07/09/2012 06:43 pm ET Updated Sep 08, 2012

Parenting with the Brain in Mind

My parents smoked cigarettes well into their 50's but neither of them died of cancer. All of their friends smoked, too; at the time, they didn't know as much about the links between tobacco and cancer as we do today.

Neither of my parents were big on exercise. Other than doing chores and occassionally swimming or hiking for fun, I never saw them exercise on purpose. Yet they lived into their 80's. None of their friends exercised on purpose either; at the time, they didn't know as much about the links between aerobic exercise, health and well-being as we do today.

The family meal was a very big deal growing up in Paw Paw, Michigan. On weeknights, our kitchen table was piled high with red meat, long-cooked vegetables and some sort of cake, a plate of cookies or other sweets for dessert. On most nights, we ate tin-roof sundaes with vanilla ice cream, Hershey's chocolate sauce and peanuts before bedtime. After church on Sunday we ate so much food at our mid-day meal (much of it fried) that pretty much the whole family collapsed and took a nap once the kitchen was clean. Our diet wasn't what we'd call well-balanced today, yet no-one in our nuclear family struggled with diabetes or excessive weight. We weren't the only ones in Paw Paw, or in our extended family, that ate like this; at the time, my parents didn't know as much about the connection between low-cal, low-carb, high-fiber meals and health as we do today.

My father spanked me when I was a child and I'm okay now. My mom was a kindergarten teacher who stopped working outside the home when she had children. As far as I know, neither she nor my dad ever read about the human brain and its connection to learning and behavior. But had they done so, they couldn't possibly have learned everything that parents who are interested in brain development could learn today:

  • That everyone's brains change in response to their life experiences and that young children's brains change rapidly.
  • That, simply put, there is a problem-solving part of the brain and an emotional part of the brain.
  • That in early childhood the problem solving part of the brain is immature but it will develop and mature into a person's 20's.
  • That, regardless of a person's age, one of the jobs of the emotional brain is to 'hijack' or shut down the problem-solving part of the brain in a life-threatening emergency so that a person can reflexively flight, fight or freeze in response to danger.
  • That sometimes, when children (and parents) feel stressed or upset, the emotional brain reacts as if it's in a life-threatening situation and shuts down the problem-solving part of the brain, making it extremely difficult if not impossible to see a situation clearly and think about it rationally.
  • Because their problem-solving brains are not yet fully developed, children are even more susceptible to this 'emotional hijack' than their parents.

Last week I was involved in an online conversation on the Huffington Post over the controversial issue of whether spanking children is an appropriate form of discipline. Those are waters that I won't wade into again in this post.

Reflecting on this conversation I am reminded how much our parenting choices are influenced by the choices our parents made. We have a great deal more information available to us than our parents did, helping us make healthy lifestyle choices with respect to tobacco, aerobic exercise and diet. There are also strong resources available now that were not available to our parents to help us set limits, discipline and relate to our children with brain development and brain function in mind. Here are just a few: The Emotional Life of Your Brain, Dr Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley; The Whole Brain Child, Drs. Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson; Conscious Discipline, Dr. Becky Baily and The Committed Parent by Dr. Mark Brady.