Whole-Brain Child

I just finished reading my tenth book this year called The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, Survive Everyday Parenting Struggles, and Help Your Family Thrive, by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. While I did find it annoying and almost exhausting when they would keep saying “the left brain does this,” “the right brain does that,” and the upstairs/downstairs brain does y and z, I did find a lot of the tips to be very compelling and summed up in easy-to-digest-and-understand ways. Also, I think recent science has debunked the notion that different hemispheres and parts of the brain operate independently, as the brain is far more complex than that: the brain’s different hemispheres are not, in reality, like two separate personas taking turns thinking and processing information. In pretty much every situation, you are using both sides. What does hold water is that as young brains are developing, they are far more emotional than they are rational, and that’s where parents can help guide their children in the right direction. We can help them understand that an emotion is a temporary state and does not define them as people; we can help them understand the importance of things like a routine, sharing with others, and caring for others. Although the jargon and framing was a bit annoying and questionable, I did enjoy the book overall and think it does have a lot of practical applications, especially the last part, which has a “worksheet” you can use to apply their recommended strategies to kids of specific age ranges.

I really enjoyed the ending of the book, too, where the authors say this:

“It’s not how our parents raised us, or how many parenting books we’ve read. It’s actually how well we’ve made sense of our experiences with our own parents and how sensitive we are to our children that most powerfully influence our relationship with our kids, and therefore how well they thrive. It all comes down to what we call our life narrative, the story we tell when we look at who we are and how we’ve become the person that we are … Our life narrative determines our feelings about our past, our understanding of why people (like our parents) behaved as they did, and our awareness of the way those events have impacted our development into adulthood. When we have a coherent life narrative, we have made sense of how the past has contributed to who we are and what we do.”

People who don’t “get it” and lack empathy and deep emotional understanding always say, “the past is in the past.” The reality is that it actually isn’t because as the authors say here, the past and your past experiences shape who you are and how you see and interact with the world today and into the future. I personally found pregnancy and motherhood very triggering in a lot of ways because it forced me to reckon with my past experiences as a child with my mercurial, emotionally immature parents. I had to do a lot of thinking about what kind of parent I wanted to be, what I wanted to emulate of my parents, and what I wanted to steer far away from. In the most random moments, I would be reminded of some negative, toxic experience I had with my mom or dad, or that I witnessed between my parents and Ed, and I’d just feel anger and disgust that something so senseless and psychologically damaging could have happened. And I’d think to myself, I never, ever want Kaia to know what that type of treatment is like, ever.

I know why my parents are the way they are: my dad had absentee parents who left him at home as a latchkey kid to fend, feed, and care for himself. One parent was what my aunt called “like Dr. Jekyll and Hyde,” emotionally void and always distant; the other parent constantly criticized everything and everyone because nothing was ever good enough. So my dad became fiercely independent and expected his kids to be the same; he refused to teach us anything and expected us to learn everything on our own (one of Ed’s most painful memories that he used to recount to me from time to time was the morning of his elementary school graduation. Ed had never worn a tie before, but my mom wanted him to wear one for the ceremony. He asked my dad to help him. My dad snorted in response and said, “If you don’t know how to tie your own tie, you shouldn’t even be graduating”). My mom’s dad died when she was young, and her mom didn’t even want her because she was not only the youngest, but a girl. I’ve come to terms with how they are who they are; I’m an adult now, after all. I just don’t think I have to suffer their verbal beatings all the time anymore.

Awareness comes first. Action is in little steps every day. I’m just trying my best to be the best parent I can be, and I hope when Kaia is an adult that she will still want to spend time with me and enjoy it. The book suggests trying to find mutually fun things that you can do with your child as they get older that are fitting for their stage of development/age. Otherwise, they say, your child as an adult may not want to have anything to do with you because they will have nothing to do with you! That could not be truer for me: my parents and I literally have nothing we can do together other than eat, even when I’ve attempted to take them on light hikes and walks. Even a walk is not something they want to do altogether. That’s sad, isn’t it?

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