Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Say It Again: Repetition Aides Language Development

We all know that young children love repetition. If you have been around a child under the age of 3 lately, you know this well. They repeat questions, they repeat words, they repeat actions....over and over again. For us adults, this is honestly kind of annoying, but for these little ones, this is learning at its best. Practice makes perfect, as the old saying goes. Little children know this well and they inherently know what their brains need.

It turns out that repetition is helpful for young children before they are even verbal. New research coming out of the University of Maryland is showing this clearly. In a recent study, researchers evaluated 121 infants (7 months of age) and their later language development at age 2. The authors specifically wanted to understand if the amount of repetition in language that the infants were exposed to was related to their later language development.

Not surprisingly, the researchers did find that repetition makes a difference. The more words mothers spoke to their infants, and the more repetition all predicted better language development at age 2. Researchers believe that this repetition may help prime children to understand how to "segment" words. Segmentation involves how children learn to break up fluent speech into individual words. Obviously, this is a crucial task that children must learn in order to learn language.

These findings are very instructive and helpful in thinking about how children learn language. For years, we have known that the number of words a child is exposed to early in life can have strong impact not only on their language development, but their lifelong academic trajectory. As I have written about before, this exposure (or lack thereof) can also present a source of inequality among children of differing socioeconomic groups. Children in lower socioeconomic groups tend to be exposed to fewer words, which is often associated with a later achievement gap as preschoolers.

From this new research on repetition, we can see that it's not just the number of words, but also their repetitiveness that may make a difference in language development. We are continuing to see how language is really a gateway skill to many aspects of development. Language is one of the skills that makes us uniquely human, it connects us to each other, to knowledge, and to the world around us. So in talking to our youngest children, we are not only establishing a crucial bond with them, we really are setting the stage for much of their future development.

ResearchBlogging.orgNEWMAN, R., ROWE, M., & BERNSTEIN RATNER, N. (2015). Input and uptake at 7 months predicts toddler vocabulary: the role of child-directed speech and infant processing skills in language development Journal of Child Language, 1-16 DOI: 10.1017/S0305000915000446

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Friday, May 6, 2016

Some Things I Would Do Differently As A Parent

I'm not saying I'm filled with regret, but now that some of my children are older, there are a lot of things I have learned.  If I could go back, these are the things I would do.

1.  I would have taught all of my kids to like water from the beginning.  Years ago we were on WIC and they give you vouchers for juice.  Of course, I would get the juice and my boys would drink it, which trained them to be turned off by water.  As they got older, I learned that doctors don't really recommend juice.  I now rarely buy it.  A couple of my kids love to drink water now.

2.  I never would have agreed to buying a game console.  They wanted to have fun things like their friends and I wanted them to have something to do in our small apartment.  We never bought the latest and greatest, but I grew to really resent the struggle over gaming time.  I worry that my boys will grow up to be husbands and fathers who neglect their family to play video games.  I can't stand that it's their number one priority and I had to make a rule that they can't play them on school days because they would rush through their homework and do a lousy job.  My oldest son became more aggressive towards his brothers after we got our console and I would ban him from it for up to a month. 

On the other hand, Saturdays are when we need to be cleaning the house, but then they want to play video games because of all the time they missed during the week.  One time my son was expecting a new game to arrive and tried not to go on a campout.  I informed him that he would not be playing the game if he stayed home.  He could go camping and play it when he got home or he could not play it at all.  It's just not worth the battle.  Avoid it if you can.

3.  I would have trained them to like healthy cereal.  I wish they would eat the healthy stuff that's high in fiber, but they won't.  Not sure how I fix that now.

4.  I would have trained them to like whole grain bread.  When I buy it, they refuse to eat it.  It's always more expensive than white bread, so when we were struggling hard financially, that's what I felt like I had to buy. 

5.  I would have insisted on making family exercise a part of our regular routine.  We did go swimming sometimes or outside to play tennis, but we had way too much TV time. 

6.  I would have worked more on etiquette.  I look at one of my older boys and think, "Oh my gosh.  Who taught you how to eat?!"  Or rather, "Who didn't tell you how to eat?"  Um, I guess me and his dad.  I didn't enjoy being nagged as a kid for my table manners, but they really are a necessary thing.  He eats like the food is going to disappear.  Well, I guess because it is!  It goes fast with four siblings.

7.  I would have prayed with them more and remind them more often to pray about their problems.  I tend to focus on helping them fix their problems when I should be teaching them how to solve them. 

