6The Me-We ConnectionIntegrating Self and OtherRon and Sandy were fed up. Their seven-year-old, Colin, was agood kid. He didn’t cause trouble at school, his friends and theirparents liked him, and he generally did what he was supposed todo. But he was, in his parents’ words, “totally and incurablyselsh.” He always grabbed the last slice of pizza, even if he stillhad some on his plate. He begged for a puppy, then showed nointerest in even playing with it, much less using the pooperscooper. Even after growing out of his toys, he still refused to lethis younger brother play with them.Ron and Sandy knew that a certain amount of egocentrism inchildren is normal. And they didn’t want to change Colin’spersonality—they wanted to love him for who he was. But at timesit drove them crazy that he often seemed incapable of thinkingabout other people. When it came to relational skills like empathy,kindness, and consideration, Colin just seemed to be missing thedevelopment of that circuit.The breaking point came one day after school when Colindisappeared into the bedroom he shared with his ve-year-oldbrother, Logan. Ron was in the kitchen when he heard yelling fromthe boys’ room. He went to investigate and discovered a distraughtLogan, furious with his big brother and crying over a pile ofartwork and trophies. Colin had decided to “redecorate” the room.He had taken down all of Logan’s watercolor paintings and markerdrawings hanging on the walls and replaced them with his ownposters and baseball cards, which he’d taped in rows across the
largest wall in the room. In addition, he had removed Logan’s twosoccer trophies from the shelf and set up his own bobblehead dollsin their place. Colin had piled all of Logan’s belongings in a cornerof the room, he explained, “so they wouldn’t be in the way.”When Sandy got home she and Ron talked about their frustrationwith their older son. They sincerely believed that there was nomalice in Colin’s actions. In fact, that was almost the problem: henever even considered Logan’s feelings enough to intend to hurthim. He redecorated the room for the same reason he always tookthe last slice of pizza: he just didn’t think about others.This issue is a common one for parents. We want our kids to becaring and considerate so they can enjoy meaningful relationships.Sometimes we fear that because they’re not as kind (orcompassionate or grateful or generous) as we want them to be,they never will be. Of course, we can’t expect a seven-year-old tobehave as if he were an enlightened adult. Sure, we want our kidsto become men and women who are strong and forgiving andrespectful and loving, but that’s a bit much to expect of someonewho’s just recently learned to tie his shoes.However, while it’s important to trust the process and know thatmuch of what we want for our kids will emerge only over time, wecan prepare them and steer them toward becoming children, teens,and ultimately adults who are fully capable of participating inrelationships and considering the feelings of others. Some peoplesimply have fewer neural connections in their circuitry in charge ofempathy and relationships. Just like kids who have trouble readingneed to practice and grow those connections in their brain, kidswho have diculty relating to others need to have thoseconnections encouraged and cultivated. And just as a learningdisability is a sign of a mental challenge, so is an inability to feelsomeone else’s pain. It’s a developmental issue, not necessarily acharacter problem. Even children who don’t seem predisposed to
connection and compassion can learn what it means to be inrelationship, and to fulfill the responsibilities that come with it.That’s what this chapter is about. Most of the information we’veprovided in earlier chapters focuses on how to help develop yourchild’s whole brain in order to develop a strong and resilient senseof “me.” But like Ron and Sandy, you know that kids need just asmuch help understanding what it means to become part of a “we,”so that they can be integrated with others. In fact, in our ever-changing modern society, learning to move from “me” to “we” maybe essential for how our children will be able to adapt in our futureworld.Helping children become a participating member of a “we” whilenot losing touch with their individual “me” is a tall order for anyparent. But happiness and fulllment result from being connectedto others while still maintaining a unique identity. That’s also theessence of mindsight, which you’ll remember is all about seeingyour own mind, as well as the mind of another. It’s aboutdeveloping fullling relationships while maintaining a healthysense of self.In the previous chapter we discussed the rst aspect ofmindsight, seeing and understanding our own mind. We talkedabout helping kids become aware of and integrate the manydierent parts of themselves via the wheel of awareness. The keyconcept in this aspect of mindsight is personal insight.Now we want to turn our attention to the second aspect ofmindsight, developing the ability to see and connect with the mindsof others. This connection depends on empathy, on recognizing thefeelings, desires, and perspectives of another. Ron and Sandy’s sonseemed to need empathy skills. In addition to developing andintegrating his whole brain and the dierent parts of himself, heneeded to be given lots of practice at seeing things from otherpeople’s perspectives, seeing other people’s minds. He needed to
develop this second aspect of mindsight.Insight + Empathy = MindsightInsight and empathy. If we can encourage these attributes in ourkids, we will give them the gift of mindsight, oering themawareness about themselves, and connection with those aroundthem. But how do we do that? How do we encourage our kids toconnect with family, friends, and the world while cultivating andmaintaining their own individual sense of self? How do we helpthem learn to share? To get along with siblings? To negotiateplayground politics? To communicate well and consider others’feelings? The answers to all these questions emerge from the me-we connection, which we can understand by rst looking at howthe brain participates in the creation of relationships.THE SOCIAL BRAIN: WIRED FOR “WE”What do you picture when you think about the brain? Maybe yourecall an image from high school biology class: that weird organoating in the jar, or a picture of it in a textbook. The problemwith this “single skull” perspective—where we consider eachindividual brain as a lone organ isolated in a single skull—is that itneglects the truth that scientists have come to understand over thelast few decades: that the brain is a social organ, made to be inrelationship. It’s hardwired to take in signals from the socialenvironment, which in turn inuence a person’s inner world. Inother words, what happens between brains has a great deal to dowith what happens within each individual brain. Self andcommunity are fundamentally interrelated, since every brain iscontinually constructed by its interactions with others. Even more,
studies of happiness and wisdom reveal that a key factor in well-being is devoting one’s attention and passions to the benet ofothers instead of just focusing on the individual, separate concernsof a private self. The “me” discovers meaning and happiness byjoining and belonging to a “we.”To put it dierently, the brain is set up for interpersonalintegration. Just as its many dierent parts are made to worktogether, each individual brain is made to relate with the brain ofeach person we interact with. Interpersonal integration means thatwe honor and nurture our dierences while cultivating ourconnections with one another. So while we want to help our kidsintegrate their left and right brain, their upstairs and downstairsbrain, their implicit and explicit memories, and so on, we also needto help them understand the extent to which they are connected totheir family, friends, classmates, and other people in theircommunities. By understanding basic facets of the relational brain,we can help our kids develop the mindsight that will allow them toenjoy deeper and more meaningful relationships.MIRROR NEURONS: THE REFLECTORS IN THE MINDDo you ever get thirsty when you see someone take a drink? Oryawn when someone else does? These familiar responses can beunderstood in light of one of the most fascinating recentdiscoveries about the brain: mirror neurons. Here’s how thediscovery took place.In the early 1990s, a group of Italian neuroscientists werestudying the brain of a macaque monkey. They had implantedelectrodes to monitor individual neurons, and when the monkeyate a peanut, a certain electrode red. No surprise there—that’swhat the researchers expected. But then a scientist’s snack changed
