At the end of a gravel road in the Chippewa National Forest of northern Minnesota, a group of camp counselors have gathered to hear psychotherapist Tina Bryson speak about neuroscience, mentorship, and camping. She is in Minnesota by invitation of the camp. Chippewa is at the front of a movement to bring brain science to bear on the camping industry; she keynoted this past year’s American Camping Association annual conference. As Bryson speaks to the counselors gathered for training, she emphasizes one core message: At the heart of effective discipline is curiosity—curiosity on the part of the counselors to genuinely understand and respect what the campers are experiencing while away from home.
Brain science is far from a precise field, but Bryson deploys it effectively when she conducts trainings. She has lectured from Australia to Germany, California to D.C., and the camp trainings are only a small portion of what she does. She envisions herself as someone on a mission to change parenting, and her talks weave recent data on brain imaging, new findings from top journals, and reports of ongoing experimental research with stories from her own life, anecdotes from her clinical practice, and aw-shucks pithy sayings that help make the science accessible.
Bryson is not alone in this approach. She is part of a progressive new group of scientists, doctors, and psychologists whose goal is ambitious, if not outright audacious: They want to redefine "discipline" in order to change our culture. They want to rewrite—or perhaps more precisely said, rewire—how we interact with kids, and they want us to understand that our decisions about parenting affect not only our children’s minds, but ours as well.
So, we’re going to need to toss out our old discipline mainstays. Say goodbye to timeouts. So long spanking and other ritualized whacks. And cry-it-out sleep routines? Mercifully, they too can be a thing of the past. And yet, we can still help our children mature and grow. In fact, people like Bryson think we’ll do it better. If we are going to take seriously what science tells us about how we form relationships and how our mind develops, we will need to construct new strategies for parenting, and when we do, says this new group of researchers, we just may change the world.
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In the late 1980s, a group of scientists in Italy began work that would lead to a watershed discovery in 1992. Professor Giacomo Rizzolatti, a neuroscientist and M.D., had been working with a research team at the University of Parma to understand the relationship between intent and motor function: How does our intention to do something result in us actually doing it? They conducted experiments on macaque monkeys, a genus of primates that includes some 20 species. Macaques were used in Harry Harlow’s infamous "Pit of Despair" experiments in the 1970s, and they have been subjected to experimentation to understand a wide range of diseases, including Parkinson’s, eye degeneration, HIV, and, most recently, the Ebola virus.
The group immediately perceived the importance of the discovery. If seeing were, in terms of the brain, the same as doing, the entire canon of human behavior would have to be rewritten. A journal eventually published details of the experiment, and several years later, another journal published a follow up set of findings. In that second installment, Rizzolatti and his team coined a term for the neurological phenomenon they were witnessing: mirror neurons. The term would make him famous.
In the early 1990s, Rizzolatti and his team had been conducting a series of experiments involving the monkeys and peanuts. A portion of the monkeys’ skulls had been removed, and the scientists had connected a series of wires directly to the brain. The wires conveyed electrical currents from the brain to sophisticated recording devices that could read the neurological patterns of the monkey’s actions and, presumably, its thinking. The experiment proceeded as expected until one day, when one of Rizollati’s team members noticed something unusual. When a monkey witnessed a researcher reaching for a peanut, the neurons in the monkey’s brain fired in precisely the same way that they did when the monkey itself reached for a peanut. In other words, as far as the brain is concerned, simply seeing someone grab a peanut is the same as actually grabbing it oneself.
The idea of mirror neurons continues to prompt considerable controversy; some researchers argue that empirical evidence for the existence of such cells is scant, while others suggest that neuroscience has yet to fully grasp the implications of neurons behaving like mirrors. Regardless, the discussion about mirror neurons has pressed neuroscience into new frontiers, and it has suggested new avenues of inquiry for not only scientists, but also for doctors and psychologists. Among those avenues is a relatively recent field of study called interpersonal neurobiology. The growth of that field is virtually unimaginable without the discoveries by Rizzolatti and his Parma team.
