Written by Dr Daniel J. Siegel and Mary Hartzell, M.E.d.

When will we ever learn

Review by Gunnel Minett

Bringing up children is a task as old as human history. Yet we still seem to need to learn a lot about to how do this in a way that benefits the child. Why is this? The answer is not exactly straight forward.

Bringing up a child involve giving the child the skills and ability to fit into the society in which the child lives. For millennia these skills mainly comprised basic, practical learning. Farming and manual labour were the main occupations for the majority of the population. Times were often a lot tougher than today and survival had a far greater priority than emotional considerations. If a child learnt the basics of right and wrong and how to use their hands, this would be regarded as sufficient to set them up for a successful life.

Today this situation has dramatically changed. In a very short time, from an evolutionary viewpoint, society has changed dramatically in most parts of the world. The skills required in previous generations are no longer sufficient to set children up for life. The distance from pre-industrial society, where people seldom travelled further from their birth place than they could walk, to today’s global migrations is a very far indeed. Obviously, in pre-industrial society it was a lot easier to learn how to fit in to a small group with clearly shared values. Now, on the other hand, we live in a global world where we need to learn to get on with people from very different backgrounds. Shared values can no longer be assumed. Stress is usually caused from very different sources and higher demands on life rather than survival. This means a lot more demands on each individual to be mentally and emotionally flexible.
To achieve such an inner flexibility requires resilience and a solid core sense of self. Not only will the child need to learn basic skills for one culture and one environment, he/she will also need to learn far more flexibility and have the willingness to question and change than ever before. For parents this means paying far more attention to building a core self in the child. How to do this is, and has always been, the big challenge for all parents.

One reason for this is that parenting is learnt very early in life, during a period when much of a child’s life is based on emotions and rational thinking still is waiting to be developed. Most parents base their parenting skills on how they were treated as children. This also applies to situations where the adult had mainly bad experiences as a child. Not until the adult has dealt with, and integrated their childhood experiences sufficiently, are they usually able to make a significant change in their parenting skills.

On the positive side of this development there’s been a rapid increase in knowledge of what children need in order to grow into healthy and harmonious adults. This book is an example. Both authors have a lot of experience of working with children, Siegel as a neuropsychologist and Hartzell as a child-development specialist. The book is written primarily for parents in a very clear and precise way, with practical examples from both authors. But since we all have childhood experiences, anyone can learn from this book. The book also has exercises for parents to do on their own and with their children, designed to help parents deal with current situations as well as their own childhood memories. In addition each chapter has a ‘science spotlight’ where each chapter is illustrated by evidence from science in the relevant fields.

Getting the parenting right is probably the most challenging gift a parent can give their child. Even if we are fortunate enough to have a brain with incredible plasticity and inbuilt drive to change for the better, nothing can compare to getting the right start in life. Sadly, for many parents and societies alike, this is not a straight forward task. The bias towards emotional views rather than fact-based knowledge is still strong. And we all need to learn at all ages. Even if we are past parenting age, it is still the older generations’ role to be the holders of wisdom and to act as role models for younger generations. With books like this, at least we have a good knowledge base to draw on.