The Whole Brain Child Book Review

I reckon that the Whole-Brain Child is probably the most influential books in terms of parenting and Neuroscience in the last 10 years so I am excited to share my thoughts on this book. 

As a Pediatric Occupational therapist and Parent Educator, I find huge value in reading popular books, especially in integrating research into a common day child care and parenting. 

The Whole Brain Child is a parenting book that integrates neuroscience research with practical strategies for parents to help their children thrive. Written by Daniel J. Siegel, MD, and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., both well-respected professionals in their fields, the book outlines 12 strategies for nurturing a child’s developing mind.

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About the authors of the whole brain child

Daniel J Siegel MD and Tina Payne Bryson Ph.D. are authors that have written a lot of parenting books. I think The Whole Brain Child is one of those books that’s on every list in terms of “what to read when you become a parent”. 

The authors of this book : 

  • Daniel Siegel who is is a medical doctor and also a clinical professor in Psychiatry.
  • Tina Payne Bryson has her Ph.D. and she’s a pediatric and Adolescent psychotherapist. 

Both authors work in research. They’re both very well-respected professionals internationally when it comes to Neuroscience and parenting.

Key takeaways from the whole brain child

The big idea of this book is integrating what we know about Neuroscience to help our children not just survive but thrive through our daily interactions with them. 

At the beginning of the book, the authors discuss an example of approaching children who refuse to share toys. They demonstrate how different a neuroscience approach is from a common behavioral approach to this same issue. 

They suggest that instead of positive and negative reinforcements we can look at this common issue with children by integrating the brain, the body, and emotions. 

The 12 strategies walk you through exactly how to do just that. 

I want to just pull a few of these strategies and dive a little deeper into what they mean.

The Whole-Child Curriculum

Surfing the emotional wave

One of the first strategies used is called “ surfing the emotional wave”. 

The book discusses how in life we have common upheavals to our regular flow. Like someone cutting you off in traffic or someone pushing you on the playground. 

The authors suggest that these micro-events can cause us to experience chaos. The purpose is that if that “chaos” isn’t integrated to a clear understanding of what happened and why we can develop rigid thinking. 

I think when you’re parenting young children, especially this concept of emotional waves is something that is easy to grasp. We have all had that experience of knowing that we have to in essence ‘wait out” a tantrum. 

And that you can start teaching or processing what’s happened with your child only after that wave of big feelings has run its course. 

Naming the emotion 

The other thing that the Whole Brain Child is famous for is this concept called “name it to tame it”. 

The idea is that by naming the emotion or the experience we make it more understandable for a child. 

This is expanded upon in the book to talk about the power of storytelling.  Using recollection and memories to talk our children through their experiences or sharing experiences that we’ve had. By doing this we give our kids color in the painting of understanding the world. 

I think this is a really powerful strategy they talk about in the book. 

One of the opening stories is about a little boy who is with his nanny in the car and the nanny has a seizure and they have a car accident. Then boy begins saying the sound of the ambulance and imitating seizures throughout the following weeks. 

So his mother uses this concept of naming and recalls to walk him through the experience so that he understands.  By doing this she names that it was scary and concludes- that the nanny is fine. This is done so that he can process that experience without developing a phobia for cars. Again integrating the child’s physical and emotional experiences to shape a non-rigid view of the world. 

Upstairs and Downstairs Brain 

Another one of the concepts that they walk through in this book is the idea of the upstairs and downstairs brain. 

The idea is that we use the higher learning centers of our brain (the prefrontal cortex) in order to function. However, when children have big emotions they enter into a state of fight or flight. The authors describe this as like going into the downstairs part of the brain- the primitive centers. They suggest that in the downstairs part of the brain, we are unable to process or activate logical reasoning. 

The idea being that in the downstairs brain, we are cut off from the ability to reason. This again feeds into the idea of “waiting out the storm” when it comes to tantrums and outbursts. 

What I like about the Whole brain Child is that many of the strategies are play based and rooted in building connections.

The book also includes: 

  1. Cartoon depictions of each strategy. These may be very helpful for older children 
  2. Cheat Sheets on how to apply each of the different strategies in an age-appropriate way with different age groups. 
  3. A fridge tear-off sheet of each of the principles. 

Is the Whole Brain Child Debunked Science? 

If you go onto Amazon to purchase this book you’ll see some reviews saying this is debunked science. Here are some of the common areas in question: 

Right Brain and left Brain Learning Personalities 

A recent review said 90% of Educators still practice this concept that children are either left brain Learners or right brain Learners. This in fact has been debunked. There isn’t evidence to say that certain people are left-brained or right-brained. The way that our brains learn is actually very dynamic and holistic. 

However, I didn’t see that the authors were using the concept of “Learning styles” in the Whole-Brain Child. It’s mentioned as a theory once and not really applied anywhere else. 

Is the Whole-Brain Child teaching permissive parenting? 

There is a lot of debate in parenting circles about where the line for permissive parenting starts and ends. The Whole Brain Child focuses on connection and the child’s experience. 

Personally, I didn’t get the impression that this was in place of good home boundaries and rules. Quite the opposite actually. 

I do think that many of the concepts in the book have been taken to their extreme by many gentle parenting coaches on social media. I can understand how someone could watch a reel or read a post about the emotional wave and think that it means “science says your child’s emotions should set societal rules”. However, I don’t think that this is supported by the book at all. 

Is the Whole-Brain Child talk therapy for Kids? 

Another comment that I’ve seen about this book is that it’s too much teaching through talking. 

I like the common idea that parenting is about skills that are “caught not taught”. Meaning that modeling goes a long way with kids. 

As an Occupational Therapist, I have used some of the teaching strategies suggested in the books with kids that I have worked with in grade school. While the principles have so much potential to help kids, my experience is that they are a better fit for kids aged 9 and up. 

Even with the cheat sheet, the cartoons, and the ways of teaching suggested in the book it hasn’t always been the best fit for the kids that I have worked with. There is a certain level of interoception and sensory processing that needs to come first in my opinion. 

Overall, I think the proof really is in the pudding. The strategies and concepts shared in this book have seeped into so much of present-day parenting literature. Whether it be using the exact strategies mentioned in the book or just shifting perspective, it is a great investment of your time.