Dan Siegel is the forefather of this recent movement, coining the term "interpersonal neurobiology" in the late 1990s, though others can be attributed with new discoveries in the field as well. Bryson is one of the many researchers to follow Siegel into the field and who've found their own footing as international experts and sought-after speakers; they reflect the expanding influence of interpersonal neurobiology as a way of thinking about family relationships. Meanwhile, Siegel's ideas are still finding their ways into not only parenting networks and the popular press, but also schools across the country. Some, like the Blue School in New York City, even shape their entire curriculum around his ideas.
Interpersonal neurobiology envisions the brain as a social organ, one whose processes can best be understood by its interaction with a variety of complex systems. Among those systems, and one that sets the field apart from simply neurology or biology, is the emotional system that develops in relationships. In terms of what happens inside the brain, that system is just as real as, say, the system that processes our eyesight and deciphers it into meaningful images for us.
Siegel, Bryson, and others in the field simplify the science behind their work by relying on a longstanding theory of the brain that divides the organ into three general parts: the cerebral cortex, the brain stem, and the limbic system The cerebral cortex is our rational, human brain, and the brain stem is our "reptilian" or lizard brain, the one that basically exists to keep us alive in times of threat. The limbic system functions as a connector but remains primitive, often encouraging behaviors without giving the cortex time to process and encourage a different, frequently better course of action.
When we discipline, argue Siegel and Bryson, our limbic system can become reactive and emotional; or worse, the lizard brains take control in not just our child, who is raising hell and biting and hissing like a pissed-off gecko, but in us as well, as we raise our voices and flail about trying to scare off the lizard by transforming into a bigger, meaner one. Will the Komodo dragon beat the gecko? In some ways, sure. But that little lizard learns one thing, and that is for it to win, it needs to grow stronger, get bigger, and bite harder. If, however, parents can channel their inner Steve Irwins and find ways to approach the lizard child with respect for how it is acting—which is ultimately an adaptive and useful way to keep it alive in the face of danger and stress—then we might not only make contact with the creature, but teach it that it has nothing to fear so that it can back away, return to its cave, and let the less hissy, more rational kid come back out to play.
The brain's activities can be observed, documented, and, to some extent, measured. Relationships forge and develop neurons and neural pathways, which means that close observation of what actually occurs in the brain can help us understand what kinds of relationships work well and which do not.
Equally important, the "brain" extends well beyond the organ within our skull. Nerves spread throughout the body, and those nerves are part of a larger body-wide brain that, for lack of a better term, wires together our thinking, our feelings, and our senses. They help us make sense of those very systems because we are capable of turning inward and becoming to some degree aware of the processes that make them work.
Seigal calls this ability to observe and intentionally notice our own body and brain processes "mindsight." Just as our five senses collect information that we use to discern the world around us, our mindsight can provide us with clearer views of our own internal world so that we can better relate to the people around us. This allows us to delve deeper into the significance of our relationships.
Much of what Siegel wants us to consider can be condensed into a simple phrase: "what fires together wires together." The idea is that when a set of neurons is stimulated, they link up with all those other neurons that are simultaneously firing. Whether the groups of neurons that are linking make sense to us as observers on the outside is beside the point. Odd pairings can occur, strange juxtapositions of feelings and sensations that, outside of the experience of a particular individual, seem almost impossible to the rest of us.
I’m reminded of a case study that describes an individual who had come to associate sexual arousal with being covered in insects. As a child, that individual had been locked into closets for unimaginable amounts of time, and during those times, bugs would frequently fill the space and crawl on him. The child, trying to seek some sort of escape from the reality of his experience, found comfort only in sexual release—even though he was too young to even know what sex was or meant. His body knew only that it felt good, and it provided the only possible escape available to him. In his mind, those associations became, quite literally, wired together. Siegel wants us to become aware of those types of associations, as well as types that are more mundane.
Despite their potential horror, these surprising pairings illustrate the complexity of the brain, and they suggest that if problematic associations can be wired together, so too can more uplifting ones. They suggest that we can forge positive associations to create more meaningful, more encouraging, and more beautiful change when we discipline our children. We have known, though not always why, that if we can help a child associate certain behaviors and ways of being with positive stimuli, the child will likely want to replicate the behavior. Siegel and his followers argue that we will be less effective in helping children grow until we understand that children’s actions often have odd pairings at the heart of them. Our role is to help children makes sense of those actions and, with any luck, shift them.
