Author: Professor Steve Peters
Details: 320pp, £12.99
Author: Professor Steve Peters
Publisher: Studio Press
Details: 112pp, £12.99
Fear of failure, procrastination, being unkind to others: what if we could help children train their brains to avoid these habits and embed more helpful ones instead? Habits such as smiling more, sharing and avoiding tantrums. According to psychiatrist Professor Steve Peters, all this is totally within our reach – it’s just a question of managing your chimp.
Peters is a consultant psychiatrist with some hefty credentials. He’s worked with a host of elite athletes (both Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton credit him with their Olympic success) and spent 20 years working within the NHS. He is a former maths teacher who holds a staggering number of degrees and postgraduate qualifications and has been called upon by a plethora of organisations including businesses, prisons, schools and universities to help people better understand how their minds work.
His approach to “mind management” is to simplify the neuroscience of the brain into a comprehensive model. Our brains are controlled by the computer that stores information and experiences; the human (the rational and logical part) and the chimp: our evolutionary hangover; the irrational, rash part of you which leaps to conclusions, fires up overreactions and generally plays havoc with your emotional balance. Learn how to train your chimp and your health, happiness and success will all improve.
As a concept, it’s clearly got huge appeal (Peters’ first book, The Chimp Paradox, sold over a million copies) but how does this model work with children? How can children (and adults working with children) tame their chimp and form helpful habits?
These books, The Silent Guides and its accompaniment My Hidden Chimp, aim to provide the answers. Peters says he wrote them in response to requests from teachers, parents, and carers for a book that could help children understand their emotions and behaviours and form healthy habits.
In The Silent Guides, Peters starts by introducing us to the characters in his brain model (at this point I found it difficult to get Pixar’s film Inside Out from my mind). He then explains how the workings of a child’s developing mind compare with those of an adult before going on to address ten helpful habits that can be acquired if we only change the way we manage our chimp.
The book is filled with practical examples of when chimps take over. Every parent will recognise the stand-off over requests to tidy a bedroom or the adult who loses it with a child who has broken something valuable. In case you were wondering (as I was) if the chimp is just a really useful get-out-of-jail card for when you’ve thrown your toys out of the pram then you’ll be disappointed. The author makes it clear that being subject to a “chimp hijack” still leaves you squarely responsible for your own behaviour.
In terms of writing style, the book is pretty effortless and easy to navigate. The writer goes to great pains to simplify jargon and speak in layperson’s terms and the pages are littered with cartoons and diagrams although, at times, in his effort to be accessible, I felt that some of the explanations bordered on the patronising.
One of the most convincing things about Peters’ theories is their non-revelatory quality. We know that discussing a child’s behaviour with them while they are mid-tantrum is self-defeating. We know the act of smiling makes you feel happier and affects how people respond to you. The book simply serves as a reminder as to how we can use this knowledge to our advantage.
Peters also gives comforting advice about the age appropriateness of behaviour and emphasises that meltdowns and complete overreactions are both appropriate and healthy behaviours to have at a young age (which will come as a big relief to those of us used to dinner table meltdowns over being given the wrong colour bowl).
If you’re reading this as a teacher wedded to the idea of direct instruction, there are a few things you might take issue with – Peters argues strongly for child-led discovery and investigation and emphasises the importance of group work. He is also adamant that positive encouragement and praise trump punishment, especially when it comes to challenging behaviours.
But there’s nothing evangelical or preachy about Peters’ advice. It is not an overly prescriptive read. At regular intervals, the author reminds us that this will not work for every child and he winds up with a surprisingly humble conclusion.
For me, the children’s book is the star of the two. Written in comic book style, it uses very child-friendly language (my seven-year-old could read it with ease) and is clearly designed to be used over time rather than devoured in one sitting.
In the children’s guide, the brain model has been simplified even more – the computer has gone and we are now introduced to just two starring characters: you and the chimp. For children, the chimp is the part of their brain that can be grumpy, worried, silly or naughty.
The book also functions as a workbook as it includes space to respond to the messages, for example by listing how you want to feel and behave and how you don’t. It encourages the child to name their Chimp and gives them practical tips to help develop new skills like a three-step guide for what to do when you can’t accept that no means no.
I read parts of the book with both my children. The concept of a model to represent something real is not an easy one for young children to understand. My daughter took an instinctive dislike to the chimp and said he sounded far too naughty to be living in her brain. My five-year-old thought he was great and accompanied the reading with his best chimp impressions.
For it to work effectively, I imagine the book would need to be used with the child over time, read and referred back to when discussing moments of chimp hijack. Even if you don’t manage to get on board with all the advice, simply reading it with a child provides a well-structured conversation about their behaviour and emotions that I think many adults would find useful.
Lucy Edkins is a teacher and freelance journalist