8.  I would have given them more hugs and kisses when they got older.  I can do that now, but they'll think I'm weird.  It's not too late to change.  I nursed my babies for over a year and ended up feeling "touched out" to the point that I didn't want anymore cuddles.  My oldest son would ask for hugs when he got sick.  I felt bad because he needed to feel loved.  I was worried about getting sick and getting our babies sick.

9.  I would have made an organized space for all of their school papers.  I did try.  It just didn't end up happening.  With mountains up paperwork times three, there was so much information, yet I wasn't aware of a lot of things because I was overwhelmed.  Now that we have a house, that's something I can implement more easily.

10.  I would have given them more individual attention.  I was often preoccupied with my trials.  I should have put them aside for even 5 minutes a day for each child.  Other times, one child needed so much extra attention, it was hard to have time for the others.  I think the best thing I could do is to be off the phone and computer when they get home and look excited to see them. 

What would you do differently? 

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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Babies Have Social Brains from a Very Young Age

When thinking of a child's development, we often discuss areas as separate entities--cognitive, social, emotional, etc. If you are a parent, you've probably seen that all these areas of develop are really closely linked. For example, once your child can crawl (motor development), that opens up a whole new world of learning and exploration (cognitive development) because they can move themselves into new areas. 

In the research world, understanding these connections between different aspects of develop are very difficult to study. A small child obviously cannot explain to you what they are thinking as they move in a new way or explore a new toy. Thanks to technology, however, some advances in understanding are happening.

In a recent study of 7-month-olds, babies were fitted with a electroencephalography (EEG) cap so that researchers can measure their brain activity. The babies observed an adult reach for one of two toys. Then the babies were given the opportunity to reach for either of the toys. What the researchers found was fascinating:

- while watching the adult reach for a toy, sometimes the motor system part of the babies' brains would activate

- in other cases the motor system part of the babies' brains would not activate while watching an adult reach for a toy

You can probably imagine what the babies' next actions would be based on their brain activity.

- babies whose motor system activated during watching, would go on to grab one of the toys

- babies whose motor system did not activate during watching would not imitate the adult and would not grab a toy

What does this really mean for children's development? It essential means that scientists are beginning to show that babies (even as young as 7 months of age) understand another person's actions while they are watching them. They understand the intent of the person's actions. Furthermore, their social brain and motor brain are linked enough to know that they can imitate the other person's action.

This study is just the most recent addition to a growing body of research showing the connections between cognitive and motor development. Researchers have also found a link between the development of reading skills and fine motor development. 

What we are really seeing is that moving is learning. These two aspects of development interact and feed one another. This raises the question again of the role that physical activity must play in the education of children at all ages. Numerous studies have shown that students who are more physically active during the school day (e.g., amount of recess time) tend to do better in academics. 

As parents, then, our responsibility is to allow our children as much opportunity for movement at all ages. This becomes more difficult once our children are in school for many hours a day. This means looking beyond organized sports and thinking about movement, play, and development from a new perspective

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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Importance of Repairing a Parent-Child Relationship

I want to get vulnerable and share a personal story that helps highlight the importance of a parent repairing the relationship with our children.

A couple of weeks ago, I did not win father of the year. My son instigated a spontaneous nerf gun war. We had only recently acquired most of our gear. What we were missing were safety glasses. During this random nerf battle, I accidentally hit my son in the eye. He collapsed to the ground, grabbing his eye. The dart that hit his eye was a velcro dart.

He struggled to open his eye for me or my wife to look at to see what was going on. After about 90 minutes of no relief we finally placed a call in to our optometrist, who was able to quickly see us.

While meeting with the optometrist he had me look at my son’s eye so as to build sympathy. When I saw the scratches on my son’s eye, they looked like claw marks, I did not feel sympathy; I felt sad, embarrassed and ashamed. I had, even though accidentally, inflicted pain on my child. We left with drops and a new pair of shades that he had to take and wear for 24-36 hours.

When we returned home, he was understandably upset about the day he had had. He was even more frustrated that he had to have drops in his eye every hour. He kept saying it was my fault. Not only was I the shooter, I had not provided adequate protection, safety glasses, for us to have fun and harm free play in. He wanted to shoot me in the eye. We agreed for him to shoot me with a round of nerf darts in the back of the head.

Still feeling like he had not “evened” the playing field he jumped on my back and wanted to wrestle his frustration out. After a while this wrestle turned into a tickle fight and we were both laughing together. A switch had changed. The anger turned to joy. The feeling of hurt and damaged trust was repaired, or repairing. He realized dad made a mistake, it was an accident, he knew dad was sorry, and was willing to trust, a little bit, again.

This struck me as the importance of repairing the relationship with our children. Whether we inflict pain intentionally or accidentally, it is up to us as the parent, to approach our child and do what is necessary to repair the relationship. They need to know it is safe to trust us. Plus learn a healthy way of correcting mistakes.

