Building the Staircase of the Mind - Woodmam

Building the Staircase of the Mind - Woodmam

Integrating the Upstairs and Downstairs Brain

One afternoon Jill heard yelling and commotion in the bedroom of her six-year-old, Grant. Four-year-old Gracie had found her brother’s treasure box and taken his “most rarest crystal,” which she then lost. Jill arrived just in time to hear Gracie say, in her most spiteful voice, “It’s just a dumb rock and I’m glad I lost it!”

Jill looked at her young son, fists clenched and face turning red. You’ve probably experienced just such a moment, where a situation with your child is delicately balanced and is about to turn ugly. Things could still be salvaged and tip toward a good and peaceful resolution. Or they could tilt in the other direction, devolving into chaos, anarchy, even violence.

And it all depends on your little darling controlling an impulse. Calming some big feelings. Making a good decision.


In this case, Jill immediately saw signs of what was coming: Grant was losing control and was not going to make a good decision. She saw the fury in his eyes and heard the beginnings of a barbaric growl begin to emerge from his throat. She matched him, step for step, as he raced across the few feet between himself and his sister. Fortunately, Jill was quicker and intercepted Grant before he reached Gracie. She picked him up and held him close as his punches and kicks flailed wildly in the air, Grant screaming all the while. When he finally stopped fighting, Jill set him down. Through his tears he looked at his sister, who actually adored and idolized him, and calmly uttered the phrase, “You’re the worst sister in the world.”

As Jill told Dan this story, she explained that this last verbal torpedo had hit its mark and produced the dramatic tears from Gracie that Grant had hoped for. Still, Jill was glad that she had been there, or her son likely would have caused physical, not just emotional, pain. The question she asked Dan is one that parents ask us frequently: I can’t be with my kids every second of the day. How do I teach them to do the right thing and control themselves even when I’m not around?

One of the most important skills we can teach our kids is to make good decisions in high-emotion situations like the one Grant faced here. We want them to pause before acting, to consider consequences, to think about the feelings of others, to make ethical and moral judgments. Sometimes they come through with the kind of behavior that makes us proud. And sometimes they don’t.

What is it that makes our kids choose their actions so wisely in certain moments and so poorly in others? Why do certain situations leave us patting our children on the back, and others leave us throwing our hands in the air? Well, there are some pretty good reasons based on what’s going on in the higher and lower parts of a child’s brain.
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