Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Yes Brain by Siegel and Bryson

Yes Brain is a parenting book. This immediately means several things:

  • It’s extremely repetitive.
  • It sports branding. “Yes Brain™ – good. No Brain – bad”.
  • This is strictly necessary because parents are chronically sleep deprived and can’t focus for more than five minutes.

Here’s the overall framework within which the book operates:

Children are born with a fully developed “downstairs brain” (roughly aka limbic system, lizard brain, system one), which controls involuntary response. As they grow, they are developing their “upstairs brain” (cortex, system two), in charge of higher level thought. So as children develop, many of their reactions are driven by system one. The parent’s role is to help develop system two. This means going from a predominantly reactive stimulus-response mode to “response flexibility”: being able to choose how to respond to a stimulus.

I find this to be a useful framework in general. All but the most enlightened meditators could use a bit more response flexibility. The most useful parts of this book describe strategies for explaining what this might look like to young children. Unfortunately for me, most examples in the book focus on 5, 8, 13 year olds. One of the most approachable frameworks is based on colors, which my toddler has yet to learn. So I think we have a prerequisite to fill first!

The green zone is a state where response flexibility is maximized. The red zone is a tantrum or lack of control. The blue zone is withdrawal after a pattern of bad feedback. The parental role is to expand the green zone, make children spent more time there, and make returning to green faster. The authors suggest teaching the model to the kids as well to be able to talk about it, and spend some time discussing what that would look like through fairly insightful comics.

Other things I liked included some Stoically inspired advice:

  • There’s an explicit discussion of walking children through tough times without coddling them. In the dismal language of the authors, it’s about finding the “goldilocks balance” between “pushin’” and “cushin’”.
  • Reframing when kids misbehave. It may be useful to treat this as a form of communication. See it as a call for help rather than them acting out and making things hard for you.
  • Present difficult situations as “which struggle do you prefer?”. Seems handy to reframe pain as a learning experience.
  • Try on the outside view to learn to get some emotional distance from the problem at hand. They have a great analogy of being a player player vs. being a spectator.
  • For empathy, it’s useful to practice in children’s books: What is the person feeling right now?

Random things I disliked:

  • The authors reject any external measuring sticks. A lot of the book emphasized process over results to such an extreme that it conflates extrinsic plenty with intrinsic poverty. In my mind, you should aim for both.
  • Let’s sprinkle in neuroscience to make the book sound more scientistic! Name-dropping the connectome adds nothing, but makes me more annoyed.
  • Conveniently, the authors provide a “Yes Brain Refrigerator Sheet”, a built-in summary of the book. Sadly it is very bad and doesn’t include the actual good parts of the book.

The good parts of this book provide some interesting strategies for teaching stoicism and mindfulness to young children. Perhaps in a few years, I’ll revisit one of its many clones.