Use It or Lose It: Exercising the Upstairs Brain
In addition to appealing to our children’s upstairs brain, we also want to help them exercise it. The upstairs brain is like a muscle: when it gets used, it develops, gets stronger, and performs better. And when it gets ignored, it doesn’t develop optimally, losing some of its power and ability to function. That’s what we mean by “use it or lose it.” We want to be intentional about developing the upstairs brain of our children. As we’ve been saying, a strong upstairs brain balances out the downstairs brain, and is essential for social and emotional intelligence. It’s the foundation of solid mental health. Our job is to provide our kids with opportunity after opportunity to exercise their upstairs brain so that it can grow stronger and more powerful.
As you and your children go through your day, watch for ways you can focus on and exercise different functions of the upstairs brain. Let’s look at a few of them, one by one.
Sound Decision Making
One big parental temptation is to make decisions for our kids, so that they consistently do the right thing. But as often as possible, we need to give them practice at making decisions for themselves. Decision making requires what’s called executive functioning, which occurs when the upstairs brain weighs different options. Considering several competing alternatives, as well as the outcomes of those choices, gives a child’s upstairs brain practice, strengthening it and allowing it to work better.
For very young children, this can be as simple as asking, “Do you want to wear your blue shoes or your white shoes today?” Then, as kids get older, we can give them more responsibility in the decision making and allow them to take on some dilemmas that can really challenge them. For instance, if your ten-year-old daughter has a scheduling conflict—both her Girl Scout campout and her soccer playoff are on Saturday and she clearly can’t be in both places at the same time—encourage her to make the choice. She’s much more likely to be comfortable, if not completely happy, about having to give up one commitment if she’s been a part of the process of making the decision.
An allowance is another terrific way to give older kids practice at dealing with difficult dilemmas. The experience of deciding between buying a computer game now or continuing to save for that new bike is a powerful way to exercise the upstairs brain. The point is to let your children wrestle with the decision and live with the consequences. Whenever you can do so responsibly, avoid solving and resist rescuing, even when they make minor mistakes or not-so-great choices. After all, your goal here isn’t perfection on every decision right now, but an optimally developed upstairs brain down the road.
Controlling Emotions and the Body
Another important—and difficult—task for little ones is to remain in control of themselves. So we need to give them skills that help them make good decisions when they are upset. Use the techniques you’re probably already familiar with: Teach them to take a deep breath, or count to ten. Help them express their feelings. Let them stomp their feet or punch a pillow. You can also teach them what’s happening in their brains when they feel themselves losing control—and how to avoid “flipping their lid.” (We’ll help you with this in the “Whole-Brain Kids” section at the end of the chapter.)
Even small children have the capacity to stop and think instead of hurting someone with their words or their fists. They won’t always make good decisions, but the more fully they practice alternatives other than lashing out, the stronger and more capable their upstairs brain will become.
One of the best ways to foster self-understanding in your children is to ask questions that help them look beyond the surface of what they understand: Why do you think you made that choice? What made you feel that way? Why do you think you didn’t do well on your test—was it because you were hurrying, or is this just really difficult material?
This is what one father did for his ten-year-old, Catherine, as he helped her pack for camp. He asked whether she expected to feel homesick while she was away. When he received the expected noncommittal “Maybe” in response, he followed up with another question: “How do you think you’ll handle that?”
Again he received a non-answer—“I don’t know”—but this time he could see her beginning to think about the question, if only a little.
So he pressed further: “If you do start feeling homesick, what’s something you can do to feel better?”
Catherine continued stuffing clothes into her duffel bag, but she was obviously thinking about the question now. Finally she offered an actual answer: “I guess I could write you a letter, or I could do something fun with my friends.”
From here she and her father were able to talk for a couple of minutes about her expectations and concerns about going away, and she developed a bit more self-understanding. Simply because her father asked her a few questions.
When your child is old enough to be able to write—or even just draw—you might give him a journal and encourage daily writing or drawing. This ritual can enhance his ability to pay attention to and understand his internal landscape. Or for a younger child, have her draw pictures that tell a story. The more your kids think about what’s going on within themselves, the more they will develop the ability to understand and respond to what’s going on in the worlds within and around them.
Empathy is another important function of the upstairs brain. When you ask simple questions that encourage the consideration of another’s feelings, you are building your child’s ability to feel empathy. At a restaurant: “Why do you think that baby is crying?” While you’re reading together: “How do you think Melinda is feeling now that her friend moved away?” Leaving the store: “That woman wasn’t very nice to us, was she? Do you think something might have happened to her that made her feel sad today?”
Simply by drawing your child’s attention to other people’s emotions during everyday encounters, you can open up whole new levels of compassion within them and exercise their upstairs brain. Scientists are beginning more and more to think that empathy has its roots in a complex system of what are being called mirror neurons, which we’ll discuss in the next chapter. The more you give your child’s upstairs brain practice at thinking of others, the more capable he will be of having compassion.
All of the above attributes of a well-integrated upstairs brain culminate in one of our most important goals for our children: a strong sense of morality. When kids can make sound decisions while controlling themselves and working from empathy and self-understanding, they will develop a robust and active sense of morality, a sense of not only right and wrong, but also what is for the greater good beyond their own individual needs. Again, we can’t expect absolute consistency because of their still-developing brain. But we do want to raise questions regarding morals and ethics as often as possible in normal, everyday situations.
Another way to exercise this part of the brain is to offer hypothetical situations, which kids often love: Would it be OK to run a red light if there was an emergency? If a bully was picking on someone at school and there were no adults around, what would you do? The point is to challenge your children to think about how they act, and to consider the implications of their decisions. In doing so, you give your kids practice thinking through moral and ethical principles, which, with your guidance, will become the foundation for the way they make decisions for the rest of their lives.
And, of course, consider what you are modeling with your own behavior. As you teach them about honesty, generosity, kindness, and respect, make sure that they see you living a life that embodies those values as well. The examples you set, for good and for bad, will significantly impact the way your child’s upstairs brain develops.