the course of our insight into the mind. One of the researcherspicked up a peanut and ate it as the monkey watched. In response,the monkey’s motor neuron red—the same one that had redwhen he had actually eaten the peanut himself! The researchersdiscovered that the monkey’s brain was inuenced and becameactive just by watching the actions of another. Whether the monkeywitnessed an action or performed that same behavior himself, thesame set of neurons became activated.Scientists immediately began scrambling to identify these“mirror neurons” in humans. And while there are far morequestions than answers about exactly what they are and how theywork, we are actively learning more and more about the mirrorneuron system. These neurons may be the root of empathy, andtherefore contribute to mindsight, in the human brain.The key is that mirror neurons respond only to an act withintention, where there’s some predictability or purpose that can beperceived. For example, if someone simply waves her hand in theair randomly, your mirror neurons won’t respond. But if thatperson carries out an act you can predict from experience, liketaking a drink from a cup of water, your mirror neurons will“gure out” what’s intended before the person does it. So when shelifts up her hand with a cup in it, you can predict at a synapticlevel that she intends to drink from it. Not only that, the mirrorneurons in your own upstairs brain will get you ready to drink aswell. We see an act, we understand the purpose of the act, and weready ourselves to mirror it.At the simplest level, that’s why we get thirsty when othersdrink, and why we yawn when others yawn. It may be why even anewborn infant, just a few hours old, can mimic his parents whenhe sticks out his tongue. Mirror neurons may also explain whyyounger siblings are sometimes better at sports. Before they everjoin their own team, their mirror neurons have red each of the
hundreds of times they’ve watched their older siblings hit, kick,and throw a ball. At the most complex level, mirror neurons helpus understand the nature of culture and how our shared behaviorsbind us together, child to parent, friend to friend, and eventuallyspouse to spouse.Now let’s take another step. Based on what we see (as well ashear, smell, touch, and taste) in the world around us, we canmirror not only the behavioral intentions of others, but also theiremotional states. In other words, mirror neurons may allow us notonly to imitate others’ behaviors, but actually to resonate withtheir feelings. We sense not only what action is coming next, butalso the emotion that underlies the behavior. For this reason, wecould also call these special neural cells “sponge neurons” in thatwe soak up like a sponge what we see in the behaviors, intentions,and emotions of someone else. We don’t just “mirror back” tosomeone else, but we “sponge in” their internal states.Notice what happens when you’re at a party with friends. If youapproach a group that’s laughing, you’ll probably nd yourselfsmiling or chuckling even before you’ve heard the joke. Or haveyou noticed that when you’re nervous or stressed out, your kidswill often be that way, too? Scientists call this “emotionalcontagion.” The internal states of others—from joy and playfulnessto sadness and fear—directly aect our own state of mind. Wesoak other people into our own inner world.You can see, then, why neuroscientists call the brain a socialorgan. It’s absolutely built for mindsight. We are biologicallyequipped to be in relationships, to understand where other peopleare coming from, and to inuence one another. As we’ve explainedthroughout the book, the brain is actually reshaped by ourexperiences. That means that every discussion, argument, joke, orhug we share with someone else literally alters our brain and thatof the other person. After a powerful conversation or time spent
with an important person in our life, we have a dierent brain.Since none of us is working from a single-skull mind, our wholemental life results from our inner neural world and the externalsignals we receive from others. Each of us is meant to join ourindividual “me” with others to become a part of “we.”LAYING THE GROUNDWORK FOR CONNECTION:CREATING POSITIVE MENTAL MODELSWhat does all this mean for our children? The kinds ofrelationships they experience will lay the groundwork for how theyrelate to others for the rest of their lives. In other words, how wellthey’ll be able to use their mindsight to participate in a “we” andjoin with others down the road is based on the quality of theirattachment relationships with their caregivers—including parentsand grandparents, but also signicant babysitters, teachers, peers,and other influential people in their lives.When kids spend time with the most important people in theirlife, they develop important relational skills like communicatingand listening well, interpreting facial expressions, understandingnonverbal communication, sharing, and sacricing. But also, inrelationships, children develop models about how they themselvest into the world around them, and how relationships work. Theylearn whether they can trust others to see and respond to theirneeds, and whether they feel connected and protected enough tostep out and take risks. In short, they learn whether relationshipswill leave them feeling alone and unseen; anxious and confused; orfelt, understood, and securely cared for.Think of a newborn. A baby is born ready to connect, ready tolink what she sees in others with what she does and with what shefeels inside. But what if those others are only rarely attuned to
what she needs? What if, more often than not, her parents areunavailable and rejecting? Then confusion and frustration willinitially permeate the child’s mind. Without intimate moments ofconsistent connection with her caregivers, she may grow upwithout mindsight, without an understanding of the importance ofjoining with someone else. We learn early in life to use ourconnections with reliable others to soothe our internal distress.This is the basis of secure attachment. But if we aren’t given suchnurturing, our brain will need to adapt and do the best it can.Children can learn to “go it alone” in an eort to soothethemselves as best they can. The relational, emotional circuitry ofthis child’s brain, which needs closeness and connection that arenot being oered to her, may completely shut down as a way ofadapting. This is how the social brain shuts down its innate drivefor connection just to survive. However, if her parents can learn toshow her consistent, predictable love and attunement, she willdevelop mindsight and live up to the relational potential her brainhas been wired for.It’s not just parents who create the strategies of adaptation—ormental models—for how children view relationships. Think aboutwhat your children are learning from their relationships withvarious caregivers, like the coach who emphasizes the importanceof working together and making sacrices for teammates. Or theaunt who is hypercritical, who teaches that a central part of arelationship involves disapproval and nding fault. Or theclassmate who views all relationships through the lens ofcompetition, seeing everyone as a rival or adversary. Or theteacher who emphasizes kindness and mutual respect and modelscompassion in her interactions with the children in her class.All of these dierent relational experiences wire a child’s brainfor what a “we” feels like. Remember that the brain uses repeatedexperiences or associations to predict what to expect. When
