TV wife and a TV baby on the set and then have a real wife and a real baby at home?

ARNETT: It is weird. First of all, I mean, it's weird for me but also trying to explain that your kids. I mean, I have two young kids, but my wife and I were watching the pilot when we got the first cut earlier this summer at home in New York. And our son came in the room, and he kind of looked at the TV quite with a puzzled look on his face, and on the screen, I'm holding one of the babies on the show.

And I paused the show, and he said: That's dada's brother? And I said: No, that's dada. And he said: That's dada's baby? And I said: No, that baby was not real. And he said: No, that baby's real. I said: Yes, it is a real baby. And then I was thinking how do I explain this to a two-and-a-half-year-old?

It was just, you know, it was very difficult.

GROSS: Who is the baby? Who do you get, like, an infant for a show?

ARNETT: The baby is played by two young babies, you know, twins, and I don't know what the process is of finding young babies for TV shows. I imagine, you know, it has to be twins because of child labor laws. So they can only work, you know, X amount of hours. So they need twins in order to - otherwise we'd have four-hour shoot days.

So I often imagine that if you give birth to twins in the Los Angeles area, they probably have studio and network people close by, ready to sign you up.

GROSS: It's a weird thought, you know, to think of working on a TV set before you're teething, before you can say anything except mama, papa, you know.

ARNETT: Yeah, it's very strange. And, you know, Christina and I were talking about it the other day on-set, and we were thinking, you know, if this show were to go longer than a few episodes or longer - if it were to go on for a few years, we're going to be in the lines of these - in the early lives of these two babies, Carly(ph) and Delaney(ph), who play our daughter Amy. It's going to be - we are going to be forever a big part of their early years.

So that's quite strange, and we have - it's a responsibility, too. I mean, not only is it a responsibility as a parent to be in your own kids' life but also in somebody else's life, kid's life. It's - that in and of itself is a big responsibility.

GROSS: Well, do you know for sure that if the show lasts, say, five years or something that it'll be the same babies? I mean, do they have a five-year contract or...?


ARNETT: That's a good point. That's a very good point. We could fire those babies anytime.

GROSS: That's what I'm thinking.


GROSS: So in "Up All Night," you play a lawyer who's put his career on hold in order to be home with the baby while your wife, played by Christina Applegate, continues her career. And her career is just starting up again after a maternity leave. Have you ever put your career on hold to be a kind of full-time stay-at-home dad?

ARNETT: Well, I've never put my career on hold on purpose.


GROSS: Other people have put it on hold for you.

ARNETT: Sure, it's been put on ice many times. No, you know, actually, the truth is before this show, for the last couple years, I've been working on a show called "Running Wild" that was short-lived on Fox last year, and Mitch Hurwitz and Jim Valalee(ph) and I were working on that show, if you can believe it, for a couple of years.

And when we were writing that show...

GROSS: I should say Mitch Hurwitz also did "Arrested Development."

ARNETT: Yeah, Mitch Hurwitz created "Arrested Development" and ran it, and he's a brilliant, genius guy. So we decided that we were going to do this other show after that, and we wrote a lot of it from my house in Los Angeles. And so even though I wasn't really putting my career on hold, I was home a lot, especially for our first son, for Archie's, you know, first couple years.

I was around a lot. So I - that actually, that aspect of it, of being a stay-at-home dad, if you will, I really did identify with that because that was part of my own experience in a way.

GROSS: In "Up All Night," you play somebody who's funny but is a kind of normal person, unlike some of the other characters you play, who are just so quirky.

ARNETT: That's kind.


GROSS: What word would you use?


GROSS: Arch, very good, very good. So how is it for you to be playing somebody who's kind of like, you know, a normal person?

ARNETT: Yeah, I was very excited to play this character because I have played a lot of characters who were, you know, over the top or arch or evil or out of touch with reality. And I did so because I was always really attracted to those kinds of roles because they were kind of funny to me.

I love characters who are really confident and dumb. I just love that combination. But then even I tired of it. But when I read this character, when I read this show, for the first time of I think anything I've ever read for or considered, it was the first time that I ever really identified with a character.

I thought yeah, I know who this is. This is really close to me. It's not me, but it's close to me, and I could see myself being a version of this. And it's been nice. It's kind of like I'm switching gears a little bit, and it's nice to be able to play these real moments in the show and not have to pay it off with some grandiose statement at the end of it or say something dastardly.

