Recess is good. Homework is bad. Kids who already accept these ideas might be glad to know they’re getting some support among researchers. “Just as sitting for long periods of time is a foreign element in the natural ecology of the hemorrhoid-ridden truck driver, homework is a foreign element in the natural ecology of the five-year-old,” writes Gabrielle Principe, chair of psychology at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania. Research, she says, indicates that kids need consistent opportunities for face-to-face communication and freewheeling play. “Modern children are born with the very same brains and accompanying tendencies, abilities, and adaptations as their nomadic hunter-gatherer ancestors,” writes Principe. “They did not evolve to watch Dora the Explorer find her way to the Indies, play Frisbee from a couch with a virtual dog or spend their Saturdays on a newly groomed soccer field.”
You’ve heard of left-brain (logical, etc.) vs. right-brain (emotional, etc.) behavior. In “The Whole Brain Child,” neuropsychiatrist Daniel J. Siegel and psychotherapist Tina Payne Bryson add another dimension — the upstairs brain vs. the downstairs. The downstairs, including the brain stem and limbic region, is responsible for basic physcial functions and primal responses; the upstairs cerebral cortex (“imagine it as a light-filled second-story study’’) handles decision-making, understanding and imagining. Though the upstairs won’t be fully developed for years, the authors say, it’s important to try to build “a staircase of the mind” to integrate the different regions. “Tantrums, meltdowns, aggression, and most of the other challenging experiences of parenting – and life – are a result of a loss of integration,” write Bryson and Siegel. They offer strategies for getting a youngster to chill out. For instance, storytelling, which appeals to the left-brain’s affinity for words and reasoning, can be used to calm emotional storms in the raging right brain. The book also includes cartoon illustrations that depict parents responding to pre-kindergarten freakouts with a level of compassion that makes Ward Cleaver look insensitive.