relationships are cold and people are essentially distant, critical, orcompetitive, that inuences what the child expects relationships tofeel like. On the other hand, if the child experiences relationshipsfull of nurturing warmth, connection, and protection, then that willbecome the model for future relationships—with friends, withother members of various communities, and eventually withromantic partners and their own children.It’s really not an exaggeration to say that the kind ofrelationships you provide for your children will aect generationsto come. We can impact the future of the world by caring well forour children and by being intentional in giving them the kinds ofrelationships that we value and that we want them to see asnormal.PREPARING FOR “WE”: OFFERING EXPERIENCES THAT LEAD TO CONNECTIONIn addition to modeling good relationships for our kids, we need toprepare them to join with others, so they’ll be capable of becominga part of a “we.” After all, just because the mind is equipped anddesigned to connect with others doesn’t mean that a child is bornwith relationship skills. Being born with muscles doesn’t make youan athlete: you need to learn and practice specic skills. Likewise,children don’t emerge from the womb wanting to share their toys.Nor are their rst words “I’ll sacrice what I want so we can strikea mutually benecial compromise.” On the contrary, the phrasesthat dominate the vocabulary of toddlers—“mine,” “me,” and even“no”—emphasize their lack of understanding of what it means tobe a part of a “we.” So they have to learn mindsight skills likesharing, forgiving, sacrifice, and listening.Colin, Ron and Sandy’s son who seems so egocentric, is for themost part a very normal kid. He just hasn’t quite mastered many of
the mindsight skills that are necessary for participating as acontributing member of a family. His parents’ expectation was thatby the time he was seven, he’d be more integrated into the familyand willing to be a part of a “we.” While he’s steadily improvinghis relational intelligence, he needs practice to keep moving in thatdirection.The same goes for a shy child. Lisa, a mom we know, haspictures of one of her sons at his friend’s fourth-birthday party. Allof the children are gathered in a tight circle around a young womandressed like Dora the Explorer. All, that is, except for Lisa’s sonIan, who insisted on standing six feet away from the circle of not-so-shy kids. It was the same at his toddler music class. While theother children sang and danced and itsy-bitsy-spidered their littlehands o, Ian sat in his mom’s lap and refused to do anything morethan timidly observe.In those years, Lisa and her husband had to walk the linebetween encouraging new relationships and pushing too hard. Butby giving their son repeated opportunities to interact with otherchildren and to gure out how to make friends, all whilesupporting and comforting him when he was nervous or afraid,they helped their young introvert develop the social skills heneeded. And while these days Ian is still not quick to dive headrstinto new social situations, he is very comfortable with himself, andeven outgoing at times. He looks people in the eye when he talksto them, raises his hand in class, and is even frequently theringleader in the dugout for a (very enthusiastic) rendition of“Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”Researchers who study human personality tell us that shyness isto a large extent genetic. It’s actually a part of a person’s coremakeup present at birth. However, as in the case of Ian, thatdoesn’t mean that shyness isn’t changeable to a signicant degree.In fact, the way parents handle their child’s shyness has a big
impact on how the child deals with that aspect of his or herpersonality, as well as how shy the child is later on.The point is that parenting matters, even to the extent ofinuencing our inborn and genetically shaped temperament. Wecan help prepare our kids to join with others and experiencemeaningful relationships by oering encouragement andopportunities that help them develop those mindsight skills. We’lltalk in a minute about some specic ways to do that. But rst let’sexplain what we mean by helping kids be receptive to being inrelationships.CULTIVATING A “YES” STATE OF MIND: HELPING KIDS BE RECEPTIVE TO RELATIONSHIPSIf we want to prepare kids to participate as healthy individuals in arelationship, we need to create within them an open, receptive state,instead of a closed, reactive one. To illustrate, here’s an exerciseDan uses with many families. First he’ll tell them he’s going torepeat a word several times, and he asks them just to notice whatit feels like in their bodies. The rst word is “no,” said rmly andslightly harshly seven times, with about two seconds between each“no.” Then, after another pause, he says a clear but somewhatgentler “yes” seven times. Afterward, clients often say that the“no” felt stiing and angering, as if they were being shut down orscolded. In contrast, the “yes” made them feel calm, peaceful, evenlight. (You might close your eyes now and try the exercise foryourself. Notice what goes on in your body as you or a friend says“no” and then “yes” several times.)These two dierent responses—the “no” feelings and the “yes”feelings—demonstrate what we mean when we talk aboutreactivity versus receptivity. When the nervous system is reactive,it’s actually in a ght-ight-freeze response state, from which it’s
almost impossible to connect in an open and caring way withanother person. Remember the amygdala and the other parts ofyour downstairs brain that react immediately, without thinking,whenever you feel threatened? When our entire focus is on self-defense, no matter what we do, we stay in that reactive, “no” stateof mind. We become guarded, unable to join with someone else—by listening well, by giving them the benet of the doubt, byconsidering their feelings, and so on. Even neutral comments cantransform into ghting words, distorting what we hear to t whatwe fear. This is how we enter a reactive state and prepare to ght,to flee, or even to freeze.On the other hand, when we’re receptive, a dierent set ofcircuits in the brain becomes active. The “yes” part of the exercise,for most people, produces a positive experience. The muscles oftheir face and vocal cords relax, their blood pressure and heart ratenormalize, and they become more open to experiencing whateveranother person wants to express. In short, they become morereceptive. Whereas reactivity emerges from our downstairs brainand leaves us feeling shut down, upset, and defensive, a receptivestate turns on the social engagement system that involves adierent set of circuits of the upstairs brain that connects us toothers, allowing us to feel safe and seen.When interacting with our kids, it can be extremely helpful todecipher whether they’re in a reactive or receptive state of mind.This of course requires mindsight on our part. We need to considerwhere our kids are emotionally (and where we ourselves are) atany given moment. If your four-year-old is screaming “I wannaswing longer!” as you carry her under one arm away from thepark, that may not be the best time to talk to her aboutappropriate ways of handling big emotions. Wait until this reactivestate passes; then, when she’s more receptive, talk to her abouthow you’d like to see her respond the next time she’s disappointed.