GROSS: Give me an example of the grandiose statement or the dastardly statement that you typically had to do in, say, "Arrested Development."

ARNETT: You know, in "Arrested Development," it would be something like: You're my brother. And I love you. And I will always love you. And then the person walks out of the room: Because I know you're going to die soon.


ARNETT: You know. And I will be the one to take you down. You know, so it was very rare. Or there would be moments where you would have - you know, in "Arrested Development," there's a moment where - I think it's when Gob finds out that Steve Holt is his son, and he kind of turns away. I forget what the line was.

And then Mitch Hurwitz went to town with the sort of soap opera music underneath, you know, to a crescendo, by the way aiding my performance a million percent, making me seem a lot better than I was. But, you know, Mitch never lets a moment - he always undercuts real moments. And he feels like that's his job as a comedy writer.

GROSS: We actually have a scene from "Arrested Development," which may or may not illustrate what you're talking about. It has a funny last line. So this is a scene from Season One, and your character Gob is, among other things, a magician. And so in this episode, you think your girlfriend Marta, who's a Mexican soap opera actress, is cheating on you, and it turns out she actually has a crush on your brother, played by Jason Bateman, and your brother has just found this out, and he just really doesn't know what to do.

And in the meantime, you're thinking, look, she's got a crush on somebody else, she's having an affair with somebody else. When you find out who that person is, you're going to beat them up. And you're telling this to your brother, the person she actually has the crush on.

And you've overheard her on the phone talking about Hermano, and you think that she's got a crush on Hermano, when that actually means brother, and it's actually your brother.


GROSS: So here's the scene where Jason Bateman, who plays your brother Michael, is talking to you.


JASON BATEMAN: (as Michael Bluth) Hi, Gob. Marta call?

ARNETT: (as Gob Bluth) She sure has, four times, but I didn't take the calls.

BATEMAN: (as Michael) Oh, no? Why not?

ARNETT: (as Gob) Because of you. You said to lay low, and it's working.

BATEMAN: (as Michael) Great.

ARNETT: (as Gob) I'll tell you what, you may not be good with women, but you are great with other people's women. I'll give you that.

BATEMAN: (as Michael) Listen, Gob, you can't just ignore her. I mean, maybe you should talk to her. She is your girlfriend.

ARNETT: (as Gob) Exactly, and I want to keep it that way. For all I know, she's calling to break up with me. I don't answer the phone, that doesn't happen, and it's all because of you, (unintelligible). That's Italian for brothers. Now all I've got do is find this Hermano guy. I'm going to kill him.

TONY HALE: (as Buster Bluth) Hey, brother.

BATEMAN: (as Michael) Hey, Busty.

HALE: (as Buster) Hey, brother.

ARNETT: (as Gob) Hey, Buster.

BATEMAN: (as Michael) Gob, there's no need for violence. There never is. I'd like to think that we're all, you know, intelligent, mature and adult that can settle their differences whenever they might come to light through words.

ARNETT: (as Gob) Yeah, well, I let my fists do the talking. Not this one because obviously I need it for coin tricks and stuff.

GROSS: Okay, so that's my guest Will Arnett in an episode of "Arrested Development." So the voice that you just did, it reminds that you've done a lot of, like, voiceovers for commercials. And I think you've done voices for video games. I know you've done voices for animations. So I guess I'm interested in some of the other characters that have been rattling around your head that you've channeled for voices that you've done.

ARNETT: I did the voice of the chef in "Rataouille," which is the story of the rat who becomes a chef, and it was directed by Brad Bird, who's a legend in animation circles and I guess the world now.

And when I first went in, I didn't get the - usually you get the, you know, the breakdown of what the character is and what the story is. But in animation, they don't often send you the whole script, which is really weird. So you just kind of show up, and you've got some sort of idea, and they might send you some artwork so you can see what your character looks like.

And in that particular case, I got the wrong stuff, or it didn't get sent to me. So I get there, and Brad Bird says to me: You've got to do a German - so, you know, he's talking me through it and stuff. And then he said, you know, and of course Horst is this German guy. And I thought, uh-huh, German. I'm thinking oh my God, German, what is he talking - this is the first I'm hearing about it, and I'm about to record.

And I guess in that moment I had to kind of, you know, conjure up my best bar-trick German accent and sort of create this. And it ended up being OK because he was there, and he really talked me through it.

