THE BLOG
12/27/2011 04:16 pm ET Updated Feb 26, 2012

Actions and Action Figures: Gift Giving as Brain Development

Parents across the country search for holiday presents that teach as well as delight. Research on brain development suggests that delight is lesson enough. Behind the excited scream, "It's just what I wanted!" is the feeling that comes with being seen, understood and loved. These emotions build what child development specialists call attachment. And it turns out that strong attachment helps young children learn skills and concepts they need for school and life.

Most parents understand that they can teach their children through play. Experts rightly reinforce this message: "Children are born ready to learn. They enter the world with a natural curiosity that grows through their explorations and experiences," explains the national research and advocacy group Zero to Three. This understanding leads many parents to teach their children to count, to identify colors and perhaps even to read before they enter kindergarten.

The impact of feeling loved on the ability to learn is not understood nearly as well. But research shows increasingly that healthy brain development can't happen without the kind of love that builds attachment. Attachment is a mutual bond between baby and caregiver so strong that the caregiver's responses shape the baby's interactions with the rest of the world. Over the past 50 years, research has increasingly shown that young children with strong attachment to their caregivers not only have better emotional health, but they are also better learners.

At Children's Law Center, many of the children we work with suffer from the effects of neglectful parenting. We know that these children's developmental delays come from a lack of solid attachment, not just the lack of a parent teaching them the ABC's. For these children, building attachment in specific concrete ways is important. Gift giving is one of the easiest, best ways to do so.

Before he came to live with me, my son didn't get presents at Christmas. Too young to understand he was being neglected by his mother, he thought Santa had judged between "naughty or nice" and decided he wasn't good enough to earn love or the gifts that expressed it. He's not the only child to reach this conclusion, but programs like Children's Law Center's Holiday Hope Drive try to reduce their numbers.

Of course, just giving gifts is not enough; it's important for parents to play alongside their children, reinforcing both lessons and love. Attachment results from a child's feelings of trust and emotional security achieved during positive interactions with caregivers -- like giving a gift or unwrapping it and finding a new toy to play with together.

Whether they come in boxes topped with bows or are more abstract, parents' gifts to their children are critically important. Actions and action figures both speak louder than words when it comes to telling children that they are unconditionally loved and have a safe environment where they can develop -- physically, emotionally, mentally -- as they should.