Guest Blog: Great Parents Understand That Children’s Brains Are Different by Erica Reischer, author, What Great Parents Do: 75 Simple Strategies for Raising Kids Who Thrive

Photo credit: Anthony Woolf

Photo credit: Anthony Woolf

Two common frustrations of parents, especially parents of young children, is how loooong everything takes, and how much repetition and reminding seems to be required.

Before becoming a parent, getting out the door in the morning used to be a breeze and now it seems to take at least twice as long. Ask your toddler to put on her shoes and ten minutes later you may find her playing intently with her blocks instead, the shoes having been long forgotten. Ask your first-grader to hang up his coat when he comes home from school and you may find the coat on the floor most afternoons. Having kids is a time-intensive and repetitive project.

True, and for good reason: Children’s brains are different from adult brains. In contrast to adults, who are generally able to undertake a task and stay focused, children get distracted (as we adults often perceive it). This “distractibility” causes much frustration for parents: Parents often feel they are always reminding their children to stay focused and are constantly repeating themselves.

When you notice your kids getting “distracted,” remember this: Children’s brains are wired for discovery and learning. Their prefrontal cortex (the seat of executive functioning, including the ability to plan and focus) is not yet fully developed. This characteristic enables them to have an exploratory and flexible brain that researchers believe is crucial to our evolution as a species. As psychologist Alison Gopnick puts it, babies and children are like the research and development department of our species. Without children and their unique brains, the cumulative learning of our species would be severely curtailed.

At the same time, individual learning relies heavily on repetition. We try something, get feedback from others and/or our environment about what works and what doesn’t, and try again. And again. And again. To learn, children need lots of opportunities to try, try, and try again.

Children also have less ability than adults to pay attention to their surroundings when they are focused elsewhere, an ability often referred to as peripheral awareness and commonly known as “hearing but not listening.” This is the phenomenon parents experience when they ask a question of their child—who may be standing right next to them—but get no response.

Parents may think they are being ignored (and therefore feel angry or frustrated) in this scenario, but in fact their child is likely experiencing “inattentional blindness”—a lack of awareness of what is happening outside of his immediate focus of attention.

So give kids the benefit of the doubt when they are distracted or seem to be ignoring you, and try the tips below.

TRY THIS: Change your perspective to see your children’s “distractibility” as a critical part of their growth and development. Remind yourself that, for young children in particular, they really can’t help themselves: Their brains are not yet fully wired for focused and efficient action.

To paraphrase another useful analogy from Gopnick: Adult brains are like a flashlight, able to focus intently on a chosen area while ignoring diversions; but children’s brains are like a lantern, illuminating everything as worthy of interest and attention.

When we see our children’s distractibility less as an affront or inconvenience and more as a manifestation of their wonderful ability to discover and learn, that shift in our perspective can give us the extra patience we need to remind them one more time.

Similarly, when we feel ignored by our children because we just asked them to do something and they’re still sitting on the floor playing (or whatever the case may be), don’t assume they registered what you said, even if they are just inches away.

Instead, to ensure they are both hearing and listening:

  1. Walk over to them.
  2. Make gentle physical contact (e.g., a hand on their arm).
  3. Get eye contact before you speak to them. For young kids, it’s also helpful to crouch down at their eye level. (For better or worse, this rules out shouting up or down the stairs as an effective communication strategy.)


Excerpted from WHAT GREAT PARENTS DO: 75 Simple Strategies for Raising Kids Who Thrive by Erica Reischer, Ph.D. © 2016 by Erica Reischer. TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.


About the Author:

Erica Reischer, Ph.D., is the author of WHAT GREAT PARENTS DO: 75 Simple Strategies for Raising Kids Who Thrive. A clinical psychologist and parent educator based in Oakland, CA, she holds a doctorate from the University of Chicago in psychology and human development, and is an honors graduate of Princeton University. A former consultant with McKinsey & Company, Dr. Reischer sits on the advisory board for and leads popular parenting classes and workshops at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, Habitot Children’s Museum, and the University of California. Her writing about children and families appears in Psychology Today, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic. Learn more at


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