Parenting With the Right Side of the Brain

Mom was right brain, Dad was left brain. I loved them both. Thankfully, Dad took care of many of life’s important details — but my mom seemed to have all the fun. Mom was spontaneity, clutter, and disorganized joy. Her presence was magnetic and her laugh contagious. She and her four daughters always arrived late to church, and were in a mad rush to school each day.

Mom made up a song that she would sing in the car called “Rush, Rush!” We begged for the song because we adored the reckless way she swerved the car back and forth (along an empty road) as she sang the last line, “Rush, rush, rush, rush, rush, rush, rush, I don’t know what to DO!”

Everyone loved my mom, and even elected her to power — she was PTA president year after year — in spite of her wobbly left-brain abilities.

Like my mom, I make lots of gaffes as a parent and embarrass my children often due to my underdeveloped left brain, but I still give my right brain credit for most of what I’ve done right.

Infant expert Magda Gerber was a right brain, and maybe that is why it has been so easy for me to internalize her child care philosophy. From that first parenting class when I witnessed my 3-month-old daydreaming contentedly for ninety minutes, I was sold. I would have paid thousands to know my baby’s thoughts. Was she brainstorming a solution to world hunger? Or doing something left-brain-ish like counting dust particles, or organizing wallpaper patterns?

For me, the choice was obvious. Would I rather spend time fascinated by what my daughter might be imagining, and behold the unique individual I was learning more about each day? Or would I like to stress out at the playground like a mother I empathized with, who squatted on the ground in front of the tiny baby girl she had strapped into a swing, and while pushing her, repeatedly chanted: “A-E-I-O-U?!”

If we agree with Einstein that “imagination is more important than knowledge,” then why on earth would we rush to show our babies how to recite letters, walk, talk, read, draw and make a proper sandcastle? Children need time to explore and experiment, physically, mentally and creatively. Why do we interrupt our children’s musings, the power of their discoveries, and rein in their burgeoning individuality in order to teach imitation, memorization, and skills that an ape could master?

Parenting with the right side of the brain means resisting the urge to gauge our baby’s developmental milestones against charts, graphs, and comparisons with other babies. It means seeing the bigger picture – a creative, self-confident person. Children pick up on our urgent wish for them to stand when they are contentedly crawling, or draw when they are more interested in moving the crayons in and out of the box. They seem to like it when we help them to do those things, because they are motivated by their instinct to please. But the child who is nudged forward feels unappreciated for what he is able to do, because he senses that his parents are hoping for more. This creates self-doubt rather than self-confidence.

Human development is not a race. I can’t remember the last time anyone asked me in an interview or on a job application when I first walked or toilet trained. Can you?

Unfortunately, current parenting culture is focused on achievement, and even the most right-brain-leaning parents are rattled by the pediatrician’s list, a list that breeds fear when a child is not performing “on schedule.” Yes, of course, serious delays are sometimes discovered and intervention is needed, but more often than not these lists only effect the health of parents’ minds. Lists beg to be checked off and make even the calmest parents feel anxious and competitive.

For me, the last straw was when a doctor asked if my 18-month-old kissed with her mouth closed. Apparently, ‘puckering’ was an achievement that my baby should have mastered. She had fallen behind in her kissing skills. “No, Doctor. And thank you for sucking the joy out of my baby’s kisses!”

I know that I could not survive, much less be a decent parent, or accomplish anything without my left brain. I also know (thanks to my left brain reading about it) that the hemispheres of the brain always work in an integrated fashion, so the whole left brain, right brain idea is actually an incorrect oversimplification. (See how left brains ruin everything?)

That said, my brains have joined in agreement about a few things…

1) Children need years of free rein to play, absorb safe environments, develop their point-of-view, imagine and create, unhampered by well-meaning adult judgment or interference. When we allow children this opportunity, parenting is easier, more successful, and much more fun.

2) We err when we focus on the list of basic skills that all children will eventually have in common, impeding the development of the unique, original, and immeasurable…the one and only vision our child brings to the world.

3) The best kisses come from the right side of the brain.


I share more about the benefits of parenting with trust in

Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. No brained… I rather listen to my body then my mind… it’s much smarter!!!