The amazing feature about eyes is that they are quick healers, and my son has resumed his 5 year old activities. But my son will remember this day for a while, however I will remember this day forever, and remember it’s importance to me.

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Thursday, March 17, 2016

What Being a Stay-at-Home Mom has Taught Me About Child Development

It's been over a year now since my oldest son started school full time. For those of you who are stay-at-home parents, you know that sending your child to school full time is like graduation day for you. I felt this intensely. As I watched his little 5-year-old body run (literally) into school, I felt that moment was 5+ years in the making. As a stay-at-home parent, I had spent the last 5 years pouring my heart, soul, time, and energy into him so that, in large part, he would be ready for school. Not just prepared in the educational sense, but also confident, happy and emotionally ready to be in a classroom and interact with his peers. Of course, I have much more lofty parenting goals too but this was a big one. There was a tinge of sadness in it for me, but I also felt proud of him and glad that he seemed more than eager to go meet this new experience.

Now his little brother is in that fun, sometimes challenging, stage between toddlerhood and preschool. He and I are beginning once again this journey of learning and discovery that will eventually take him to the door of kindergarten too.

Lessons Learned

As I look back at some of the lessons I've learned from child #1, I thought it was a good time to share how these insights have really added to my understanding of child development. As all parents know, children are the best teachers. I've read many a child development book, but I really didn't know anything until I had children of my own and learned day-to-day what child development really means.

1. Observe closely. Sure, we are all around our kids a lot; many hours a day in some cases, but how often do we really observe what they are doing; what they are learning. This is a lesson I learned very early with my first son, but only really came to appreciate a few years later.

As an infant, close observation meant trying to understand why he cried so easily, what movements or activities actually helped soothe him. I've written before about colic and maybe that's what he had but maybe it was just his temperament. Either way, close observation is what helped me "decode" his behavior and learn about his emerging personality.

Later, as he became a toddler, close observation helped me really understand when he was working on a new physical or cognitive skill. We can usually tell when a young child is working on a new physical skill like walking or crawling. What about cognitive skills? By closely observing sometimes you can tell when they're little brains are ready for understanding numbers or spatial concepts like "under," "over," or "behind."

2. Let your child's interests lead you. I really don't do any type of formal homeschooling with my kids but I do try to incorporate as much learning into our daily activities as I can. With very young children, they have such limited attention spans that this is really the best way learning happens in my experience. It just feels like play to them and we all know that's the best type of learning for little ones anyway.

Once my son reached late toddlerhood/early preschool age, it became clear that his interests would have to lead our learning activities. Maybe it was just his personality, but he usually had no interest in most activities or crafts that I just suggested off the top of my head. The activities or books that included something he was interested in were always a much more appealing.

I think many children are similar in this regard. I think this is why some young children struggle in conventional school settings--simply because the topics hold little interest to them. Many of the topics that adults feel are "educational" or "seasonally topical" don't make much sense to little kids. In her recent interview, child development author Erika Christakis discusses this in a beautiful way.

I think many young children go through phases where they are really "into" a particular topic, animal or toy. I think if you present children with plenty of books, experiences, ideas, (maybe even a little educational TV), they will find these topics to delve into themselves. My son went through  phases where he was "into" trains, ants, snails/slugs, robots, cowboys, and the list could go on. When he was really "into" that topic we would basically center most of our activities around that idea. We would go check out every book we could find at the library on that topic. We would go visit a museum or aquarium that might have exhibits on that topic. We might do crafts or coloring pages that featured whatever topic he was interested at that time.

I firmly believe that if children are given the space and opportunity to experience new ideas, they are natural learners and all you have to do is serve as their guide. These days spent exploring ants and slugs and robots are some of my best memories with my son.

3. Go to the library a lot...and not just for storytime. I love libraries. I want my kids to love libraries. When my son was a toddler we would go to the library and try to go to story time. Note the word "try." He would seldom sit down long enough to listen to more than 3 minutes of the story. I would often leave frustrated and downtrodden, thinking I was doing something wrong and that my child would never enjoy books. Well, I finally learned my lesson (and learned my son's temperament) and decided we would just go to the library to play or explore whatever he wanted to explore. That worked much better. Fast forward a couple of years and he was able to sit through story time, but he also would bring books to me to read to him at home.

If your child is like mine and will seldom sit through story time, it's still a great experience to go to the library. Most libraries have little toys or a play area for young children. I think just being surrounded by books is great and the love for books will eventually rub off on them. My younger son is much the same way, but he still likes picking out books and using the computer check out system. Picture books, even for somewhat older children, are key to not only language development but also visual literacy.