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Each generation, of course, has its own child-rearing prophet, complete with magical gospels, and Siegel may be just another. In the 19th century, conduct manuals were bestsellers in America. They typically preached the need to limit undue stimulation of children lest they become perverted or uncivil, and as the century advanced, they increasingly associated discipline with corporal punishment, to the degree that by the end of the century, parents and educators were rebelling.
Some educators pointed out that while prisons (sometimes called "disciplinary barracks") were moving away from physical punishment, schools were codifying it to allow its systematic use. In the mid-1990s, President Bill Clinton demanded that "more discipline" be enacted at schools to combat the image of inner-city schools as war zones, and in the wind up to his first term in office, President George W. Bush argued for legislation that would limit legal culpability of teachers using more stringent "discipline" in their classrooms.
Today, the classroom remains the center of much debate about discipline, but it will likely be in the home that Siegel’s and Bryson’s ideas are put to the test. The most telling point of conflict is one of the vexing questions of parenting that lingers from generation to generation: to spank or not to spank.
For some parents, spanking is tantamount to abuse, yet for others, it's a required part child rearing. The division between the two camps is apparent, as some researchers have suggested, along racial and, probably more tellingly, socioeconomic lines. Some opportunistic pundits have even connected the act of spanking to the cultural and economic realities of the black community.
The division can also be drawn, if imperfectly, geographically. In the South, a growing movement has sought to ensure that parents have the right to use corporal punishment with their children. The difference is that the new spank world is not the swack-in-an-instant belting of our parents’ generation. This one is based on the idea that genuine love can be conveyed with a whack on the tush, and that children, because of their little lizard brains, understand and respond to physical stimuli better than verbal.
They are at least in part right. The animal brain of the child is quite sensitive to touch of all sorts. It recognizes the safety of a hug as well as the danger of a slap without the slightest bit of explanation, and it learns rather quickly that certain behaviors can lead to danger and a red butt. The problem, for folks like Siegel and Bryson, is that children enter a world of emotional chaos when their attachment figure, from whom they are wired to seek safety and security, becomes the figure that also inflicts physical harm.You might picture Curly running around in circles looking for a place to find safety from Moe, who pops him repeatedly on the forehead. Like poor Curly, lizard brain has very few ways to decipher what is happening and so just circles round and round, occasionally slapping anything or anyone (presumably Larry) nearby.
Decades of research into spanking demonstrates what happens in the brain when we hit a child, even though it’s only been recently that we’ve been able to make sense of some of the findings. Children who are spanked are, according to most studies, more likely to commit crimes, more likely to suffer from depression, more likely to go to jail, more likely to get into fights, more likely to commit suicide, and more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs. They also typically have lower IQs and poorer academic performance. The studies are, of course, mixed, and they suggest correlations, not causations. Still, a mountain of evidence suggests that spanking does very little good, if any at all. Most of this we know when we care to slow down and remember our own responses to spankings. Ask yourself, when you were spanked, did you absolutely, never again take an extra cookie from the cookie jar? In all likelihood, you probably just developed ninja-like stealth.
Further, the research suggests that spanking may be (and I offer this tidbit without comment) more likely to be connected to political orientation than other traits. Spankers and spankees trend toward Republicanism. This could help explain why changing methods of discipline is so difficult and why science faces an uphill battle in facilitating change. Upending years of habits is hard enough with family politics, but when the issue becomes entrenched in national politics, it becomes even more difficult.
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Discipline has always been politicized. The 19th-century debates that focused on whether or not corporal punishment was appropriate for children gave way in the mid-20th to similar debates about school discipline and the right of teachers to strike kids. Today, 19 states permit school officials to use corporal punishment, and the controversy around school discipline has been heating up as discussions about local school governance have come up against federal education mandates.
Legislators have conveniently divided along party lines to enter the fray. In Kansas, legislation that would allow teachers to use more forceful corporal punishment has been proposed (but recently rejected), while in Texas a recent law allows parents to place their child on a "no-paddle" list, a position which allows spanking to remain in schools while granting certain parents (read: godless liberals) the ability to opt out of the paddle. And the issue is not restricted to the United States. In Sweden, a furious debate has erupted over authoritarian parenting as a way to toughen up kids and prevent them from becoming "brats." And in certain churches around the world, spanking does more than just toughen a kid up; it ensures they move on the path of righteousness. Spanking is biblical mandate, and it works its way into the politics of parenting.
