Suzana Herculano-Houzel

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Watch out for the challenge: one, two, three and… Don’t think of a pink elephant! Did you get it? I doubt it very much. The reason for a chubby pink elephant automatically appearing in your mind is the same reason why young children have difficulty obeying various “no’s”: the brain automatically activates its representations of pink elephant, hand-in-hand, jump-over-the-wall or cross-the-street every time it hears these words. When they are preceded by a “no”, the prefrontal cortex understands that it must prevent the execution of the respective programs, but since the child’s prefrontal cannot always do this, the “don’t jump!” becomes an invitation to disaster. How can we avoid this and get a child not to do the wrong thing?

The neuroscience tip is to take advantage of your own automatic activation of ideas and learn to use it to your advantage. This requires some training, it’s true, but you have a much better chance of getting a child not to jump off the high wall if you make the prefrontal cortex – yours, reader, already grown up – restrain the impulse to shout “Don’t jump!” and instead say “Stay very still!” as you approach. Precisely because of the automatic activation of motor programs, it is much easier to get a child to do something harmless, like stand still, with a command, than it is to get enough control from their prefrontal cortex not to do something dangerous.

Taking advantage of the child’s brain’s ability to say Yes solves even the most harmless everyday problems, as my sister once demonstrated. One afternoon, when nothing else could convince my three-year-old daughter to put down her toys and get into the bath, my sister solved the problem by inviting her in her most animated voice, wide-eyed, jumping up and down and clapping her hands with joy and excitement, as if this were a unique opportunity: “I’ve got an idea: shall we have a bath? Let’s go? Let’s go???”. She went.

Being positive and suggesting to children what they can do, instead of the nonsense of the moment, is more pleasant and less frustrating for everyone than fighting with denials, especially when the alternatives allowed are attractive and interesting. So here’s an invitation to you: try using your mature prefrontal cortex not to say “Don’t do it!” to your child and instead offer them things they can do. Help your child’s brain to say Yes!

Originally published in Folha de São Paulo on March, 2007.

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