  2. Thank you, Janet. I never learned to pucker either. It’s never stopped me from accomplishing my goals.

    – G

  3. I was so ‘that’ parent pushing my 6 month old in a bucket swing, singing little songs (of course, she loved it so it didn’t occur to me to do differently). It was right around that time I found Janet’s blog, and by the time she was a year old I had made some serious changes in my parenting style (got out of the way, stopped directing her play, etc). I have a beautiful relationship with her, and she is such an amazing little girl to KNOW. I loved your post, as it made me so grateful to have stumbled upon this invaluable approach to parenting. Excellent- thank you.

    1. Oh, Kari, thank you for your kind words. You make me smile. I’m thrilled that the blog helped you realize that it was far more fun and interesting to KNOW your daughter than teach and stimulate her. But you don’t strike me as the type who would be stressing about her 5 month old baby learning the alphabet! Believe me, the mom and baby I describe weren’t loving their time together.

  4. Janet, I’ve got the giggles. It started right about when I read the bit about the mother pushing the swing chanting ‘A-E-I-O-U’. For heaven’s sake!!!! What’s she bringing up, a PARROT?

    1. I still can’t believe that happened, but it did. Why just the vowels?

      1. It has me giggling too… all I hear in my head is the caterpilllar from Alice in Wonderland singing his song with AEIOU in it!

  5. Jessica Z. says:

    Thank you for re-posting this! I am a left-brained person trying my darndest to foster my right-brain! Focusing on parenting from the right-brain (even though I didn’t think of it that way until now!) is a daily challenge for me that is reaping priceless rewards. I will especially re-revisit this every time I read a Facebook post from a friend bragging about their 16 month old “counting” to 10 or reciting their ABCs and get insecure about my lovely little 17 month old who is working on other things than language at the moment (and that’s okay, she’ll chatter away when she’s good and ready). Thanks for this post to ease the worry from my left brain that creeps in every so often …

    1. Jessica, I really appreciate your comment. I think it’s a challenge for every parent (or anyone who spends time with children), no matter how “right-brained” they are, to trust, let go and just let children show you the way. But as you’ve noticed, the rewards are GREAT. Every time you challenge yourself like this, you are mastering parenting. Isn’t that cool? Yes, she’ll be chattering away when she’s good and ready. 🙂

  6. Love it! I’m very right brained also maybe that’s why I took to this so easily! I’m amazed everyday at how much my little girl can do at 15 mos already. Was my son doing this too but I just didn’t know how to see it? Never know, but Thanks! I always chuckle at the playground too as people rush to “save” my daughter as she climbs up steps. She always looks at me like ” why is everyone freaking out?” I always just say oh she’s a climber that one, she smiles and carries on.

  7. This is one of my favorite–Howcome I never saw it till now.
    fabulous title, too.
    You’d be happy to know it is still being tweeted about in the virtual world.

  8. Hi Janet. Firstly thank you for your awesome blog. I sing lots of songs with my daughter and yes she does “immitate and memorize”. She also picks up her little guitar, dances and sings the songs to her dolls etc this can go on for a good 30 mins with no adult direction. My point is she copies everything i do from housework to singing but repeats on her terms in her own imaginative world of play. Are nursery rhymes not considered RIE? I do appreciate the AEIOU is not really a song!

    1. Hi Mary! Nursery rhymes, songs, stories and books are wonderful things to share with children! Sounds GREAT and very “RIE”, especially if you enjoy doing this… The lovely thing about RIE is that it’s all about not feeling pressured to teach babies in an inorganic manner. I found this realization very freeing!

  9. Margaret Badger says:

    My daughter gave her parents pet names when she was very young. Dad was Fun and Mum was Business. It took until adulthood for her to realise that Business was as important as Fun. Might I add, I was a reluctant Business but someone had to do it.

  10. lovely post! Although 5 years later, came up second in my google search in 2015. I am trying to support my left brained girls through elementary school. Thanks for the positive post! Having the best artists in their class isn’t all that bad 🙂

  11. Rachael Israel says:

    Hello Janet,
    I have 3 year old twin boys, and I have been following your books and advice for at least the past 2 years. It’s been wonderful, and I really enjoy being a parent! This article reminded me of a concern that’s been nagging at the back of my mind for several weeks. Now that my boys are in preschool a few mornings a week, I’m wondering if there comes a time to do more “teaching” with them? Their teacher mentioned that they are behind, compared to their peers, in reciting/recognizing ABC’s and numbers. I explained my commitment to free play and discovery over teaching. But am I doing them a disservice?
    I love your writing and your work! Thanks so much for any guidance you can provide.

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