But other things like, you know, I did a voice in "Despicable Me," and I played the banker who was bankrolling all of Steve Carell's character's, you know, dastardly exploits. An so they showed me the art for it, and he was like this huge, kind of overweight guy, and he's this banker, and he's this sort of - supposed to be this awful guy.

And I wanted to make him sound like he - every time he said the word money, like he was seeing a platter of food. I want him to feel like he wanted to eat money so that he ended up saying like: Let me tell you something, Gru. The most important thing is money. And he's just sort of dripping and drooling when he says that word. And that really always made me laugh.

GROSS: So what were the first voiceovers you got?

ARNETT: The first paying voiceover gig I ever got was for a company - I don't even know if they're still in business - called Harvard Community Health Plan, which is a Boston-based New England health care provider. And, you know, I inherited a fairly deep, sort of, kind of gravelly voice from my dad who has always claimed that if I ever get injured, he'll just take over for me.


ARNETT: And so even when I was 23, I had a pretty gravelly voice for - and I looked really young. And I think that that particular job, because it was quite a big job, and it was a big job for me to have as my first job, I had to fly up to Boston and do all the stuff there in the studio. And I think they were quite shocked to see how young I looked because I probably looked like I was 18 at most when I was 23.

And I thought - and the copy was all reassuring kind of health care stuff, you know, like: Don't worry, we'll take care of anything you need. We're Harvard - you know, and then here comes this young punk.


GROSS: So you had to sound far more mature and reassuring than you felt.

ARNETT: Yeah, and - which is one of the reasons, I think, that it took me so long, apart from being a bad actor, why it took me a long time to start really working as a legit actor because I think my voice betrayed my looks. I didn't - it didn't quite match up.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Will Arnett, and he stars with Christina Applegate and Maya Rudolph in the new TV series "Up All Night." Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Will Arnett. He co-stars with Christina Applegate in the new comedy series "Up All Night." They play the parents of a newborn trying to adjust to their new lives. The series premieres tonight on NBC. This year, Arnett was nominated for an Emmy for his guest-starring performance on "30 Rock." I'll let him describe the role.

ARNETT: Well, on "30 Rock," I play the character of Devon Banks, who when I first started on that show a few years ago, Devon worked at - he worked at GE or NBC, and he was like the West Coast equivalent of Alec Baldwin's character. So he was a guy who is very ambitious and is gay, and when somebody mentions that, Alec Baldwin's character says that makes him doubly dangerous.


ARNETT: And he comes to New York, and Devon and Alec's character spend a lot of time vying for the top position at the company. He's a totally unscrupulous, you know, blind-with-ambition guy who ends up kind of getting eaten up by the machine and tossed out. And he disappears off the scene.

And in this past season, he comes back, Alec Baldwin's character, and goes - and looks for him and finds him in a domestic situation. He and his partner have three adopted babies, and Alec needs him to help him out, and he thinks wow, he's really dropped off the face, and he's not in it anymore. And then in one fell swoop, my character rips his tracksuit off to reveal that he's in a full suit and that he's been waiting for this moment that Jack needs him for his whole life.

GROSS: What Jack needs him to do is to run a new gay network that is being started by the company that bought NBC.

ARNETT: That's right, which they name - I think it's called Kabletown.

GROSS: Right, the parent company is Kabletown.

ARNETT: The parent company, yeah.

GROSS: So I'm going to play a scene that relates to exactly what you've been describing. So this is after your character becomes the head of this network, and he's become, like, kind of pals with the head of Kablevision, Hank Hooper because they both have kids, and, you know, they've kind of bonded over their children.

And so now he's really kind of in competition with Jack, and he seems to be besting Jack. So here are you with Alec Baldwin and Jack, and you speak first.


ARNETT: (as Devon Banks) Morning, Jack. Oh my, empty coffee pot, same cheap $300 tie as yesterday, nose hair all askew. You've been here all night trying to figure out how to fight back, haven't you?

ALEC BALDWIN: (as Jack Donaghy) How was your play date with the Hoopers?

ARNETT: (as Devon) Oh, it was amazing, yes, really superlative tummy time. Oh, I almost forgot. Hank, Uncle Hank, wants to expand overseas, and he's chosen me to be the face of the company in Europe. That's right, I've been promoted.

