Jenn returned from the library and handed me several books. “I thought you’d be interested in these”. She was right. I was intrigued by one title immediately; “The Whole Brain Child”. With the choice between a 5-star rated child development book published by Harvard press and “The Whole Brain Child” like a zombie I chose “whole brains”.
Authors Dr. Tina Payne Bryson and Dr. Daniel J. Siegel present methods to deal with the madness of parenting and childhood. The end goal is integration of the impulsive and primal “downstairs” brain with the thoughtful and decision making “upstairs” brain, resulting in empathetic and fully engaged children. Along the way Bryson and Siegel sprinkle details from the latest neurological and psychological research on child development to craft an information dense, readable parenting book.
As one would expect the book starts with the left/right brain division; the thinkers and the feelers, the scientists and the artists. Next they dive into the “upstairs” and “downstairs” theory. You don’t need to be a parent to understand the “downstairs”, or primal, part of the brain. This is where tantrums in children start and where logic gets buried in the adult brain. The tendency of parents the world over is to confront the cellar of the mind ready for battle, with time-outs and threats of canceled sleepovers at the ready. But what if we could work with our children to fight their own battles, to utilize the higher plane of thought residing a few steps away? The battle may be just as arduous with as many defeats as victories, but it changes the dynamics of the battle. No longer is it parent versus child, but parent and child versus the child’s natural impulse.
Without connection to the logic and consideration of others the “upstairs” brain provides a person’s primal emotions may run amok. I’ll never forget an incident I observed as a high school sophomore riding the bus home one day. An argument between a boy and a girl started. Moments later the boy punched the girl so hard she was left unconscious and bleeding in the aisle. I look back and think “this must be what the authors are talking about”. No thought to consequences or consideration for others.
“The Whole Brain Child” felt like an introduction to child psychology. Opposing the traditional reaction to traumatic events by saying “they’ll get over it”, the authors urge parents to talk with their children about traumatic and upsetting experiences. The act of repeating stories provides opportunities for children to process the events and place them in perspective. If your child got sick at school one time and suddenly is petrified of entering the classroom, what can you do? In the example provided in the book, the father of a girl who experienced this talked his daughter through the entire day from the safety of home. The girl returned to school fearless and mentally stronger for the exercise of her rational brain.
“The Whole Brain Child” is full of visual aids to help parents and children put their advice into practice. Even those without children would find aspects of the book interesting. For instance I was intrigued to know Stephen King got his vivid description of memory storage and retrieval completely wrong in “Dreamcatcher”. Memories are not files we keep in mental storage cabinets. Neuroscience is now comparing memories to puzzle pieces floating around the brain. To complicate matters, every time we “retrieve” a memory an alteration takes place by the very act of retrieval. Making sense of our memories comes through storytelling which links the pieces together.
As the book closes the authors encourage us to make sense of our own childhood, of the way we were parented. This alone, Siegel and Bryson say, will make someone a better parent and is more effective than anything else found in the book. Since becoming a father I have replayed events from my childhood, trying to make sense of how I ended up “me”. I’ve got a long way to go but I’ve picked up a wealth of understanding and grace towards my parents.
Note: I read the hardback and listened to the audio book (yes, it’s that good!). Both have their merits. The book is full of helpful illustrations. The audiobook is unabridged and read by the authors.