Last week I began a blog series exploring my experimentation with the parenting philosophy found in the book, The Whole Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. And by experimentation, I mean using the ideas in the book in both my own parenting of my two children who are ages 6 and 3, and in helping the parents I work with in my counseling practice and in my workshops.
I also discussed last week that I love how the book begins with the plea for parents to look at their own brain functioning and how for good or for bad, may be being mirrored by their children. As a marriage and family therapist who was trained to think systemically, I know that our kids are not raised in a vacuum but are influenced by the many things we do.
So please take comfort knowing, that I am on this journey along with you. I’m a learner in this process making lots of mistakes as well as having victories. Hopefully we can figure some things out together.
Let’s dive into Chapter 1 of the book which is called Parenting with the Brain in Mind. I talk a lot about the brain in my work with couples in therapy, and it is part of the work we do at The Hideaway Experience marriage intensive in Amarillo, TX. I know that changes occurs at many levels in our body, but our brain holds a very valuable and specific role. I am reminded of the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 12:2a who writes, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Even before all the neuroscience was available to us, Paul and many others knew that transformational change often occurs in our mind (i.e. brain).
And even though I thought I knew a lot about how the brain worked, I was really enlightened by what I read in The Whole Brain Child.
In fact, what I read was essentially paradigm busting for me.
So Let’s Talk About the Brain
Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson do a great job of helping break down the brain into simple, easy to understand parts. Though neuroscience researchers may cringe at my lack of technical language and understanding of the brain, I’m a parent after all and need to understand it as quickly and as elementary as possible.
So think of the brain as having 4 different parts:
“Most of us don’t think about the fact that our brain has many different parts with different jobs. For example, you have a left side of the brain that helps you think logically and organize thoughts into sentences, and a right side that helps you experience emotions and read nonverbal cues. You also have a ‘reptile brain’ that allows you to act instinctually and make split-second survival decisions, and a ‘mammal brain’ that leads you toward connection and relationships. One part of your brain is devoted to dealing with memory, another to making moral and ethical decisions. it’s almost as if your brain has multiple personalities–some rational, some irrational; some reflective, some reactive. No wonder we can seem like different people at different times!” (pp. 6)
Let’s recap the parts:
- left brain: likes logic, rationale, analysis, numbers, words, sequence, etc. It very much likes what my accountant CPA wife likes.
- right brain: likes emotions, creativity, connection, relational interaction. This is what I like. (that’s why pposites do attract).
- ‘reptile brain’: it is the center of ‘fight or flight.’ It helps us respond quickly to danger and make quick instinctual decisions.
- ‘mammal brain’: it helps us connect to other people and relate.
This may be oversimplistic, but it has helped me understand my own children better, as well as some other areas of my life that I will blog about later in this series (i.e. marriage, masculinity, etc.)
Integration is Key
With so many varying parts that all play crucial roles, how we integrate them is essential. If your child (or you) is responding only out of your left brain, then you are going to be very limited as a parent. Same thing if your child (or you) is responding only out of your right brain. And what happens if your child is constantly responding out of the ‘reptile brain’ and is in a constant stage of ‘flight or fight?’ A lot of parents who struggle with high levels of anxiety have a hard time of shifting out of this part of their brain being the control center. And how exhausting is that?
As Siegel and Bryson note:
“The key to thriving is to help these parts work well together–to integrate them. Integration takes the distinct parts of your brain and helps them work together as a whole.” (pp. 6)
“Tantrums, meltdowns, aggression, and most of the other challenging experiences of parenting–and life–are a result of a loss of integration, also known as dis-integration.” (pp. 6)
So the question and challenge for us becomes, “How well are we as parents integrating the various parts of our brain in our parenting? And how well are we helping our kids integrate the various parts of their brain?”
This is something that I have not thought about before. But before we get into the strategies in The Whole Brain Child, it’s important for us to pause and reflect on how the brain works (something we will be doing for a few posts). In my opinion, the strategies will not make any sense without us first understanding the basics of our brain.
So stay tuned as we continue talking about the brain and diving into the 12 strategies.
But I leave you with this challenge from the book:
“We want to help our children become better integrated so they can use their whole brain in a coordinated way. For example, we want them to be horizontally integrated, so that their left-brain logic can work with their right-brain emotions. We also want them to be vertically integrated, so that the physically higher parts of their brain, which let them thoughtfully consider their actions, work well with the lower parts, which are more concerned with instinct, gut reactions and survival. (pp. 7)
[brain image at top courtesy of TinaBryson.com]