For this month’s parenting book, I have chosen the New York Times Bestseller, The Whole Brain Child, by Daniel J Siegel, M.D., and Tina Payne Bryson, PH.D.
What’s So Great About This Book?
Recently, It came to my attention that many parents were recommending the Whole Brain Child on social networking groups for parents. I was a bit skeptical. Was it going to be pop psychology esk or too hippy dippy? Then I read it.
The information in this book is actually simplified explanations of neuroscientific and psychological understandings of the brain. Observable phenomena on how children’s brains function - and how that differs from our fully developed adult brains.
It’s meant to help parents, teachers, therapists, etc. better understand how children, from birth to age 12, think and why they behave the way they do. In addition, the Whole Brain Child provides parents with personal insight on some universal brain functions - see below. Along with many helpful drawings, the book includes a “refrigerator sheet” at the back with clear strategies for responding to each age/stage.
Major Concepts in The Whole Brain Child
1. Left Brain / Right Brain
For developmental reasons, there are times when children’s left and right hemispheres won’t function as a whole. For example, when a child becomes upset, his/her brain functions may actually be stuck in the emotional right brain and completely cut off from the left. The simple act of naming a feeling or experience with words (i.e. left brain) will actually help your child to physically calm the emotional storm of his/her right brain and regroup the two sides. Parents should always try to connect first - validate feelings - before reasoning. Remember the phrase “Name it To Tame it”. Talking about emotional experiences drastically helps kids to understand and assign meaning to their experiences.
2. Upstairs Brain / Downstairs Brain
Higher order brain functions like, sound decision making, planning, body control and empathy are not fully developed until our mid twenties! While our children may display many of these qualities already, it is actually unreasonable for us to expect them to behave “appropriately” all of the time. The Whole Brain Child explains many examples of how to help children exercise their upstairs brain and what appropriate expectations are.
3. Memory: Implicit / Explicit
Memories from our past play an essential role in how we interpret our present and future life experiences - whether we realize it or not. The same goes for our children. Traumatic memories are stored in the brain and the associated feelings will continually arise, often without our children knowing why (i.e. fear of dogs or loud noises). Talking about hard and exciting times, as well explaining to older kids how their brains work, will help put those “puzzle pieces” together, and result in happier, healthier kids!
Integration is the key ingredient to your child’s healthy brain. It’s the way in which all of the different parts of our brain work together as a unit. Integration is the ability to use our left and right hemispheres together, to temper our instinctual responses with the morals of our upstairs brain, and to blend our implicit and explicit memories. The Whole Brain Child uses the metaphor of our children riding on a canoe down a “river of well-being”. The river is where our children find equilibrium between the different parts of their brain. This is integration. It takes a lot of practice and they need our help to ride the waves!
Take Home Message for Parents
The Whole Brain Child offers a unique framework for looking at our children’s behaviour. One of the major themes is the importance of integrating storytelling and recollection into our family routines at home. “Let’s recap what we did today….Tell me about that time when you fell off of your bike…” Sometimes our instinct as parents is to avoid difficult conversations and deny harsh feelings. But encouraging children to tell their own stories about what happened, calms the difficult feelings, supports mental health and helps them put the “puzzle pieces” of their experience together into a meaningful narrative. Most importantly, we’re all doing our best with the brains that we have, and while it’s not always an excuse for misbehaviour, it certainly shines light on how those wheels are turning inside of our loveable little monsters.