The Whole-Brain Child: Great Strategies for Creating Happy, Healthy Kids

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After making the grade in high school biology class, many of us cheerfully forgot about the cerebral cortex, the amygdala and the hippocampus, but UCLA neuropsychiatrist Daniel J. Siegel and parenting specialist Tina Payne Bryson argue that understanding these terms, and the brain as a whole, is the most important thing you can do as a parent.

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The pair's new book, The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind (Delacorte Press), reminds us of the brain's curious construction and rapacious activities, but updates our knowledge with clear descriptions of recent developments related to neuron behavior and brain plasticity and their implications for child behavior.

Siegel and Bryson also adopt simpler language -- the cerebral cortex becomes the "upstairs brain," for example, while the more primitive lower areas of the limbic region are dubbed the "downstairs brain," and the 12 strategies are framed as easy-to-remember slogans (Strategy #2: Name It to Tame It: Telling Stories to Calm Big Emotions). Indeed, the book offers an incredibly helpful and clear series of childrearing guidelines grounded in new brain science and written for a hopeful vision of a culture that is deeply connected, ethically grounded and emotionally attuned thanks to some fairly straightforward science.

The book opens by musing on the fact that, as busy and exhausted parents, we're often just trying to survive. However, when we take time to think about our kids and our most ardent hopes for them, we want them to thrive. Siegel and Bryson seek to unite these two poles, and suggest that we find opportunities for helping our kids learn to thrive precisely in the moments of greatest strife. To do this, we simply need to discern the emotional needs of our children by understanding how these needs are determined in large part by the brain.

The "whole-brain perspective" advocated by Siegel and Bryson provides that understanding. It centers on integrating the different parts of the brain, and understanding some pretty radical notions. For example, the brain is constantly in flux, wiring and rewiring itself in conjunction with new experiences. These new experiences become memories, which also get perpetually reconfigured. Rather than a file drawer or photocopy machine, which are the common metaphors we use, our memory is instead eerily flexible. "Whenever you retrieve a memory, you alter it," the authors explain.

Memories are also linked directly to associations, and these are subject to revision. The good news is that we -- and our kids -- can use this information to become authors of our own life stories, working through disturbing and disruptive memories, for example, provided we understand some of this basic brain functionality.

Siegel and Bryson also chart the brain's development, tempering expectations about what's possible at different ages. They note, for example, that the upstairs brain remains, like so many building projects, incomplete for a long time, well into a person's early 20s. They also note that parents need to be attentive to the origin of various behaviors. For example, there are two kinds of tantrums. An "upstairs tantrum" is one that is planned, considered and tactical. Their advice? "Never negotiate with a terrorist." A "downstairs tantrum," however, explodes from a state of full dis-integration when a child is unable to think logically. A response to this kind of tantrum cannot leverage logic. Better to cuddle and console.

Overall, the book uses science to craft a set of 12 powerful strategies designed to catalyze greater agency and empathy in our behavior. It cheerfully puts forward very radical ideas, but in a context that ambitiously imagines smart, holistic parenting practices. "There's nothing more important you can do as a parent than to be intentional about the way you're shaping your child's mind," the authors write toward the end of the book. "What you do matters profoundly."

If you want to find out more about the 12 strategies, Siegel and Bryson are offering a workshop, The Whole Brain Child: 12 Strategies to Nurture Your Child's Development on Saturday, October 15, 10:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m. at the Neuro-Psychiatric Institute Auditorium in Westwood.

(Image from stock.xchng, by kafat)

About the Author

Holly Willis teaches in USC's School of Cinematic Arts and writes about new media art. She is the author of "New Digital Cinema: Reinventing the Moving Image" and editor of "The New Ecology of Things" on pervasive computing.
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