The theory is that teaching children "logical" consequences for their actions will help them internalize the lesson on a kind of primal level. Spanking is the obvious example, but perhaps the most widely known method is one that reaches across political boundaries and seems to work for many, regardless of socioeconomic conditions: the "cry-it-out" method, which teaches children to go to go to sleep on their own and has become a rite of passage for many parents.
Wander around a toddler playground, and most parents will be talking about sleeping. As children leap around like monkeys and infants list in strollers, a bubble of drool gathering at the corners of their mouths, parents will be sharing sleep war-stories. They will not be debating the benefits of Montessori education or discussing the virtues of early childhood music lessons. They will certainly not be discussing the benefits of breast-feeding or the nature of spousal relationships after childbirth. And the conversation centers around one, dreaded, judgment-laden query: "Is your kid making it through the night?"
This question, more than any other these days, seems to mark us as either successful or unsuccessful parents. Good parents somehow are able to make their children sleep through the night, whereas the rest of us struggle with finding a good bed time, "putting the child down" (a phrase that reveals our desperation), and ensuring uninterrupted, ongoing, blissful, and quiet sleep. Those good parents may at some point decide that "cry-it-out" is the path to peace in our households.
The method works for many. With ruthless efficiency. If, by eight months or so, your child has not learned to go to sleep on his or her own, your job as a parent is to, through a process of gradual denial, remove yourself from the baby's presence. Three or four nights after starting the process, the wee-one learns that the crying results in absolutely nothing but exhaustion. "Self-soothe" as the literature often calls it. Voilà! Sleeping baby, sleeping parents. Playground bragging rights secured.
The problem is that this type of "discipline" has consequences that are largely invisible to us but no less real than the silence in the house. The biological and neurological effects of cry-it-out are visible only when the brain is unmasked by technology that peers into brain functioning and bears witness to the complex ways our own chemistry responds to stress and to nurturing. That technology provides rather stark appraisals of what we do when we discipline in ways like allowing children to cry it out.
The science of sleep has mixed responses to whether or not the method causes any sort of long-term, measurable problems. Some researchers argue that such a wash over the brain may lead to unforeseen emotional and biological issues (including poor health as the child ages). Others argue that sleep is so important that the consequence of a three- or four- night, cry-it-out cortisol spike is minimal in comparison to the ongoing stress caused by poor sleep, which has been linked to any manner of issues that strike fear in the hearts of parents: poor academic performance, disobedience, lethargy, the Victorian brain fever, and downright nastiness.
Still, such a tremendous surge of stress hormone probably should not be dismissed. And questions like who was involved in the event may have more significance than simply the presence of the hormone alone because it indicates which parts of the brain will be involved in processing the stress. In the case of children, the stress initiated by a caregiver may be more significant in terms of brain neuroscience than the stress associated with, say, little Timmy’s school-yard friend Ginny, who knocks him off the swing set from time to time. That stress may cause the boy some difficulty, but the stress associated with an attachment figure leaving him at night to cry alone in his crib may be more significant.
The child’s brain can only process that as an abandonment—it has no other way to make sense of it—and while the results of that abandonment vary considerably in any given household and certainly don’t sentence the child to a lifetime of despondency—or, worse, mediocrity—the child’s brain experiences a lesson it simply cannot order or regulate except by associating care with something other than the parent. When using cry-it-out, then, parents not only teach sleep, they also teach the associations the child’s brain makes in order to help him or her feel soothed.
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Siegel has suggested several methods of integrating the various neurological systems that comprise the "whole brain," that web of neurons that extend from the brain in our head to the nervous systems distributed throughout our bodies. One of the most important is "time-in." The idea of time-in is that parents direct attention to emotions to help children become aware of their inner lives. While not developed as a counterpoint to time-outs—timeouts ideally foster reflectiveness—the term time-in aims for more consistent and ongoing engagement with emotions, communication, and relationships.
