Your most important parental role: organizer
“Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” – Elizabeth Stone
That quote by Elizabeth Stone gets me every time. As a mom, I feel its truth every time I steal a glance at my two beautiful boys.
But recently, I’ve also been thinking quite a bit about a slight variation of that famous phrase, penned by Piers Steel, author of The Procrastination Equation. He says that to be a parent is really to serve as your child’s “walking pre-frontal lobes” (the part of your brain responsible for executive functions, like time management, organization, and long-term planning).
Neuroscientists have made considerable advances in the past twenty years in their understanding of how the brain develops and functions. Among their discoveries: the pre-frontal cortex, the part of our brain that governs self-control, does not develop fully until age nineteen or twenty. Until then, the limbic system (our instinctive “caveman” brain) is driving the bus.
So as parents, we are responsible for first serving as, and then coaching into maturity, our children’s executive function. It’s hard work, and comes in fits and starts, with radical advances coming between the ages of three and seven.
One interesting thing I have learned as I’ve dug into this topic is that the human brain is a pattern-recognition machine. Learning how to plan ahead, organize stuff, or otherwise ignore your limbic system’s calls for instant gratification is hard “problem-solving” work done primarily by your brain’s right hemisphere. But with a little practice, those things become routines the brain’s left hemisphere automatically runs when you encounter a situation requiring organization and planning.
Routines are by definition second nature – effortless. And if there’s one thing I want as a parent, it is to make organization effortless for them. It will set them up for a lifetime of success.
My parents both had a well-developed executive function, but they did not know how to coach or develop the same function in their children. I think they saw it as one of those things that “you either have or you don’t.” I, ironically, didn’t. So I was always the kid doing homework on the bus or staying up all night to make project deadlines.
I don’t fault mom and dad for this at all. When something is second nature, it can be very difficult to identify how to “teach” it. I also think they, like many parents, expected it to be sufficiently covered in school. For some children, that is true. But not always.
I don’t want to assume school will teach my boys how to plan well because it wasn’t true for me.
So I am now on the lookout for ways we can strengthen our planning and organizational “routines.” My grammar-schooler uses a student planner (which he thinks is cool) and has well-worn morning and evening routines – from making his bed to doing homework and practicing music. My youngest is coming up the curve on his night-time routine of putting dirty clothes in the hamper, putting on his own pj’s, brushing his teeth, and putting away his books.
Development of the executive function is a parent’s responsibility. I intend to take it seriously. Will you?