Likewise, when your eleven-year-old nds out that he didn’t getaccepted into the art program he’d set his heart on, you may needto hold o on word-heavy pronouncements of hope andalternatives. The downstairs state of reactivity doesn’t know whatto do with a lot of upstairs words. Often, in moments of reactivity,nonverbals (like hugs and empathetic facial expressions) will bemuch more powerful.Over time, we want to help our children become more receptiveto relationships, and help them develop mindsight skills that willlet them join with others. Then receptivity can lead to resonance—a way of joining from the inside out—that will allow them to enjoythe depth and intimacy that come with meaningful relationships.Otherwise, a child is left adrift, motivated by a sense of isolationrather than a desire and ability to join.One nal note before we turn to steps we can take to encouragereceptivity and relational skills: as we help children be morereceptive to joining with others, we need to keep in mind theimportance of maintaining their individual identity as well. For aten-year-old girl who’s doing everything within her power to t inwith a clique of mean girls at school, the problem may not be thatshe’s not receptive enough to joining a “we.” The concern for hermay be just the opposite, that she’s lost sight of her “me” and istherefore going along with everything this set of bullies tells her todo. Any healthy relationship—whether it’s family, friendship,romantic, or otherwise—is made up of healthy individuals inconnection with others. To become a part of a well-functioning“we,” a person needs also to remain an individual “me.” Just as wedon’t want our kids to be only right-brained or only left-brained,we also don’t want them to be only individualistic, leaving themselsh and isolated, or only relational, leaving them needy,dependent, and vulnerable to unhealthy and harmful relationships.We want them to be whole-brained, and enjoy integrated
relationships.What You Can Do:Helping Your Child Integrate Self and OtherWhole-Brain Strategy #11:Increase the Family Fun Factor: Making a Point to Enjoy EachOtherDo you ever feel like you’re spending most of your time eitherdisciplining the kids or carting them from one activity to the next,and not enough time just enjoying being with them? If you do,you’re not alone; most of us feel this from time to time. Sometimesit’s easy to forget to just have fun as a family. Yet we arehardwired for play and exploration as well as for joining with oneanother. In fact, “playful parenting” is one of the best ways toprepare your children for relationships and encourage them toconnect with others. That’s because it gives them positiveexperiences being with the people they spend the most time with:their parents.Of course children need structure and boundaries and to be heldaccountable for their behavior, but even as you maintain yourauthority, don’t forget to have fun with your kids. Play games. Telljokes. Be silly. Take an interest in what they care about. The morethey enjoy the time they spend with you and the rest of the family,the more they’ll value relationships and desire more positive andhealthy relational experiences in the future.The reason is simple. With every fun, enjoyable experience yougive your children while they are with the family, you providethem with positive reinforcement about what it means to be inloving relationship with others. One reason has to do with achemical in your brain called dopamine. Dopamine is a
neurotransmitter, which means that it enables communicationbetween brain cells. Your brain cells receive what some people call“dopamine squirts” when something pleasurable happens to you,and it motivates you to want to do it again. Scientists who studyaddiction point to these dopamine surges as factors that leadpeople to maintain a certain habit or addiction, even when theyknow it’s bad for them. But we can also help produce dopaminesquirts that reinforce positive and healthy desires, like enjoyingfamily relationships. Dopamine is the chemical of reward—andplay and fun are rewarding in our lives.What this means is that when your son squeals in delight whenyou dramatically “die” from his Peter Pan sword thrust, when youand your daughter dance together at a concert or in the livingroom, or when you and your kids work together on a gardening orconstruction project, the experience strengthens the bonds betweenyou and teaches your kids that relationships are arming,rewarding, and fullling. So give it a shot, maybe even tonight.After dinner, call out, “Everybody take your plate back to thekitchen, then nd one blanket and meet me in the living room.We’re having Popsicles in a fort tonight!”Another fun family activity that also teaches receptivity is toplay improv games together. The basic concept is similar to whatimprov comedians do when the audience gives them suggestionsand the comedians have to take the random ideas and combinethem in funny ways that make some sort of sense. If you and yourkids are performers, you can actually do this kind of improvtogether. But there are simpler versions of the activity as well. Letsomeone begin a story, then after one sentence, the next person hasto add to it, followed by the next person, and so on. Games andactivities like these not only keep the family fun factor high, butalso give kids practice at being receptive to the unexpected turnslife presents them. You don’t want to turn the game into a serious
classroom experience, but watch for ways to explicitly connectwhat you’re doing to the concept of receptivity. Spontaneity andcreativity are important abilities, and novelty also gets dopaminegoing.The fun-factor principle also applies to the experiences you giveyour kids as siblings. Recent studies have found that the bestpredictor for good sibling relationships later in life is how muchfun the kids have together when they’re young. The rate of conictcan even be high, as long as there’s plenty of fun to balance it out.The real danger comes when the siblings just ignore each other.There may be less tension to deal with, but that’s also a recipe fora cold and distant relationship as adults.So if you want to develop close long-term relationships betweenyour kids, think of it as a math equation, where the amount ofenjoyment they share together should be greater than the conictthey experience. You’re never going to get the conict side of theequation to zero. Siblings argue; they just do. But if you canincrease the other side of the equation, giving them activities thatproduce positive emotions and memories, you’ll create strongbonds between them and set up a relationship that has a goodchance of remaining solid for life.Some sibling fun will occur naturally, but you can help it along,too. Break out a new box of sidewalk chalk and have them create acrazy new monster together. Let them use the video camera tomake a movie. Have them team up together for a surprise projectto give to a grandparent. However you do it—family bike rides,board games, making cookies, teaming up against Mom with thewater guns, whatever—nd ways to help your kids have funtogether and strengthen the bonds that connect them.You can also use fun, and even silliness, to shift your children’sstate of mind when they become stuck in an angry or deant state.Sometimes they won’t be in the mood to have you act silly or