BALDWIN: (as Jack) But Europe is my purview. I was supposed to go there next week. I was going to take a picture where it looked like I was holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

ARNETT: (as Devon) Now I'll be taking that picture. Do you have any idea how strong I'll look? I vanquished you in one day. I was trapped in a world of Wet Wipes and rectal thermometers. Then the babies came, and life changed. But you set me free, Jack. Now it's weekends in New York, jet-setting around the world in economy-plus. I'll be thousands of miles away from the chaos in Brooklyn.

(as Devon) Do you know what it's like to have triplets? It's just everything times three: three pairs of grubby little hands, smearing food all over your brand new Chihuahua outfits; three pairs of feet in their weird, soft little shoes; three pairs of eyes, brown, like my husband's.


ARNETT: (as Devon) Three perfect little mouths that smile every time I walk through the door; three tummies that just want their num-nums and zerbert. Oh, God, I just love my babies too much. I can't leave.

GROSS: My guest, Will Arnett, and Alec Baldwin in a scene from "30 Rock." So it must be so much fun to do that show.

ARNETT: It's really, really fun. You get to show up - you know, every time - those scripts are always hilarious. You know, I get to show up and play this really fun, insane character and, you know, kind of be unapologetically awful. And yeah, it's really fun to do that.

GROSS: Will Arnett will be back in the second half of the show. His new TV series, "Up All Night," premieres tonight on NBC. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with Will Arnett. He stars with Christina Applegate in the new series "Up All Night." They play a couple trying to adjust to their life as first-time parents. The series premieres tonight on NBC. Arnett co-starred in the series "Arrested Development" as a member of the dysfunctional Bluth family. This year he was nominated for an Emmy for his guest-starring role as Jack's rival Devon Banks on "30 Rock." He starred with his wife Amy Poehler in the film comedy "Blades of Glory."

Now I know you grew up in Canada and one of the things you're kind of semi-famous for is getting expelled from a school where parents sent troubled kids. So what exactly did you do to get expelled for school that's really used to dealing with kids who are a handful?

ARNETT: Well, first it should be pointed out that the school was not - it wasn't really for troubled kids. I probably said that before and I'm sure my, you know, alma mater is not happy with me, again for saying that.


GROSS: I didn't mention their names so they're off the hook.

ARNETT: Good. They, it was a school that was based on this idea that there were no indoor sports. It really focused on the outdoors and the school was a few hours north of Toronto up in the woods, set on a lake.

GROSS: Cold.

ARNETT: You know - yeah, very cold, but beautiful. And the idea was that boys are rambunctious when they're teenagers and you got to get them outside. But it was a great school. The other thing is I wasn't exactly expelled per se. I was just asked not to return. And...

GROSS: And the difference is?

ARNETT: Well, I don't know. It's a distinction that I've always held onto pretty tightly. But I think that I wasn't asked to leave, you know, during a given school year. At the end of the year they said, thank you so much for attending this school and...


ARNETT: ...please look for employment elsewhere or whatever it was.

GROSS: I'd really parish if I was forced to do a lot of outdoor stuff in the cold and go like camping and hiking and all that kind of stuff. How did you do?

ARNETT: I loved it. That part of it was really great. You know, instead of, you know, having phys ed in a gymnasium, you know, I remember in 10th grade in the spring we had to go and, you know, take canoes down rapids or kayaks down rapids and you had to go around the course and literally navigate the waters, or we had to repel down a rock face. We were taken out into the woods and dropped off with a book of matches, two tea bags and a sleeping bag in the middle of the winter and you have to build a shelter.

By the way, I don't know if they'd be allowed to do this these days because of insurance and lawyers and stuff now. But that's the way it was then. And so we'd end up building a, you know, you'd build a lean-to or you'd build a quinzee, which is kind of like a makeshift igloo. Instead of getting blocks of ice you just piles snow into a pile and let it sit for an hour or two, and at that point it's kind of compacted a little bit and then you dig out a little sleeping area. That part of it was great. For a boy, you know, young Canadian boy, it was pretty amazing

GROSS: Did I hear you right - that they give you basically a sleeping bag and something else and to teabags?

ARNETT: Yeah. Because, you know, for nutrition.



GROSS: Please. Like you're out alone in the wild and they're giving you like tea time.


GROSS: I don't get it.

