Don’t tell your young children they’re smart.

Children who are told they’re smart tend to give up when encountering difficulty learning a new discipline, said Heather Whitney, a facilitator who spoke recently in Haines. Instead, parents should reward children for showing effort, as only a few people are truly smart and effort is a more important attribute for achieving success.

Whitney, a representative for author John Medina, gave presentations at the public library aimed at helping parents of young children based on Medina’s book, “Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five.” Her presentations were sponsored by about a half-dozen local organizations.

Some very popular thinking about babies and fetuses is incorrect, Whitney said, including that a child who hears Mozart in the womb will develop a talent for music. Medina maintains that no commercial product has ever been shown to improve the brain performance of a developing fetus.

Also, you can throw away those “brain-friendly” toys. “Open ended” play – what a child finds to do with your car keys or an empty cardboard box – is best for brain development, Whitney said.

Although some of the book’s advice sounds intuitive – such as the importance of modeling healthy, supportive relationships to your children – an important element is that the book’s instruction is based on recent, scientific research that’s withstood the scrutiny of academic review, Whitney said.

But not all the book’s advice works for all children all the time. A key to using information, and trying different approaches to steer a child’s development, is knowing your child, she said. “You have to be willing to try some things and see what will work for your child.”

It’s also important to know that genetics is responsible for half of a child’s personality and that temperament is innate, Whitney said. “You can’t change a child’s temperament any more than you can change their eye color.”

Author Medina’s advice returns to four themes: safety, empathy, emotions and modeling.

When children feel unsafe, they’re incapable of focusing on anything other than the perceived threat, Whitney said. “The first priority for parents is to create an environment of physical and emotional safety.”

It’s critical that parents develop an “empathy reflex,” she said, that includes acknowledging a change of behavior and guessing its origin. For example, if a child becomes upset because he’s sad to be leaving the park, the best response is to speak to the child, saying, “I see you’re sad. Are you sad we’re leaving the park?”

Acknowledging a child’s emotions imparts understanding and connection, while modeling controlled behavior sends a message to the child about appropriate behavior.

Whitney said that while it’s important for an infant’s brain development that parents constantly speak to their young children, children pattern the behavior they see. “Most of our communication is non-verbal. Kids notice what you do. If you fight in front of your kids, make up in front of them. If they see wounding, they also need to see bandaging.”

A child’s self-control is a better predictor of academic success than IQ, she said. To raise a smart child, parents should encourage curiosity, reasonable risk-taking, and model inquisitiveness by phrasing questions rather than making statements.

Happy children, Whitney said, are ones who know how to make and keep friendships, as the quality of one’s friendships are a better predictor of happiness in life than any other single variable, she said.

Discipline of a young child should be firm, immediate and consistent. A good punishment is to remove a privilege or toy the child enjoys. Spanking makes children more aggressive and more likely to be depressed, but is apparently sometimes inevitable, as 94 percent of children have been spanked by their fourth birthday, she said.

It’s important to understand that parenting is a marathon, not a sprint, she said. “Look for small improvements over time. If you see the smallest improvement, you’re doing something right.”

Lisa Shove, a first-time mom with an 18-month-old son, attended all Whitney’s programs and said she found them enlightening and reassuring. She said it gave her a lot of ideas including about modeling behaviors, different methods of discipline, and not worrying, for example, that a child younger than her son has developed better speaking skills.

“It was nice to have this class early. It’s tough being a first-time mom. You come across a lot of stuff you’ve never thought about,” Shove said. She said she tried the “empathy reflex” with her son and it seemed to work.

Jenn Allen, who worked as a family visitor for the Parents As Teachers program, said she was encouraged by a core turnout of young moms for the presentations. Its information, including that nearly all marriages suffer on the arrival of a first child, is important, she said. (According to Whitney’s data, more than 80 percent of couples “experience a huge drop in marital satisfaction during the transition to parenthood.”)

“It’s important for (parents) to know they’re not alone,” Allen said.

Copies of Medina’s book are available at the public library.

Whitney’s presentations were sponsored by the public library, Lynn Canal Counseling Service, Parents as Teachers, REACH Infant Learning Program, ANS Camp 5, Tlingit and Haida Community Council, Headstart, Chilkat Valley Preschool, The Crossett Fund, and Chilkoot Indian Association.