Siegel and Bryson say that practicing using the upstairs brain is “the foundation of solid mental health.” For more information on the upstairs and downstairs brain read Whole Brain Strategy #3: Engage, Don’t Enrage. Here are some examples that I paraphrased from The Whole-Brain Child of how to exercise the upstairs brain.
I’m pretty sure we spend most of our time dealing with choices, consequences and controlling emotions and the body. When we make it past breakfast choices without losing control of our emotions, it’s a good day. We have noticed with Elise that giving her the choice between two breakfast items goes much better than the open ended question, “What do you want for breakfast?” (Breakfast just happens to be one of our optimal melt down times.) While we practice our choices at breakfast, I am still waiting for Elise’s brain to get strong enough to choose to walk away from her little sister instead of taking her little sister’s toy. Until then, Elise’s arms will have the bite marks (natural consequence) to show she still needs practice, and sometimes Maggie might be sprawled out on the ground because Elise didn’t control her emotions or body.
But when I find Elise with bite marks or Maggie sprawled on the ground, it does present the perfect opportunity to ask, “Why do you think you made that choice? What made you feel that way?” And we are able explore empathy while little sister is crying though we don’t care much at the moment. I do my best to try to get some empathy when I’m feeling frustrated or stressed, but neither girl seems to empathize with me yet which does highlight how far away we are from morality. It would be awesome to have two girls who “make sound decisions while controlling themselves and working from empathy and self-understanding.” It seems to good to be true that girls will decide to do, “what is for the greater good beyond their own individual needs,” but they are only one and four years old. So we will keep exercising our brains through choices, consequences and controlling emotions and the body, and I will dream of the day one of my children empathizes with me.