ARNETT: It might've been - yeah, that might have been a vestige from the old sort of English public school days. You know, Prince Andrew went to my school of the Windsor family fame.

GROSS: Was he a handful?


ARNETT: He was - I think he's quite a, he was known for being, right? He was there a little, he's a little before my time. I'm quite young.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

ARNETT: And then the Prince Felipe of Spain was also there. I actually knew that guy. I don't think he'd take my call now but I don't have...

GROSS: Maybe if you use that super confident voice.


ARNETT: Maybe. Maybe. If I could get the number for the palace.

GROSS: So how did you start acting?

ARNETT: The first thing I ever did, the first player ever did was at that school when I was at boarding school and I think I was conned into doing it because I was goofing around so much and they thought maybe this will channel his, you know, energies. And I remember I did a production of "H.M.S. Pinafore" and I never even considered it. And I did that and I thought, I was probably 13, and immediately thought, you know, this is great, this is really cool. And it wasn't until, you know, and I did some things here and there in Toronto growing up. I was in some commercials and stuff. But I was a teenager and I was preoccupied with girls and going out and getting into trouble.

And it wasn't until I was about 19 that I thought, you know, I really want to do this. And so when I was 20 I moved to New York to study at Lee Strasburg and I thought I want to be a serious actor. And I think that was because I was young enough that I wanted to be taken seriously. I thought, yeah, I'll go and I'll be like a method actor.

GROSS: Did you think you had it in for comedy but you wanted to be taken seriously?

ARNETT: Well, I didn't know that comedy was an option. I didn't, I hadn't like everything else in my life, I hadn't done the research and so I didn't know how you did it. And I thought well, I'll just go be an actor and maybe something will work out. As opposed to so many of my friends now who I find out, you know, well, if you want to be a comedy you, you know, you become a standup or you go to Chicago and you go to Second City and you do that. But instead, my path was to go to New York and try my hand and do lots of triple off-Broadway plays a kind of fudge my way through. And it wasn't the first real sort of comedy - by the way on the side trying to do comedic stuff but never really thought that it would lead to anything. Like just...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

ARNETT: ...goofed around. And then I ended up reading for sitcom pilots because, which by that point I thought well, I'm a series of actor. I would never do a sitcom. Meanwhile, I couldn't even pay the rent, and it got to the point where I couldn't pay the rent and I was reading for sitcom pilots, in which in my view I thought I was slumming it. And then I realized oh wait, this is fantastic. And I that's about 1995 when I fist, so I've been in New York for five years before I started, you know, reading for sitcom pilots.

GROSS: Right.

ARNETT: And I kind of backed my way into comedy.

GROSS: So a lot of our listeners know that you're married to Amy Poehler, you have two children together. And she was very pregnant one when she was on "Saturday Night Live" twice, right?


GROSS: Did you ever like watch her on "Saturday Night Live" and think oh my god, what if she gives birth on the set? Like what if she goes into labor on the set?

ARNETT: The last show she did before our son Archie was born was the show that Sarah Palin came on, and Amy rapped.

GROSS: Right.

ARNETT: If you remember, the premise was Amy had written this rap for Sarah Palin and asked her if she wanted to do it. And she said no. And she said okay, well, I'll do it as you. She said okay. And then she got up and she rapped. And Amy, you know, wrote that rap and it was just so funny. But I remember her dancing up and down, going back and forth, and I thought, oh no. You know, this could really happen. And I guess you could on one hand you could say it was terrible, and on the other hand you could say it would have been crazy-interesting TV.


ARNETT: I don't know. I certainly didn't want my child born on TV, but who knows? And she actually, it was the following week, she was in, you know, rehearsing the Jon Hamm show. Jon Hamm was hosting the next week, the first time he hosted, and it was a Friday night and it was after they had done all the joke read-through's and she came home and then we're like oh, it's on, and we drove to the hospital. So she gave birth the next day, which she gave birth on a Saturday night.




GROSS: Missed her on the show.


ARNETT: But it was, I remember it was a great moment too because our son was born and then it was hours later and we were sitting in the room and I was holding our hour's old son. And we turned on "SNL" and Maya Rudolph, who I'm now on the show with, and Kenan Thompson sang a song to Amy and Archie. It was really sweet.

GROSS: I remember that. I remember that.


GROSS: Well, Will Arnett, congratulations on the new series, "Up All Night," and congratulations on your Emmy nomination. It's really been fun to talk with you. Thank you very much.