playful, so be sensitive to the cues you receive, especially witholder kids. But if you’re sensitive to how your playfulness will bereceived, this can be an extremely powerful and easilyimplemented way to help children shift how they are feeling.Your state of mind can inuence your child’s state of mind,letting you transform fussiness and irritability into fun, laughter,and connection.
Whole-Brain Strategy #12:Connection Through Conflict: Teach Kids to Argue with a“We” in Mind
We might wish we could somehow help our kids avoid all conict,but we can’t. If they’re going to be in relationships, they’re going toface quarrels and disagreements. We can, though, teach them somebasic mindsight skills so they’ll know how to manage conict inhealthy and productive ways, and respond when things don’t goperfectly as they interact with others.Once again, each new disagreement is more than just a dicultyto survive. It represents another opportunity for you to teach yourchildren important lessons so they can thrive, in this caserelationally. Handling conict well isn’t easy, even for adults, sowe can’t expect too much of our children. But there are somesimple skills we can teach them that will help us all surviveindividual conicts, as well as help our children thrive as theymove toward adulthood. Let’s look at three of these mindsight-building skills.See Through the Other Person’s Eyes: Help Kids Recognize Other Pointsof ViewDoes this scenario sound familiar? You’re working at your desk andyour seven-year-old daughter approaches. She’s clearly angry. Sheannounces that her younger brother, Mark, just called her stupid.You ask why he might have said that, and your daughter isadamant that there’s no reason—he just said it!It can be dicult for any of us to see things from someone else’sperspective. We see what we see, and often only what we want tosee. But the more we can use our mindsight to view events throughthe eyes of another, the better chance we have of resolving conictin a healthy manner.That’s a tough skill to teach children, especially in the middle ofa heated argument. But if we ourselves can remain aware of whatwe’re actually saying, we have a better chance of teaching the
lessons we want. For example, your inclination might be to say,“Well, what did you do to Mark? I’m sure he didn’t just call youstupid out of the blue!”But if you can remain calm and aware of what you want to
teach, you might go at the conversation a bit dierently. Firstyou’d want to demonstrate an awareness of your daughter’sfeelings. (Remember, connect rst, then redirect.) This willdecrease your daughter’s defensiveness and prepare her to see howher brother feels. Then you could aim for the goal of creating someempathy in your daughter.Granted, we won’t always get through to our kids. But by askingquestions about how another person feels, about why someonereacted as he did, we can encourage empathy in our children. Theact of considering the mind of another requires us to use our righthemisphere and our upstairs brain, both of which are part of thesocial circuitry that allows us to enjoy mature and fulllingrelationships.Listen to What’s Not Being Said:Teach Kids About Nonverbal Communication and Attuning to OthersIt’s great that we teach our children to pay attention to whatpeople are saying: “Listen to his words. He said he didn’t want tobe sprayed by the hose!” But an important part of relationships islistening to what’s not being said. Usually kids aren’t naturallyskilled at this. That’s why, when you reprimand your son formaking his little sister cry by dipping his pretzels into her yogurt,he responds, “But she likes it! We’re playing a game.”Nonverbal clues sometimes communicate even more than words,so we need to help our children use their right hemisphere to getgood at understanding what other people are saying, even if theynever open their mouth. With the mirror neuron system alreadyworking, all kids need is for us to help them make explicit whattheir mirror neurons are communicating. For example, afterwinning a big soccer game, your son might need you to help himnotice that his friend on the other team is in need of some cheering
up, even if he says he’s ne. As evidence, you can point to thefriend’s body language and facial expressions—the droopingshoulders, the lowered head, the downcast face. By helping yourson make these simple observations you’ll increase his mindsight,and for the rest of his life he’ll be better equipped to read othersand tune in to their feelings.Repair: Teach Kids to Make Things Right After a ConflictWe know the importance of apologizing, and we teach our childrento say they’re sorry. But kids also need to realize that at times,that’s only the beginning. Sometimes they need to take steps toright whatever they’ve done wrong.The situation might call for a specic, direct response: repairingor replacing a broken toy, or helping to rebuild some sort ofproject. Or a more relational response might be warranted, likedrawing the other person a picture, performing an act of kindness,or writing a letter of apology. The point is that you’re helping yourkids demonstrate acts of love and contrition that show they’vethought about another’s feelings and want to nd a way to repairthe rupture in the relationship.This connects directly to the two whole-brain strategies above,about empathy and attuning to others’ feelings. To sincerely wantto make things right, a child must understand how the other personis feeling and why that person is upset. Then the parent can moreprotably bring up the question “If it were you and your favoritething were broken, what would help you feel better?” Each newmovement toward considering someone else’s feelings createsstronger connections in the relational circuitry of the brain. Whenwe break through our children’s defensiveness and their reluctanceto accept responsibility, we can help them be thoughtful aboutothers they’ve hurt, and make an eort toward reconnection. We
help them develop mindsight. Sometimes a sincere apology isenough, especially when combined with honesty and sincerity: “Idid that because I was feeling jealous, and I’m sorry.” But kids alsoneed to learn what it means to go the extra mile and take specicsteps toward reconciliation.Let’s return to Colin, the seven-year-old whose parents felt hewas too selsh. We wish we could oer Ron and Sandy some sortof magic bullet, a cure-all for egocentrism and other developmentalfrustrations they encounter with their son. But obviously we can’t.The good news, though, is that simply by loving Colin and helpinghim see the benets of relationships—beginning with hisinteractions with his parents and brother—Ron and Sandy arealready helping him understand the importance of considering andconnecting with others.Beyond that, by emphasizing the “connection through conict”skills we’re discussing here, they can help him continue movingtoward considering the feelings of others. For example, when Colinredecorated his room and removed his brother’s belongings, thispresented a teachable moment, which his parents could use to helpColin learn a lot about being in relationship. Too often we forgetthat “discipline” really means “to teach”—not “to punish.” Adisciple is a student, not a recipient of behavioral consequences.When we teach mindsight, we take moments of conict andtransform them into opportunities for learning, skill building, andbrain development.In that moment, Ron could ask Colin to look at his brother,crying as he picked up and straightened out his various paintings,and notice the nonverbal evidence of how hurt Logan was. Thiscould lead to a thoughtful discussion about how Logan viewed thescene—the crumpled paintings, the thrown-aside trophies. Simplygetting Colin to actually see Logan’s perspective would be a prettybig breakthrough with long-lasting benets. A mere time-out might