Whereas timeout is typically a punishment ("You go sit there and think about what you’ve done!" hisses mom), time-in occurs throughout each day in order to subtly build awareness of the mind’s inner workings. With more awareness, the child has touchstones to return to in order to make sense of more intense emotional experiences—say when you refuse to buy yet another Skylander figure. Time-in, then, prevents escalation of bad behavior, because it helps a child learn to pay attention to the range of experiences he or she has on a daily basis.
Of course, most of us are about as likely to implement a daily ritual of "time-ins" as we are to finally begin that morning routine of sit-ups, push-ups, and chia-shakes. It’s not going to happen, and Siegel, I think, knows it. He wants to make time-in and its various permutations seem less of an event or "consequence" and more part of our daily routines. Instead of imagining a time-in as an isolated moment in the way that time-outs are, think of it instead as ongoing communication and building awareness.
For instance, Siegel suggests that after something noteworthy occurs, whether good or bad, you help your child tell the story of it. When I spoke with him, he described it like this: one day you go to the zoo, and an orangutan throws a banana at you and your kids. For a moment, you’re startled, but then you start to laugh, and you go on with your day. Siegel wants you to attend to the fact that when that banana came through the fence, you experienced a genuine and momentarily intense emotional response. As innocuous as it likely was, it occurred, and the odds are your child experienced it, too. On your drive home, then, you bring that moment back from memory and tell a story about it: "Hey Timmy, remember when that orangutan threw that banana at your head? We were walking up to its cage, and we leaned really close it, and then he threw it. Oh my gosh, that scared me. It caught me by surprise and I couldn’t believe it happened. I was so surprised my heart jumped!"
As many parents know, children will often step in with their own version to extend the story, and at that point, our job as parents is to acknowledge not only the event, but each person’s experience of the event. Even if the child, especially a young child, can’t name the feelings associated with it, we can, and we help them when we do. We put words to the intensity of the feelings, and we, accordingly, make them less mysterious and less intense. The child might say, "Yeah, and he made all those gross noises and shook his arms and that banana came right at my face." And we say, "I can see how that scared you." By teaching in casual moments, our task as disciplinarians becomes easier in more-intense moments.
For children, intense emotions are like a dark forest at night. Trees rustle in the wind, bats circle above, and all manner of insects crawl along the ground, but in the darkness they are almost impossible to see, let alone understand. The brain starts making associations, and the child becomes overwhelmed with dark imaginings. When we use discipline methods like time-out, we essentially usher our kids into the woods and just leave them there in the darkness. More, we actually tell them to sit there silently and not to move no matter what they experience so that they can "reflect" on their actions.
Siegel attempts to make that journey less frightening and less rigid, possibly even inviting. Time-in encourages kids and parents to embark on a daytime adventure into the woods together and asks them to explore a little bit, to poke around in trees and piles of leaves to see what they can find. Parents hand kids tools to dig up dirt and tie branches together. They talk to them about what the woods look like in the dark and what other critters might come out besides squirrels and chipmunks. The hope is that by getting to know the woods during the day, they aren’t quite so indecipherable at night, even if they are still dark and bit frightening.
Intense emotions are in fact extraordinarily mysterious and frightening, even for adults. When we take just a moment to talk about how we experience them, we help children listen to that inner experience. We train them to recognize and adjust to them. When we do that, we provide them with access to feelings in an unassuming way, and we help them develop clearer visions of their own inner lives.
Discipline, in this model, transforms from punishment and obedience to teaching and self-regulation. While spanking and "teaching consequences" often aim for immediate compliance, we shouldn’t fool ourselves that they result in that. I challenge you to show me the child whose whining ends after a swift hand to the butt. The crying typically escalates, followed quickly by, some permutation from the parent of the legendary phrase, "If you don’t quiet down, I’ll give you something to cry about."
For those in interpersonal neurobiology, facilitating change is less about enforcing mandates and more about fostering new ways of being and living. Yes, they say, if a child reaches for a hot oven, we must act quickly and decisively, but discipline-as-teaching requires that we take that action and teach with it. In the case of the hot oven or a child darting into the street, we intercede swiftly, but we also demonstrate why it’s so dangerous and, the tough part, own up to our own fear and anxiety at that moment. We help the child see how we experienced it so that the kid understands why we acted in the way that we did.
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