Grow your child’s brain in a healthy way

When psychiatrist Dan Siegel speaks to groups, he likes to do a simple exercise. First, he repeats the word “no” in a harsh tone seven times. Then he repeats the word “yes” in a more gentle tone 10 times.

“I used to do it seven times, and then some people said, ‘It was so painful when you said “no.” Do “yes” more,’ ” he says.

The point of Siegel’s exercise is to show the difference between what he calls the No Brain state — where you want to fight, flee, freeze or faint — and the Yes Brain state — where you’re receptive rather than reactive. Getting your kids to “yes” is the goal of The Yes Brain: How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity, and Resilience in Your Child (Bantam Books, 2018), which Siegel co-wrote with Tina Bryson, Ph.D.

Why No’s a No-No

Siegel says when someone’s in a No Brain state, it’s hard to listen, communicate, make good decisions, handle adversity or connect with other people.

“That’s not so good for kids, because it’s depleting,” he says. “It makes them feel like they’re not enough. That can explain a lot of the anxiety and depression we’re seeing in adolescents these days.”

Unfortunately, he says, parents, teachers and coaches too often encourage No Brain states, holding kids to impossible standards and valuing “gold stars” — grade point averages, athletic records and other external achievements — over skills that really matter.

“All the studies show that that stuff — like which college you go to — actually has very little, if anything, to do with how happy you’ll be, the success you’ll have financially or how you’ll contribute to society,” he says.

The BRIE Sandwich

So, what skills matter? The Yes Brain focuses on four: balance, resilience, insight and empathy — or BRIE.

Balance means keeping emotions within what Siegel calls the green zone. Resilience means being able to bounce back when you enter the red zone (losing control) or the blue zone (shutting down). Insight means being able to look at situations from the outside — as if you were a spectator in the bleachers. Empathy means being able to see the world through the eyes of other people.

Getting your kids to “yes” might seem complicated, but Siegel says you can make progress with every interaction. Consider a child who has a tantrum after losing a soccer game. Instead of saying, “Calm down right this instant,” which is a classic No Brain response, you could soothe your child, teach him techniques for calming himself down and look for ways he can experience failure in less high-stakes settings (like playing board games at home).

Be Prepared

The key is to be proactive, not reactive.

“Louis Pasteur said, ‘Chance favors the prepared mind,’ ” Siegel says. “What Tina and I have wanted to do with our writings is prepare a parent’s mind for events that give you the chance to really grow your child’s brain in a healthy, Yes Brain way.”

8 Comments

  1. This article is utterly ridiculous. It has no place in a scouting magazine. While yes, it is important to foster positive thinking within children it is difficult to form hardset boundaries without a firm, if painful, “No.” Youth need to know their boundaries. There is nothing wrong with encouraging good grades and exceptional performance. By meeting these “external goals” kids gain a sense of accomplishment and purpose. A parent’s or leader’s expectations need not be “impossible” to meet. Tailor your expectations to the child’s ability.

    • This article gives light and hope to parents (scout leaders) who want their children (scouts) to BE PREPARED adults. The techniques recommended are very hard to implement, but are very much worth working toward. A child’s positive attitude is key to learning and performance. Accepting boundaries gracefully is a key part of the “yes” plan.M

    • You’re missing the point if you think this article Is about discipline. Of course we set smart boundaries. What Siegles work is about is keeping an open, positive, problem solving mindset. It is VERY effective in helping boys grow and achieve. I’ve used techniques like his for years to bring out the best in boys.

  2. More pc nonsense
    BOYS should be told NO when appropriate
    Doing otherwise is why so many cant handle being reprimanded

    • this isn’t about not saying no to kids. it’s about getting them to be receptive to what you’re saying.

  3. The psychology behind Siegles work is very sound. We run a better scouting program when use practices that foster critical thinking and problem solving. We also raise healthier, more successful youth.I’ve read two of his books and use his ideas in my work with kids and the college classes I teach. People who take the time to add ideas like his to their toolbox will benefit greatly, and so will their kids. Sometimes his terminology takes a little getting used to.

  4. I have read the yes brain, and i think it is not about never saying no, but finding a more positive way to face the moments in which you need to be firm. You can be firm, say “no” in a way that doesn’t activate the no brain, this is the go goal, then you have “said no” to a yes brain that understands the why and can make better choices next time.

  5. Just to be clear, Siegel and Bryson’s book is not about discipline, although they do have a book on that topic (No-Drama Discipline). As the subtitle notes (“How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity, and Resilience in Your Child”), this book is really more about how your child approaches the world than how you deal with your child’s behavior.

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