or might not teach Colin not to remove his brother’s things withoutpermission, but it wouldn’t generalize into a mindsight skill.Finally, Ron and Sandy could discuss what should happen tomake things right, including having Colin apologize and work withLogan to create some new paintings to hang on the shared wall inthe room. By choosing to use the situation for growth and teaching,rather than avoiding it as an unpleasant obstacle, Colin’s parentscould convert some fairly intense conict into a thrive moment andhelp both of their sons learn important lessons about what it meansto be in a relationship. The key is opening up mindsight’s lens tomake the perception of each boy’s inner world available forinspection.Mindsight permits children to sense the importance of the innerlife of thoughts and feelings. Without such development, behaviorsbecome just interactions a child responds to from the surface,something to “deal with” as an automatic reaction withoutreection. Parents are a child’s rst mindsight teachers, usingchallenging moments to engage a child’s own circuits of reectionto view our shared inner worlds. As children develop thesemindsight skills, they can learn to balance the importance of theirown inner lives with those of others. These reective skills are alsothe basis for how children learn to balance their own emotionswhile understanding the emotional lives of the people aroundthem. Mindsight is the basis of both social and emotionalintelligence. It allows children to learn that they are a part of alarger world of relationships where feelings matter and connectionsare a source of reward, meaning, and fun.Whole-Brain Kids:Teach Your Kids About Integrating the Self with the Other
Now that you’ve learned a good bit about mindsight, here’ssomething you can read to your own child to introduce the conceptof seeing your own and each other’s minds.
Integrating Ourselves: Making Sense of Our Own StoryThe most important “we” in your life as a parent is therelationship you share with your child. That relationship
signicantly impacts your child’s future. Research studies haveconsistently shown that when parents oer repeated,predictable experiences in which they see and sensitivelyrespond to their children’s emotions and needs, their childrenwill thrive—socially, emotionally, physically, and evenacademically. While it’s not exactly a revelation that kids dobetter when they enjoy strong relationships with their parents,what may surprise you is what produces this kind of parent-child connection. It’s not how our parents raised us, or howmany parenting books we’ve read. It’s actually how wellwe’ve made sense of our experiences with our own parentsand how sensitive we are to our children that most powerfullyinuence our relationship with our kids, and therefore howwell they thrive.It all comes down to what we call our life narrative, thestory we tell when we look at who we are and how we’vebecome the person that we are. Our life narrative determinesour feelings about our past, our understanding of why people(like our parents) behaved as they did, and our awareness ofthe way those events have impacted our development intoadulthood. When we have a coherent life narrative, we havemade sense of how the past has contributed to who we are andwhat we do.A life narrative that hasn’t been examined and made senseof may limit us in the present, and may also cause us to parentreactively and pass down to our children the same painfullegacy that negatively aected our own early days. Forinstance, imagine that your father had a dicult childhood.Perhaps his home was an emotional desert, where his parents
didn’t comfort him when he was afraid or sad, and they wereeven cold and distant, leaving him to weather life’s hardshipson his own. If they failed to pay attention to him and hisemotions, he would be wounded in signicant ways. As aresult, he would grow into adulthood limited in his ability togive you what you need as his child. He might be incapable ofintimacy and relationship; he could have diculty respondingto your emotions and needs, telling you to “toughen up” whenyou felt sad or alone or afraid. All of this might even resultfrom implicit memories of which he’d have no awareness.Then you, as you became an adult and a parent yourself,would be in danger of passing down the same damagingpatterns to your own kids. That’s the bad news.The good news, though—the better-than-good news—is thatif you make sense of your experiences and understand yourfather’s woundedness and relational limitations, you can breakthe cycle of handing down such pain. You can begin to reecton those experiences and how they’ve impacted you.You might be tempted to simply parent in a way exactlyopposite of how your parents did it. But the idea, instead, is toopenly reect on how your experiences with your parentshave aected you. You may need to deal with implicitmemories that are inuencing you without your realizing it.Sometimes it can be helpful to do this work with a therapist,or share your experiences with a friend. However you do it,it’s important that you begin getting clear on your own story,because through mirror neurons and implicit memory, wedirectly pass on our emotional life to our children—for betteror for worse. Knowing that our kids live with and through
whatever we’re experiencing is a powerful insight that canmotivate us to begin and continue our journey towardunderstanding our own stories, the joys as well as the pain.Then we can attune to the needs and signals of our children,creating secure attachment and strong and healthy connection.Research shows that even adults who experienced less-than-optimal childhoods can parent every bit as eectively, andraise children who feel just as loved and securely attached, asthose whose home life was more consistent and loving. It’snever too late to begin working on your coherent lifenarrative, and as you do, your children will reap the rewards.We want to make this point as clearly as possible: earlyexperience is not fate. By making sense of your past you canfree yourself from what might otherwise be a cross-generational legacy of pain and insecure attachment, andinstead create an inheritance of nurturance and love for yourchildren.