ARNETT: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Will Arnett stars with Christina Applegate and Maya Rudolph in the new series, "Up All Night," which premieres tonight on NBC.

Coming up, two neuroscientists talk about their new book, "Welcome to Your Child's Brain." This is FRESH AIR.











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TERRY GROSS, host: Wouldn't you love to know what's going on in your child's brain? Good luck with that. But it's helpful to know how a child's brain develops, and that's the subject of the new book "Welcome to Your Child's Brain: How the Mind Grows from Conception to College." My guests are the co-authors, Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang. They're both neuroscientists. Aamodt is a science writer and a former editor-in-chief of "Nature Neuroscience," a scientific journal in the field of brain research. Wong is an associate professor of neuroscience at Princeton University.

Sandra Aamodt, Sam Wang, welcome to FRESH AIR. I think a lot of parents feel very guilty that if anything goes wrong it's like their fault. If anything goes wrong with your child's development. And you're very reassuring about that in the book. You are reassuring to parents that brain development in most children requires no special equipment or training. You say most children find a way to grow in whatever conditions the world has to offer them. And you say your child's brain raises itself. What are some of the things that a parent can trust that a child is going to learn or ways that their brain is going to develop pretty much on its own?

AAMODT: So there's this whole collection of developmental processes that biologists call experience expectant development. What that means is that any normal child is going to get the environmental experiences that that child needs to develop things like for instance vision. All you do need to experience to develop vision, children who have difficulty seeing their brains don't develop the visual areas correctly. But on the other hand, you don't have to take your kids to vision classes, because the experience is that are necessary for visual development are easily available to any child who can see.

GROSS: You know, parents are trying so hard to give like their children like be intellectual edge and the musical edge in the mathematical edge. Is there an age where it's really pointless to try to do that and just like relax about that?

SAM WANG: Well, generally speaking, children's brains are very much self-wiring and able to learn amazing kinds of things but there are windows of opportunity during which the ground is most fertile - these things that developmental biologists call sensitive periods, when it's really the best time to learn a particular thing. And it's important to keep, to be mindful of the fact that children become ready at different times for different things.

For example, language. Language is acquired quite well before the age of six. But on the other hand, trying to force your child to read say before the age of four is an effort that doesn't work very well because the brain is not very well equipped to say for instance, tell the letter B from the letter D and so on, things that older children do without very much effort at all.

AAMODT: You seem to think that a child growing up with two languages has a like a cognitive edge over children growing up with just one.

Oh they do. It's substantial. Kids who learn two languages young, as early as their first year of life, are better able to learn abstract rules and to reverse rules that they've already learned. They're less likely to be, to have difficulty choosing between conflicting possibilities when there are two possible responses that both present themselves. Interestingly, they're also better at figuring out what other people are thinking, which is probably because they have to choose which language to use every time they talk to somebody in order to communicate.

GROSS: So your new book opens with a quiz. And I thought it would be fun to give our listeners this quiz and even though we won't know their answers, they'll know whether they got that right or not. And I think it's an informative quiz. So the quiz is titled "How Well Do You Know Your Child's Brain?" So here's question number one: Which are the following is a good way to get your child to eat his spinach? A, cover the spinach in melted cheese. B, start the meal with a few bites of desert. C, feed him with soy-based formula as an infant. D, all of the above. E, none of the above. Who wants to take that? What's the real answer?


WANG: The real answer is D, all of the above. All of those things; a little desert, melted cheese on the spinach and soy-based formula all have a positive effect on getting a child to prefer spinach.

GROSS: Okay. So you have to explain how something as counterintuitive as giving your child a few bites of desert before the spinach is going to help your child want the spinach.

WANG: Well the answer to this is that flavor preferences are not innate for the most part, so there are a few things that we are automatically like. Sweet flavors we automatically like. Fatty things we automatically like. But nearly everything else is learned. And what that means is that even before birth and then in early childhood, children are learning what flavors are associated with something tasty. And so in that case, that's a conditioning experiment in which something that they know they like, this fatty sweet thing - dessert - one associated with something else that they don't know whether they like or not, when paired repeatedly eventually leads to a preference. And there's a time window in which that pairing is optimal, which is when the flavor is separated from the reward within about a nine-second period, and that leads to effective learning of the new flavor.

