Engage, Don’t Enrage: Appealing to the Upstairs Brain
Ask yourself, as you interact with your kids through the day, which part of their brain you’re appealing to. Are you engaging the upstairs? Or are you triggering the downstairs? The answer to this question can go a long way toward determining the outcome of one of those delicately balanced parenting moments. Here’s a story Tina tells about a time she faced just such a moment with her son:
While eating at one of our favorite Mexican restaurants, I noticed that my four-year-old had left the table and was standing behind a pillar about ten feet away. As much as I love him, and as adorable as he is most of the time, when I saw his angry, defiant face coupled with his repeated tongue-thrusting aimed at our table, “adorable” wasn’t the word that came to my mind. A few diners at surrounding tables noticed and looked at my husband, Scott, and me to see how we were going to handle the situation. In that moment, Scott and I felt the pressure and judgment of those watching and expecting us to lay down the law about manners at a restaurant.
I clearly saw two choices as I walked over and crouched down eye-level with my son. Option #1: I could go the traditional “command and demand” route and open with a clichéd threat uttered in a stern tone: “Stop making faces, young man. Go sit down and eat your lunch or you won’t get any dessert.”
At times option #1 might be an appropriate parental response. But for my little guy, this verbal and nonverbal confrontation would have triggered all kinds of reactive emotions in his downstairs brain—the part scientists call the reptilian brain—and he would have fought back like a reptile under attack.
Or option #2: I could tap into his upstairs brain in an effort to get more of a thinking—as opposed to a fighting/reacting—response.
Now, I make plenty of mistakes as I parent my boys (as they’ll freely tell you). But just the day before, I had given a lecture to a group of parents about the upstairs and downstairs brain, and about using everyday challenges—the survival moments—as opportunities to help our kids thrive. So, luckily for my son, all of that was fresh in my mind. I decided to choose option #2.
I started with an observation: “You look like you feel angry. Is that right?” (Remember “connect and redirect”?) He scrunched up his face in ferocity, stuck out his tongue again, and loudly proclaimed, “Yes!” I was actually relieved that he stopped there; it wouldn’t have been at all unlike him to add his latest favorite insult and call me “Fart-face Jones.” (I swear I don’t know where they learn this stuff.)
I asked him what he felt angry about and discovered that he was furious that Scott had told him he needed to eat at least half of his quesadilla before he could have dessert. I explained that I could see why that would be disappointing, and I said, “Well, Daddy’s really good at negotiating. Decide what you think would be a fair amount to eat, and then go talk to him about it. Let me know if you need help coming up with your plan.” I tousled his hair, returned to the table, and watched his once-again adorable face show evidence of doing some hard thinking. His upstairs brain was definitely engaged. In fact, it was at war with his downstairs brain. So far we had avoided a blow-up, but it still felt like a dangerous fuse might be burning within him.
Within fifteen seconds or so, my son returned and said to Scott in an angry tone of voice, “Dad, I don’t want to eat half of my quesadilla. And I want dessert.” Scott’s response perfectly dovetailed with my own: “Well, what do you think would be a fair amount?”
The answer came with slow, firm resolve: “I’ve got one word for you: Ten bites.”
What makes this unmathematical response even funnier is that ten bites meant that he would eat well over half the quesadilla. So Scott accepted the counteroffer, my son happily gobbled down ten bites and then his dessert, and the whole family (as well as the restaurant’s other patrons) got to enjoy lunch with no further incidents. My son’s downstairs brain never fully took over, which, luckily for us, meant that his upstairs brain had won the day.
Again, option #1 would have been perfectly fine, even appropriate. But it also would have missed an opportunity. My son would have missed a chance to see that relationships are about connection, communication, and compromise. He would have missed a chance to feel empowered that he can make choices, affect his environment, and solve problems. In short, he would have missed an opportunity to exercise and develop his upstairs brain.
And I hasten to point out that even though I chose option #2, Scott and I still had to address the misbehavior part of the incident. Once our son was more in control of himself and could actually be receptive to what we had to say, we discussed the importance of being respectful and using good manners in a restaurant, even when he’s unhappy.
This is an example of how simple awareness of the downstairs and upstairs brain can have a direct and immediate impact on the way we parent and discipline our children. Notice that when the challenge arose, Tina asked herself, “Which part of the brain do I want to appeal to here?” She could have gotten what she wanted by challenging her son and demanding that he change his behavior immediately. She has enough authority in his eyes that he would have obeyed (albeit resentfully). But that approach would have triggered the downstairs brain, and his anger and feelings of unfairness would have raged within him. So instead, Tina engaged his upstairs brain by helping him think through the situation and find a way to negotiate with his father.
Let’s make one thing clear: sometimes there is no place for negotiation in parent-child interactions. Children need to respect their parents’ authority, and sometimes that means that no simply means no, without wiggle room. Also, sometimes counteroffers are unacceptable. If Tina’s four-year-old had suggested that he take only one bite of his lunch, his dad wouldn’t have been open to striking that particular deal.
But as we parent and discipline our kids, we are given so many opportunities to interact in ways that engage and develop their upstairs brain.
Notice how, in the illustration on this page, the mother chose not to present an ultimatum that would enrage the downstairs brain. Instead, she engaged the upstairs brain by first directing her daughter to use more precise and specific words for how she was feeling (“Are you feeling really mad because I didn’t get you that necklace?”). Then she asked her daughter to work with her to be a problem solver. Once the girl asks, “How do we do that?” the mother knows that the upstairs brain is engaged. Her daughter is now able to discuss the issue with her mom in a way she couldn’t just a few seconds ago. Now they can brainstorm together about getting another necklace at the store or making one at home. The mother can also now talk to her daughter about how to use her words when she’s angry.
Every time we say “Convince me” or “Come up with a solution that works for both of us,” we give our kids the chance to practice problem solving and decision making. We help them consider appropriate behaviors and consequences, and we help them think about what another person feels and wants. All because we found a way to engage the upstairs, instead of enraging the downstairs.