Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson’s “The Whole Brain Child” fails to deliver on the titular promise of “revolutionary” parenting strategies to “truly help your kids be happier, healthier, and more fully themselves”; it does, however, provide innovative and effective explanations, packaging, and delivery of many tried-and-true parenting techniques that turn out to be neuroscientifically based.
The first four chapters are the love child of the Johns – Medina’s “Brain Rules for Baby” and Gottman’s “Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child.” Like Medina, Siegel and Bryson show great talent for breaking down complex science into readily understandable terms (they even surpass him when explaining implicit memory). Yet whereas Medina carefully limits himself to truly definitive (i.e., research-backed) conclusions, Siegel and Bryson – like Gottman – go further, using available data as a theoretical springboard for vaunting specific, mostly emotion-related practices. The following seven strategies result: (1) “Connect and Redirect: [Helping Kids Learn to Surf] Emotional Waves”; (2) “Name It to Tame It: Telling Stories to Calm Big Emotions”; (3) “Engage, Don’t Enrage: Appealing to the Upstairs Brain”; (4) “Use It or Lose It: Exercising the Upstairs Brain”; (5) “Move It or Lose It: Moving the Body to Avoid Losing the Mind”; (6) “Use the Remote of the Mind: Replaying Memories”; and (7) “Remember to Remember: Making Recollection a Part of Your Family’s Daily Life.”
The fifth and sixth chapters, however, throw a little of Susan Stiffelman’s “Parenting Without Power Struggles” into the mix, offering child therapy techniques and explaining why they work through the prism of brain science. Strategies eight through twelve are: (8) “Let the Clouds of Emotion Roll By: Teaching That Feelings Come and Go”; (9) “SIFT[, or Sensations, Images, Feelings, and Thoughts]: Paying Attention to What’s Going On Inside”; (10) “Exercise Mindsight: Getting Back to the Hub[, or, Learning to See Your Internal Forest for the Trees]”; (11) “Increase the Family Fun Factor: Making a Point to Enjoy Each Other”; and (12) “Connect Through Conflict: Teach Kids to Argue with a ‘We’ in Mind.”
Their premise is that these twelve strategies help “integrate” children’s brains, that is, “coordinate and balance the separate regions of the brain” so as to optimize mental health. Using the image of a child inside a canoe floating down a river, they explain that veering close to the bank of chaos leaves the kid feeling too out of control to relax whereas drifting close to the bank of rigidity makes the kid too rigid to function ideally (instead “imposing control on everything and everyone”). “By helping our kids connect left [brain] and right [brain]” – as well as their “upstairs” and “downstairs” brains and implicit and explicit memories – “we give them a better chance of [finding] . . . harmonious flow between the two extremes,” which in turn will minimize tantrums and other results of “dis-integration.” Of course, they warn, the results won’t be perfect both because we should expect imperfection in ourselves as parents and because kids are biologically unable to always “be rational, regulate their emotions, make good decisions, think before acting, and be empathetic.”
So far all we’ve got is clever packaging and some fun analogies for pretty standard knowledge regarding keeping kids calm. The true deliciousness of what Siegel and Bryson bring to the table is a self-awareness that is two-fold, one not unique and the other truly so. First, like Medina, the authors apply their knowledge of the brain to their own project, creating a structure that maximizes retention and usefulness, including the descriptive “strategies” as chapter sub-headings, a “refrigerator sheet” that summarizes a few details under each strategy, an “ages and stages” chart that emphasizes different applications for children of different ages, and acronyms (e.g., “before you over-analyze the situation, HALT and check the basics: is your little [one] simply hungry, angry, lonely, or tired?”).
Second, and most thrilling, the authors provide graphics and suggestions for talking to kids about the way their brains and bodies work, giving children an opportunity to consciously take part in regulation of their own emotions and behavior. For the past few years, I’ve tried to provide my toddler with ownership over her well-being, telling her about some of the parenting techniques I read about, giving her a head’s up that I intend to use them, and then chatting about their effectiveness. But I’ve never read about doing this in a parenting book, and certainly haven’t heard anyone suggest starting with brain science. At their suggestion I said to my toddler, “You know how when you’re happy, your brain puts a smile on your face? Well, the same thing works backwards a little. If you smile for a while, even if you’re sad, you’ll start to feel a bit better.” And that’s just the beginning. Pretty freaking cool, guys.
Finally, I want to share two interesting tidbits from “The Whole Brain Child” approach that contradict standard parenting advice but perfectly align with my parenting instincts:
- “An upstairs tantrum occurs when a child essentially decides to throw a fit. . . . A downstairs tantrum is completely different. Here, a child becomes so upset that he’s no longer able to use his upstairs brain.” With respect to the former, parents ought to follow standard advice, ignoring the antics and enforcing pre-established boundaries; when the latter type of fit is in play, however, “a completely different parental response is called for . . . much more nurturing and comforting.”
- “In high-stress situations, engage your child’s upstairs brain, which is where his higher-order thinking takes place. Rather than triggering the more primitive and reactive downstairs brain with the ‘Because I said so!’ card, ask questions, collaborate, and even negotiate. The more you can appeal to the upstairs brain and engage him in critical thinking and processing, the more your child will think and act and decide, rather than simply reacting to what he’s feeling.”
On the “eh” side of the scale, “The Whole Brain Child” is more useful for older children than younger ones, is often redundant and long-winded (darned brain scientists trying to make information stick), and isn’t as comprehensive as “Parenting with Love & Logic.” But there’s quite a bit to celebrate here. Though Spiegel and Bryson don’t offer much that’s new in the realm of what parents ought to do, “The Whole Brain Child” adds value to the genre in providing the why and organizing the what into an easily understood, memorable, and, yes, at one point even “revolutionary,” how.