This last week we talked about the importance of integrating the upstairs brain with the downstairs brain, and strategy #4 continues with along this same theme. I love the idea in The Whole-Brain Child that “The upstairs brain is like a muscle; when it gets used, it develops, gets stronger, and performs better. And when it gets ignored, it doesn’t develop optimally, losing some of its power and ability to function” (pp. 52).
I think that a lot of us know that the brain needs to be exercised, but we just don’t often know where to start, and Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson offer five really simple solutions that you can begin to practice with your kids today…like immediately.
Exercise #1: Help them practice making sound decisions
One of the ways that you can help your kids practice this is by giving them the opportunity to make choices. Giving your child choices strengthens the upstairs brain and will give them practice in making decisions among a variety of options.
One of the ways that my wife and I began practicing this early on with each of our kids was letting them choose between 2-3 options of things. For example:
- Do you want to read this book tonight, or that book?
- Do you want to wear your tennis shoes, or your sandals?
- Do you want to have a “special treat” (aka dessert snack) now, or after dinner?
Honestly, I feel like this is one of the best practices that we were taught. I say that because both of my kids tend to make very decisive decisions and I don’t see the worry and anxiety in them that a lot of kids (and adults) experience over trying to make the right decision. Some kids will fret about which choice is the right one forever and ever. By giving our kids a variety of choices over a number of different areas in their lives, I feel like it has helped them become better at making good decisions?
Exercise #2: Help them learn how to control their emotions and body
This exercise is one that my wife and I haven’t done as well, but I think we are beginning to help our kids do this better. Some of the ways that the authors suggest are things like “teach them to take a deep breath, or count to ten. Help them express their feelings. Let them stomp their feet or punch a pillow” (pp. 54).
One of the ways that I have begun to do this in my daughter’s life is helping her learn how to take a deep breath. I explain it like this:
Me: “Do you know when you go to the doctor and they put that thing (stethoscope; now I use that word with her) up against your chest and back to hear your breathing and listen to your heart?”
Me: “Do you remember how the doctor asks you to take big, deep breaths?”
Hayden: She nods yes.
Me: “I want you to practice one for me right now…let me see.”
Hayden: She practices a deep breath with a smile on her face.
Me: “I want you to practice something for me. Whenever you get mad, or feel sad. Whenever you get nervous or you feel butterflies in your stomach…I want you to stop what you are doing and take 10 big deep breaths…just like you did for me right now.”
I check in to see if she is tracking with me. And she is.
Me: “And I bet by the time you get to 10 you will feel better. If you don’t, you can try a few extra ones. What do you think of that idea?”
Hayden: “It sounds good.”
Me: “Okay, let’s just try it out for the next few weeks and see what happens.”
Exercise #3: Help your kids look below the surface (“self-understanding)
I find this to be one of the more simple exercises to try, but it can be more difficult in seeing immediate results. You are asking your kids to look below the surface and understand why they make certain choices, which will require some self-reflection on their part.
So for example, when my daughter pushes my son’s buttons (pesters him), I ask her something like, “Why are you pestering Hudson?” “Why do you think you made that choice to take away his toy he was playing with?” “Are you trying to make him mad, or are you just really wanting to play with it?” I think of this exercise as exploring options and possibilities with your kids…helping them look at different angles on why they make certain choices, which ultimately helps them understand themselves better. The authors recommend journaling and drawing for kids who are older.
Exercise #4: Helping your kids think of others (“empathy”)
“When you ask simple questions that encourage the consideration of another’s feelings, you are building your child’s ability to feel empathy” (pp. 55).
For example, I find myself asking my daughter a lot about how some of the kids on the street might be feeling when she notices they are sad, mad, won’t play with her, when she feels left out, etc. This has actually been an amazing experience as I’ve watched my daughter stop for a moment and think about the feelings of others, even when she might be hurt by something another person did. One time when a kid was being mean to her at school, Hayden was able to express that maybe the kid had a bad morning at home, or was sad themselves.
What kinds of questions do you ask your kids to practice empathy?
Exercise #5: Helping our kids have a strong sense of morality
“When kids can make sound decisions while controlling themselves and working from empathy and self-understanding, they will develop a robust and active sense of morality, a sense of not only right and wrong, but also what is for the greater good beyond their own individual needs” (pp. 57).
One of the ways the authors suggest doing this is through hypothetical situations. I could ask my kids, “Is it okay to take your friend’s toy and keep it? Is it okay to run a red light…even if no one is watching? Is it okay for a mommy and daddy to scream and yell at their child? Is it okay to tease other kids and make fun of them?”
Another way is to process situations that have occurred (i.e. watching someone cuss another person out in the grocery parking lot), and use that as a teaching opportunity.
And the most important way that we teach our kids morality is by modeling it in our own lives. What are you teaching your kids about morality by your own behavior?
These are five simple exercises that I encourage you to experiment with. Try them out and pay attention to the positive impact they have on your child’s growth.