February 15, 2011

Ah ha! I mean, Duh!

Everyone I encounter has a certain base package of knowledge, right? People generally eat with a fork, wait their turn before speaking, can approximate their feelings in words.

Only with a mature brain, apparently. Which has been simultaneously both an "Ah-ha!" moment and a "Duh!" moment. Humans are born unfinished; it's something about the angle needed by a pelvis for walking upright being incompatible with the size of a head with a completed brain. I knew that already. But what I didn't know was how the brain was unfinished. And now that I think about it, of course, it makes sense. How could I have not figured this out before now?

Human brains come in three sections, a reptilian brain for instinctive behavior (breathing, hunger, fight-or-flight), a mammalian brain for emotion (rage, fear, playfulness, exploration, caring, separation distress) and a rational brain for everything else (creativity, kindness, empathy, social skills, problem-solving). The first two are already online at birth, the rational brain not so much. It's not even fully connected yet. How a parent interacts with an infant determines how the connections will be built, whether they will be constructed in an environment of happy brain hormones or of stressful brain hormones. And how those connections are built will influence how that child will see and interact with the rest of the world, for the rest of her life.

Like I said, Ah-ha, rapidly followed by Duh.

I've recently finished reading The Science of Parenting, and I wish I'd run into this book five or six years ago. Here's an approachable book (Pictures! Short paragraphs! Pull-quotes! Real-life examples!) that outlines a way of parenting based on brain science. I've not read tons of parenting books (they mostly make me feel cranky and guilty), but this one made a lot of sense for me. Not to discount the fields of sociology and psychology, but I instinctively understand neurology better.

So, I'm trying to be clearer in communicating my expectations to Caitlyn. And I'm trying to pay closer attention to her, pointing out when her behavior is starting to annoy and working with her to find words to express what she wants. Is she jumping in the kitchen while I'm trying to finish up dinner because she needs to go outside and run, because she needs to pee, because she wants a hug from Mama? Being reminded that her rational brain is still under construction for the next few years helps me understand that she is acting out impulses from a lower brain because she doesn't yet have the robust set of problem solving skills that would allow her to stop and figure out that if a hug from Mama in the late afternoon is what she needs, zooming in circles in the kitchen might not be the best way of getting one.

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