GROSS: Wait. So what's the reward? Because you get the reward before you get the spinach.

WANG: Ah. Well, it turns out that it works pretty well when they're given in that order. Now at practice it's a little bit difficult, because if you've got a baby you kind of imagine yourself hovering with two spoons in front of the kid, you know, one spoon of spinach and another spoon of ice cream, and you jam one spoon and then you jam the other one in. But...

GROSS: With a stopwatch and count nine seconds.


GROSS: Well, I'll tell you simpler way to do it, which is to take these two things - the simpler ways to take the two things and puree them and mix them together. Much easier.

What, spinach and ice cream?

You know what? Babies don't know that's weird.



GROSS: I wouldn't try that with a grown-up.

You're a father. Have you actually tried this?

WANG: I have tried that sort of thing. I have mix things together and it works reasonably well. She's four now so it doesn't work quite so well now because she's aware. She in fact has an unusual ability to take a spoonful of stay spinach and something nice and separate them from each other. I didn't know, you know, it's like she's got opposable lips. It's amazing.

GROSS: OK, another question. What kind of dream experience is not yet within the capacity of a three-year-old: Seeing a dog standing around, playing with toys, sleeping in the bathtub, watching tropical fish or looking at an empty room?

The answer is B, playing with toys. What's going on here is that in studies of dreaming is possible to watch the development of training in children as they get older by doing things like waiting until they wake up or even waking them up and saying well, what did you see? And in small children up until the age of about three or four, what children either report is no dreams at all or the report static things like a chicken eating corn or a dog standing or I was sleeping in a bathtub. And at early ages dreams don't have social interactions, they don't have feelings. There are a lot of things that don't appear in preschoolers dreams but only at later ages, around the age of eight or nine.

Oh, that's really interesting. You can't remember your dreams at that age, can you?

WANG: I don't remember anything about my dreams. One thing that's interesting, when children wake up at that age sometimes they wake up afraid. But that's something different, they're not really dreaming. So for instance it's been reported that children have things like night terrors, right? So a child wakes up, is inconsolable but can't really say what's going on. And that's in fact not a dream. So dreams and night terrors seem to be different events in a child's sleep experience.

GROSS: Well, what can you tell us about night terrors?

WANG: There are different sorts of things that happened during sleep at early ages. Night terrors are one example; another example is sleepwalking. It appears that there's something about sleep that is in some sense learned or acquired. It's not that sleeping comes online all at once at an earlier age, but there's this kind of coordination in which the sleeping brain eventually with experience and time and natural development is able to control responses like fear or walking around during sleep. These are clearly very important functions but they come online gradually, and in some kids they don't come online right away and so you end up with things like kids who wake up scared.

GROSS: Well, if you're just joining us my guests are Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt. They're the authors of the new book "Welcome to Your Child's Brain." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us my guests are Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang. They're the authors of the new book "Welcome to Your Child's Brain: How the Mind Grows from Conception to College." And Sandra Aamodt is a science writer, who is the former editor-in-chief of "Nature Neuroscience," which is a brain research publication. And Sam Wang is an associate professor of neuroscience at Princeton University.

Sam, you were studying neuroscience and teaching neuroscience before you became a father. Your child is four now. Have you tested the scientific research on your own daughter?

WANG: Generally in my household it's not really allowed to do experiments per se on the kid. However, one thing that's come out of our of all the reading that I've done and that Sandra and I have batted back and forth about child development is I have to say the main thing that's come out is that I've become much more relaxed about a lot of things that I see happening with her as she gets older. So for instance, show writer name backwards or show writer name upside down and I think to myself well, is that OK? And then if I think back to the literature on reading and writing, I think well you know what? She's four and that's common, and it doesn't mean it's dyslexia. It means that she is doing with four-year-olds do, which is right things upside down and backwards. So a lot of what I do is relax now.

The other thing I do that I think is what you're really asking about is I've learned to focus on outcomes that I can affect. So I've gotten very interested in her social skills, in her self-control capacity because I see those things as things where I can help her by helping her to develop things that are going to serve her really well later.

GROSS: How are you trying to help her with social skills?

This is somewhat challenging, but for instance helping her show empathy towards other children and to adults by saying honey, you just did that. Will you please show me by making a face what that made the other person feel like? How would that make you feel? And rather than asking her some cognitive question like, do you think that's a good thing to do, I'll ask her something like, make a face showing how that makes that person feel. And that is a way of activating her emotional responses in a way that's accessible to her at an early age. Children really do better at certain ages with direct experience of the emotion.

