How to Raise a Right- and Left-Brained Kid

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Back-to-school means back to a focus on traditional classroom learning with a capital L (that's the left-brain world of math, language and puzzles). But we know that right-brain stuff like music and art are valuable too. For parents, this can feel like a lot of pressure to pack our kids' schedules with the right mix of activities. But according to one expert, we can let that pressure go.

While the idea of balancing right and left-brain learning is well-intentioned, it's overhyped, says Sandra Waxman, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences , a cognitive psychologist and also a mother of three.

“For children to use their right brain means to use their right and left brain. There are few activities that would exercise only one side of the brain," Waxman explains. Think of it like a tennis game, she says. If you serve with your right hand, you’re mostly engaging in activity on your right side. If there’s something wrong with your right arm, it’s going to hurt your serve. But you can’t throw the ball to serve in the first place without using your left side. It’s a whole-body circumstance, as are the activities that go on in your child’s brain.

Research published in Mind, Brain, and Education in 2011 also backs up her position: the thought that people are inherently right-brained or left-brained has been debunked by science.

Rather than viewing activities as left or right-brained, a better way for parents to raise balanced kids is to make sure they have opportunities to solve problems on their own. They can be logical or creative in this process — and sometimes both.

“The first thing for parents to do is not to worry whether they’re giving their child the perfect elixir of left-brain and right-brain activity."
Sandra Waxman

“The human mind can create a creative circumstance out of something that might look analytic to someone else," says Waxman.

Take Waxman’s own daughter Olivia, for example. Olivia was an artist as a child, sewing clothing from scratch — whereas Waxman used patterns. For her daughter, sewing was a creative activity; for Waxman, it was logical because she was following a sequence. As an adult, Olivia is a mechanical engineer, drawing on both her creative and logical sides.

Another example is coding, a seemingly logical activity. But experts at MIT are developing programs for kids to learn to code with open-ended features that elicit the same creative thinking as, say, writing a poem or listening to music.

Or, consider a simple game like hopscotch! One child might use logic to figure out how to move forward through the squares, while another might take a more creative approach, like hopping backwards on one foot. Two children may view an hour of drawing time differently as well; perhaps one prefers to trace an outline while another constructs a story around a daydream.

Waxman cautions against parents doing too much to “create their children.” The key is letting each child experience activities how they may, without extensive instruction, and incorporating physical activities along with quiet ones.

“If you’re looking to raise a well-balanced child, look for activities that you enjoy doing together, and also that they enjoy doing on their own,” she says. “Think about the balance of a script the child has to follow versus free play — somewhere there’s an answer to a question and somewhere there’s a capacity to dream.”

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How to Raise a Right- and Left-Brained Kid