‘Give me a dozen healthy infants and my own specific world to bring them up in, and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant, chef and yes, even beggar and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.” – John B Watson, Psychologist, 1924
If it were possible to enhance any aspect of your child through genetic intervention, what would it be? Most parents would probably choose genes that tend to increase intelligence, strengthen immune systems and lengthen lives. Others might be more inclined to choose genes that will engineer a piano-playing prodigy like Mozart, an Einstein, a world champion athlete, or maybe a blue-eyed, blond-headed brood. This begs the question: what enhancements would it be morally acceptable for parents to choose to make in their offspring if biotech innovations become available? Sounds like science fiction, doesn’t it – but if biotechnologists get their way, these possibilities may not be too far off.
Getting back to reality, and assuming we agree that it is a parent’s responsibility to enhance their child’s potential, when is the best time to start and what means or tools do we currently have at our disposal?
Pre-conception and Pregnancy
The chances of giving your newborn a good start in life begins at least three months before conception, when both parents should take a serious look at their own nutrition. Healthy dads produce healthy sperm, and mom needs to ensure she accumulates a store of nutrients before baby starts leaching them out of her. A well-balanced diet supplemented with a good multivitamin for both parents, with extra zinc for dad and additional folic acid and omega-3 DHA for mom, is recommended in the months before conception.
During pregnancy, talk to your unborn child. Play classical music, especially baroque music, which according to numerous studies may stimulate the brain, contribute to mathematical and other logical abilities, and possibly even stimulate overall mental development.
Children have emotions too
Enhancing a child’s potential is most definitely not all about raising a child’s intelligence: an unhappy child cannot achieve despite having inherited ‘intelligence genes’. Children need to feel secure within a caring, concerned and loving environment. Be sure to find at least one thing to praise in your child every day. Children love earning their parents’ approval, and praise reinforces and builds confidence and hence more positive behaviour. Avoid criticism, which instils feelings of worthlessness, low self-esteem and negativity – traits common in children who are performing badly at school or have behavioural problems. It is not suggested that you spoil your child, because discipline is important too – as long as it’s sensitive, thoughtful and appropriate. For a child to feel secure and to grow into a successful adult, he or she needs to know what is and isn’t acceptable in present-day society.
Creating the right environment
Whereas previously it was commonly thought that inherited genes were solely responsible for intelligence, it is now recognised that a child’s brain grows in power and intelligence when stimulated by the environment. Just as a bodybuilder exercises his muscles to make them larger and stronger, the very young human brain grows in power when stimulated or exercised: there is no limit to brain growth and intelligence! This is not a new discovery – Mozart’s father discovered it almost two hundred and fifty years ago when he turned his young son into a musical prodigy.
Brain building is not the role of the educator alone. In fact, parents can probably do it better. They alone have the love, the patience, and the one-on-one time that’s so necessary. Furthermore, a mother does not need a university degree to teach her child – in fact that’s probably the last thing she needs. Thinking provides a catalyst for learning, and children are stimulated to think by being read to, learning how to read, conversing with family members and engaging in games and activities with them.
The influence of nutrition on a child’s brain power is no longer disputed. Food affects how a child learns, behaves and feels. In The NDD Book Dr William Sears states: ‘You put junk food into a child’s brain, you get back junk behaviour, junk learning and junk mood. It’s as simple as that!’1 As he has raised eight children of his own, I think we can safely bow to Dr Sears’s superior knowledge.
Improve your child’s diet by avoiding all junk foods and increasing the number of servings of fruits and vegetables (French fries don’t count!), whole grains, good dairy, fatty fish, lean meats, eggs, unprocessed nuts and beans.Foods that had to grow themselves will also make your child grow. Proteins and omega-3 essential fatty acids are the best ‘growth foods’ for the brain.
Never send your child off to school without breakfast. Skipping breakfast means decreased attention span and learning ability. A smart breakfast would be oatmeal porridge or muesli, plain yoghurt sweetened with fruit and honey, and a handful of nuts or seeds. Proteins perk up the brain by feeding neurochemicals that foster focusing and learning, so ensure that there is protein in every meal or snack you feed your child.
