The part of brain responsible for sound decision making is not fully developed in children until their mid twenties. According to David Thomas, author of the books Are My Kids on Track? and Wild Things, boys in particular, are hardwired for acting before thinking. Thomas notes that boys are physical, underfocused, and always moving, which naturally has a major impact on their ability to act with self control.
The brain is responsible for everything that we do, which is true for ourselves and our kids. Decision making, movement, breathing, and thinking are capable all thanks to different parts of the brain.
Upstairs vs Downstairs Brain
The Whole Brain Child lays out the brain as the “upstairs brain” and the “downstairs brain.” Simply put, the downstairs brain is responsible for:
- basic functions (breathing, blinking)
- strong emotions (anger and fear)
- innate reactions and impulses (flight or fight)
The upstairs brain is responsible for:
- sound decision making and planning
- control over emotions and body
As you can see, the two parts must work together for a child (or adult) to be functioning at their best. The Whole Brain Child says, “That means the upstairs can monitor the actions of the downstairs and help calm the strong reactions, impulses, and emotions that originate there. But vertical integration works the other direction too… we don’t want significant upstairs decisions being made in some sort of vacuum that’s devoid of input from our emotions, instincts, and our bodies. Instead, we need to consider our emotional and physical feelings – which originate downstairs – before using the upstairs to decide on a course of action.”
Even though it can feel like a personal attack every time my kids lack impulse control, I know I really have nothing to do with it. However, some moments it truly feels like they are trying to take me down, one impulsive decision at a time. But I know, deep down, that what they need from me in those moments is to act as their “upstairs brain.”
Enter, the role of “try again.” I have been using this strategy with both kids it is amazing how well it usually works. I will say, it works even better for Keener (almost 4) than Grace (2.5).
When Keener is running on impulsivity, I will calmly say, “try again.” The purpose of this is to give him a second chance to speak or act in a way that isn’t quite so impulsive. For example, when he forgets to use manners and his tone comes off as demanding or rude, I will say, “try again.” Just about every time, “Give me the iPad” turns into “Can I please have the iPad?” He simply needed a chance to try again.
I find this mostly works for disrespectful behavior. By drawing a calm awareness to the behavior, it helps children with the part of the brain they are lacking. As David Thomas says in his book, “Are My Kids On Track?” “This gives them a chance to pause and get a do-over. If they intentionally repeat the behavior or words, that alerts you that they are choosing to disobey you in that moment and should experience a consequence.”
Other times this works well is when Keener is moving too quickly. Instead of calmly taking something I am giving him, he will snatch is out of my hand. Instead of getting upset, taking back the object, or telling him that was rude, I will take the object back and say, “Try again.” If he isn’t aware what he did, I might calmly say, “You just grabbed that. Try again gently taking it.” Most times, he doesn’t even need the explanation.
“Try again” is also a good reminder to be succinct. Often times as parents, we talk too much. We think that we are imposing all sorts of brilliant, reasonable wisdom that our kids need. The truth is, they are likely tuning much of it out. Saying “try again” allows us to offer a quick reminder without overwhelming them with too many words.
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