CONCLUSIONBringing it All TogetherWe all have hopes and dreams for our children. For most of us,they involve wanting our kids to be happy, healthy, and fullythemselves. Our message throughout this book has been that youcan help create this reality for your kids by paying attention duringthe everyday, ordinary experiences you share with them. Thatmeans you can use the obvious teachable moments, but also thedicult challenges and even the humdrum “nothing’s really goingon” times, as opportunities to prepare your children to be happyand successful, to enjoy good relationships, and to feel contentwith who they are. In short, to be whole-brain children.One of the main benets of the whole-brain perspective, aswe’ve discussed, is that it empowers you to transform the dailyparenting challenges that can interrupt the fun and connection youhave with your children. Whole-brain parenting allows you to gofar beyond mere survival. This approach promotes connection anda deeper understanding between you and your children. Anawareness of integration gives you the competence and condenceto handle things in ways that make you closer to your kids, so youcan know their minds, and therefore help shape their minds inpositive and healthy ways. As a result, not only will your childrenthrive, but your relationship with them will flourish as well.So whole-brain parenting isn’t just about who your adorable—and at times no doubt exasperating—child is right now, but alsoabout who she will become in the future. It’s about integrating herbrain, nurturing her mind, and giving her skills that will benet heras she grows into adolescence and adulthood. By encouraging
integration in your children and helping develop their upstairsbrain, you prepare them to be better friends, better spouses, andbetter parents. For example, when a child learns how to SIFT forthe sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts in his mind, he’llhave a much deeper understanding of himself, and he’ll thereforebe better able to control himself and connect with others. Likewise,by teaching about connection through conict, you give your childthe invaluable gift of seeing that even unpleasant arguments areopportunities to engage with and learn from the minds of others.Integration is about surviving and thriving, and about your child’swell-being now and in the future.It’s extraordinary when you think about the generational impactof the whole-brain approach. Do you realize the power you nowhave to eect positive change in the future? By giving yourchildren the gift of using their whole brain, you’re impacting notjust their lives, but also those of the people with whom theyinteract. Remember mirror neurons and how social the brain is? Aswe’ve explained, your child’s brain isn’t an isolated, “single skull”organ, acting in a vacuum. Self and family and community arefundamentally connected neurologically. Even in our busy, driven,and often isolated lives, we can remember this fundamental reality,that we’re all interdependent and connected with one another.Children who learn this truth have the chance not only todevelop happiness and meaning and wisdom in their own lives, butto pass their knowledge along to others as well. When, forexample, you help your kids use their internal remote to maketheir implicit memories explicit, you’re helping create within themthe skill of self-reection that will make them much more capableof meaningful interactions with others throughout their lives. Thesame goes for teaching them about their wheel of awareness. Oncethey understand about integrating the many parts of themselves,they’ll be able to comprehend themselves much more deeply and
actively choose how they interact with the people around them.They can captain the ship of their lives, more easily avoiding thebanks of chaos and rigidity, and more often remaining in theharmonious flow of well-being.We’ve found time and again that teaching people aboutintegration and how to apply it in their daily lives has deep andlasting positive eects. For kids, this approach can change thedirection of how they develop and set the stage for a life ofmeaning, kindness, exibility, and resilience. Some children whohave been raised with a whole-brain approach will say things thatseem wise beyond their years. A three-year-old we know becameso good at identifying and communicating seemingly contradictoryemotions that he told his parents, when they returned after he’dspent an evening with his babysitter, “I missed you guys when youwere gone, but I also had fun with Katie.” And a seven-year-oldtold her parents on the way to a family picnic, “I’ve decided not tofuss about my hurt thumb at the park. I’ll just tell people I hurtmyself, and then have fun and play anyway.” This level of self-awareness may seem remarkable in children so young, but it showsyou what’s possible with the whole-brain approach. When you’vebecome the active author of your life story and not merely thepassive scribe of history as it unfolds, you can create a life that youlove.You can see how this kind of self-awareness would lead tohealthier relationships down the road, and especially what it couldmean for your children’s own kids when they become parents. Byraising a whole-brain child, you’re actually oering your futuregrandchildren an important gift. For a moment, close your eyes andimagine your child holding his child, and realize the power of whatyou are passing on. And it won’t stop there. Your grandchildren cantake what they learn from their parents and pass it further along asa continuing legacy of joy and happiness. Imagine watching your