What about teaching her self-control?

WANG: Well, self-control is a hard thing to teach. The kind of things I do with her with self-control are engaging in complicated games, in setting little playacting games. Like I'll give her a picture of an ear and I'll say honey, when you have the ear it's your turn to listen. When you have the mouth it's your turn to talk. And so things involving planning ahead, self-restraint, and making it into a fun game so that she naturally wants to do these things. And I tried very hard to weave that into everyday life, which I should say is actually kind of hard because honestly, I tend towards being somewhat indulgent.

GROSS: As a parent?

WANG: Yeah. I'm not very much of a tiger mother. I'm kind of more of a pussycat dad.


GROSS: Do you check yourself on that? Do you think that it's sometimes like bad to give in - that you're going to, you know, spoil her or, you know, teach the wrong lesson?

WANG: Well...

GROSS: And, you know, a lot of parents think that parenting is about being respected and being a firm authority figure, you know, drawing the line, not about like being like a nice guy and being, you know, loved and warm and fuzzy- that a parent isn't a child best friend, a parent is a parent.

WANG: I'm pretty bad at that. One thing I've - one person I turned to for advice on these things is Sandra, in fact, because Sandra is obviously at a distance from my family and so, in fact, at the same time...

GROSS: And not a parent.

WANG: Not a parent, at a distance from our family, but she has done something exceptional, which is reviewed the literature on reinforcement, on authority and so on. And so I actually often will ask is Sandra about things like what to do in terms of firmness or saying no and so on.

GROSS: Sandra, what is some of the advice you've given?

SANDRA: So kids do best in terms of their behavior when the parent is not their best friend but is also not an authoritarian - you must do what I say because I said so type of parent. The best parenting approach is to be both very responsive to what the child needs, but also to have firm rules and boundaries that you enforce in a sort of impersonal way. It's not about getting angry and saying oh, you really made me mad when you did that. It's just about saying well, that's against the rules and now you get a time out. And then OK, we're done. Everything's fine now. That whole thing is over and I'm not going to go sulk.

WANG: Right.

GROSS: And it gets - why is that a rule? I don't like that rule. And then you say?


WANG: I don't really engage with the questioning of the rule. I usually cut right to, well, I'm your father and it's time for you to have a timeout right now. And I try really hard not to get into discussions of the rule because my kid is pretty smart and she is in many cases a little lawyer. She's good at arguing with me about rules. And if I just say, you know what? What I'm saying is it is time for you to sit over here for three minutes. And that's usually enough.

GROSS: And is that effective?

WANG: It works pretty well. As long as it's not a case in which she asks for something and asks for something and then on the, you know, fourth or fifth try I say oh, OK, because that teaches something else, which is that evidently asking for something four times in a more and more strident tone is the way to get something.

GROSS: Dad can be manipulated. It just takes a little bit of time. Just be patient.


WANG: Yeah. I tried really hard not to be that dad.

GROSS: No. No. But dads believe - I know you believe that, you know, reward is better than punishment when you're teaching a child. So you've just talked about a timeout, sitting still, which to a child is a kind of punishment.

WANG: Well, one way to dispense the rewards is to do something a bit more complicated. For instance, a point system in which you say OK, you get a point if you brush your teeth for real. You get a point if you get up in the morning and you do not wake up dad demanding breakfast. OK, so...


WANG: ...and...

, NEUROSCIENTIST, SCIENCE WRITER: Well, that sounded a little personal there.


WANG: Well, I'm just saying, one point for, you know, if you wake up and the sun is not up yet and if you just play for a minute then you get a point. And eventually those points accumulate and turn into a reward. And I have to admit that those are not imaginary examples. And but the point system works pretty well actually.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both very much for talking with us.

WANG: It was our pleasure. This was fun.


GROSS: Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang are the authors of "Welcome to Your Child's Brain." You can read an excerpt on our website,, where you can also download podcasts of our show. You can find out on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.


NICK LOWE: (Singing) I'm on along the street, but nobody told my feet. They're walking on air for somebody's destiny...

GROSS: One the next FRESH AIR, Nick Lowe joins us in the studio to perform songs from his new album "The Old Magic." Join us.





Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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