To be avoided
Foods that are aggressively marketed to kids have the worst nutritional quality of all foods. Cereal boxes depicting colourful cartoons and other cheery tricks are designed to stimulate your child into wanting these ‘fun’ foods, but the damage they can do to your child’s health is no laughing matter. Some may contain up to 40 g of sugar to 100 g of cereal. Kiddies’ yoghurts in tubs beautifully decorated with pictures of colourful fruits usually contain not a gram of fruit: just colourants and flavourants which were never meant to go into a child’s body. No child, especially one with learning or behavioural problems, should be taking in any colourants, MSG or aspartame. In the UK and Europe there is a voluntary ban on six colourants, and manufacturers who still choose to use them display the following warning on their products: ‘May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children’. In South Africa these six are still freely used, especially in foods targeted at children.
If you really want to enhance your child’s potential, don’t send him or her to school overweight! The 2007 Early Childhood Longitudinal Study of thirteen thousand third-grade children showed that obese children have significantly lower maths and reading scores.2 With obesity comes low self-esteem and less achievement.
Fizzy drinks have been highly implicated in the obesity pandemic among children. Tackle your child’s school board and get them to ban these drinks in the tuck shop. By replacing unhealthy foods in our schools with nutritious alternatives, we will help children to meet nutrition standards, lose weight, encourage better eating habits, and lead healthier lives. Parents must speak out!
Plenty of research has suggested that a multivitamin/mineral supplement can improve performance in children. In a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition in 2008, researchers in the UK and Australia concluded that a vitamin/mineral supplement has the potential to improve brain function in healthy children.3
In a 2007 study, researchers concluded that taking a multivitamin/mineral supplement including omega-3 fatty acids resulted in improvement in verbal learning and memory in both marginally nourished and well-nourished children.4
Some experts say that only children with poor eating habits or chronic disorders need a multivitamin supplement; however, when it comes to omega-3 fatty acids, all kids could do with supplementing, because DHA in fish oil is the key fat for the brain and few children eat enough of the best food source, namely fatty cold-water fish such as sardines, mackerel, salmon and tuna. In the Oxford-Durham Study,5 schoolchildren with learning problems who were given daily doses of omega-3 supplements showed marked improvement in ability to learn. The results of this study were so convincing that teachers lobbied unsuccessfully to have schools dispense omega-3 supplements.
On the sports field
Physical activity can promote clear thinking, step up creativity, stimulate brain power, enhance concentration and provide conditions that are conducive to raising IQ. However, enhancing your child’s potential in the area of sporting activities does not mean trying to make them what you always wanted to be. Beware of being too enthusiastic: not every boy was meant to be a Springbok flyhalf. Lend support by taxiing to practices without moans about how this is cutting into your ‘me time’, attending matches, and giving lots of praise – but beware of how you praise: not ‘I love you because you scored that try today’, but rather ‘I love you’ and a hug.
So with all these tools at our disposal, who needs genetic intervention? Much has been said about the ‘gifted child’, but in truth every child is born with unlimited potential, as is expressed so well by Orison Marden:
‘Deep within man dwell those slumbering powers; powers that would astonish him, that he never dreamed of possessing; forces that would revolutionize his life if aroused and put into action.’
Does the onus rest with our children or with us, their parents?
- Sears W. The NDD Book. 1st ed. New York: Little Brown and Company, 2009: 3.
- Sharon Judge, Lisa Jahns.Association of Overweight With Academic Performance and Social and Behavioral Problems: An Update From the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study. Journal of School Health 2007; 77: Issue 10: 672 – 67
- Haskell CF. Cognitive and mood effects in healthy children during 12 weeks supplementation with multi-vitamin/minerals. Br J Nutr 2008; 100: 1086-1096.
- NEMO Study Group. Effect of a 12-month micronutrient intervention on learning and memory in well-nourished and marginally nourished school-aged children. Am J Clin Nutr 2007; 86: 1082-1093.
- The Oxford-Durham Study: RCT of fatty acid supplementation in children with developmental co-ordination disorder. Pediatrics 2005; 115: 1360-1366.