own children connect and redirect with your grandchildren! This ishow we integrate our lives across the generations.We hope this vision will inspire you to become the parent youwant to be. Granted, sometimes you’ll fall short of your ideals. Andyes, much of what we’ve shared requires real eort on the part ofyou and your children. It’s not always easy, after all, to go backand retell stories about painful experiences, or to remember toengage the upstairs when your child is upset, rather than triggeringthe downstairs. But every whole-brain strategy oers practicalsteps you can take right now to make your life as a family betterand more manageable. You don’t need to become a perfectsuperparent or follow some sort of prescribed agenda thatprograms your kids to be ideal little robot children. You’ll stillmake plenty of mistakes (just as we do), and so will your kids (justas ours do). But the beauty of the whole-brain perspective is that itlets you understand that even the mistakes are opportunities to growand learn. This approach involves being intentional about whatwe’re doing and where we’re going, while accepting that we are allhuman. Intention and attention are our goals, not some rigid, harshexpectation of perfection.Once you discover the whole-brain approach, you’ll likely wantto share it with the others in your life who will join you in thisgreat responsibility of raising the future. Whole-brain parentsbecome enthusiastic about sharing what they know with otherparents as well as with teachers and caregivers who can work as ateam to promote health and well-being in their children. As youcreate a whole-brain family, you also join a broader vision ofcreating an entire society full of rich, relational communities whereemotional well-being is nurtured for this and future generations.We are all synaptically and socially connected, and bringingintegration into our lives creates a world of well-being.You can see how passionately we believe in the positive impact
parents can have on their children and on society as a whole.There’s nothing more important you can do as a parent than to beintentional about the way you’re shaping your child’s mind. Whatyou do matters profoundly.That being said, don’t put too much pressure on yourself. We’veemphasized the importance of taking advantage of the momentsyou have with your kids, but it’s not realistic to think you can dothis 100 percent of the time. The point is to remain aware of thedaily opportunities to nurture your kids’ development. But thatdoesn’t mean you have to be constantly talking about the brain orrepeatedly prodding your children to recall signicant events intheir lives. It’s just as important to relax and have fun together.And yes, sometimes it’s even okay to let a teachable moment passby.We realize that all this talk about your power to shape yourchildren’s minds and inuence the future can feel intimidating atrst, especially since genes and experiences aect kids in waysparents simply can’t control. But if you really get the concept ofThe Whole-Brain Child at its essence, you’ll see that it can liberateyou from your fears that you’re not doing a good enough job withyour kids. It’s not your responsibility to avoid all mistakes, anymore than you’re supposed to remove all obstacles your childrenface. Instead, your job is to be present with your children andconnect with them through the ups and downs of life’s journey.The great news The Whole-Brain Child oers is that even the hardtimes you go through with your kids, even the mistakes you makeas you parent, are opportunities to help your children grow, learn,and develop into people who are happy, healthy, and fullythemselves. Rather than ignoring their big emotions or distractingthem from their struggles, you can nurture their whole brain,walking with them through these challenges, staying present and thusstrengthening the parent-child bond and helping your kids feel
seen, heard, and cared for. We hope what we’ve shared in thesepages will give you the solid foundation and inspiration to createthe life you want for your children and your family, now and forthe years and generations to come.
REFRIGERATOR SHEETThe Whole-Brain Childby Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne BrysonTo download a printable refrigerator sheet, please visit http://rhlink.com/wbc001INTEGRATING THE LEFT AND RIGHT BRAIN• Left + right = clarity and understanding: Help your kids useboth the logical left brain and the emotional right brain as ateam.• What you can do: • Connect and redirect: When your child is upset, connect firstemotionally, right brain to right brain. Then, once your child ismore in control and receptive, bring in the left-brain lessonsand discipline. • Name it to tame it: When big, right-brain emotions are ragingout of control, help your kids tell the story about what’supsetting them, so their left brain can help make sense of theirexperience and they can feel more in control.INTEGRATING THE UPSTAIRS BRAIN AND THE DOWNSTAIRSBRAIN• Develop the upstairs brain: Watch for ways to help build thesophisticated upstairs brain, which is “under construction” duringchildhood and adolescence and can be “hijacked” by thedownstairs brain, especially in high-emotion situations.• What you can do:
• Engage, don’t enrage: In high-stress situations, engage yourchild’s upstairs brain, rather than triggering the downstairsbrain. Don’t immediately play the “Because I said so!” card.Instead, ask questions, request alternatives, even negotiate. • Use it or lose it: Provide lots of opportunities to exercise theupstairs brain. Play “What would you do?” games, and avoidrescuing kids from difficult decisions. • Move it or lose it: When a child has lost touch with his upstairsbrain, help him regain balance by having him move his body.INTEGRATING MEMORY• Make the implicit explicit: Help your kids make their implicitmemories explicit, so that past experiences don’t affect them indebilitating ways.• What you can do: • Use the remote of the mind: When a child is reluctant to narratea painful event, the internal remote lets her pause, rewind,and fast-forward a story as she tells it, so she can maintaincontrol over how much of it she views. • Remember to remember: Help your kids exercise their memoryby giving them lots of practice at recalling important events: inthe car, at the dinner table, wherever.INTEGRATING THE MANY PARTS OF MYSELF• The wheel of awareness: When your kids get stuck on oneparticular point on the rim of their wheel of awareness, helpthem choose where they focus their attention so they can gain
more control over how they feel.• What you can do: • Let the clouds of emotion roll by: Remind kids that feelings comeand go; they are temporary states, not enduring traits. • SIFT: Help your children pay attention to the Sensations,Images, Feelings, and Thoughts within them. • Exercise mindsight: Mindsight practices teach children to calmthemselves and focus their attention where they want.INTEGRATING SELF AND OTHER• Wired for “we”: Watch for ways to capitalize on the brain’sbuilt-in capacity for social interaction. Create positive mentalmodels of relationships.• What you can do: • Enjoy each other: Build fun into the family, so that your kidsenjoy positive and satisfying experiences with the peoplethey’re with the most. • Connect through conflict: Instead of an obstacle to avoid, viewconflict as an opportunity to teach your kids essentialrelationship skills, like seeing other people’s perspectives,reading nonverbal cues, and making amends.