4. Be patient. Okay, patience is a skill that many of us parents struggle with maintaining. I struggle with patience on a daily basis. Spending your days with young children is taxing on most of us, but patience in many forms is a virtue that reaps many benefits.

Patience with waiting while your preschooler struggles to put on his/her shoes is one thing, but patience with the development of your child is a whole other concept. Child development is a process, not a race. Barring any developmental delays, most children go through the process of learning and growing in their own unique way, but at a similar trajectory.

I really thought my first son would never be potty trained. We thought he was ready when he was a few months shy of 3, but it took another almost 6 months until he was really completely clean and dry all the time every day. I read all those articles about "potty train your child in 3 days" but to no avail. Ultimately, it just took patience on our part and him really wanting to do it himself. No amount of bribing, cajoling, or talking him into would work.

The same thing happened with my second son giving up his pacifier. We tried every technique in the book, but he had to eventually just give it up himself when he was really ready. I think talking about it with him helped, along with watching a few videos and reading books about giving it up. Ultimately, though he had to be ready and one day he just threw it in the trash.

Many aspect of child development are like this. We, as parents, want certain phases to be over or we want our child to meet certain developmental milestones. When it comes down to it, however, development goes at the pace that's right for each individual child. We can help move things in the right direction. We do have to introduce potty training or the idea of giving up the pacifier, but with many of these changes, the child has to want to make the change.

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Friday, March 11, 2016

Parenting by the Book: 5 Rules of Caution

by: Dyan Eybergen RN

Parents often strive to raise their children "differently" from how they were brought up and resort to popular parenting books to help them make decisions regarding their children. As Samantha Schoech wrote in her 2014 article entitled "Why I'll Never Read Another Parenting Book": Anxious parents are big business, and parenting books — along with baby monitors that track breathing, baby baths that digitally control water temperature and tutors for preschoolers — are an important segment of the insecurity economy. 

As an author of my own parenting book (Out of the Mouths of Babes, 2008) I couldn't agree more. Here are 5 rules of caution when perusing through the tombs of parenting advice on book shelves:

  1. Trust your intuition. It doesn't matter what the advice is or the credentials of the person who wrote it or the research behind it (if there is any research behind it); bounce it off your own parenting radar and if it doesn't resonate with you, don't be swayed by it. 
  2. The difficulty with parenting books is that the advice most often given is of the one size fits all variety. Most parenting strategies do not take into account the specific dynamics of your family and the temperaments of your children. Not all parenting strategies will work in every scenario with every child. For instance, time out would not work well with a child with separation anxiety!
  3. In every interaction we have with our children we should strive to preserve their integrity, and your own integrity for that matter. Ask yourself: Does this parenting strategy help my child to learn? Am I being a good role model here? If the answer to either of those questions is NO, then revisit how you are interacting with your child. 
  4.  Don't be fooled by the books that suggest you are a bad parent for not doing this, or that right. Making mistakes is human and parenting is not a role immune to making errors. Don't fall into the trap of doing everything " by the book"  in pursuit of being the perfect parent. There is no such person. Accepting that will make your life a whole lot easier!
  5. It's perfectly okay to take a little bit of this and a little bit of that and develop a parenting style of your own that works for you and your family. You don't have to subscribe to one philosophy or one theory. Try them all on, see how they fit! 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

A Counter-Cultural Approach to Play, Parenting, and Academics

This week's post is really a convergence of thoughts that have been coalescing in my brain lately. If you read this blog regularly, you know I am a big proponent of play-based education for young children (preschool age) and not pushing academics too soon. This attitude is based on a growing line of research that supports this approach.

Several articles in the media lately have made me think about this approach with an even wider lens.

Ponder this with me: what if a culture of education and parenting that encourages play, movement, not overly pushing academics, and a little risk-taking actually helps our children develop better? 

What if this approach might even reduce some fidgeting and ADHD-type symptoms? Of course, a lot of research needs to be done to support all of these factors together, but there does seems to be a trend in the information we know so far.

- We know that play is crucial for the development of young children. Play actually changes the brain and helps kids learn how to interact with one another. These social skills in turn, predict better academic performance, Play also helps kids learn better by helping their brain focus on what's important.

Studies have shown that children who run and play (not organized sports) at least 70 minutes per day, have improved thinking skills, especially on skills like multitasking.

- Other developed countries like Germany and France do not emphasize and push academics at early ages like we do in the United States. Yet, despite this more laid back approach, their students tend to outperform American students on academic assessments. Many other countries do not even try to teach kids to read until they are 6-7 years old. Some schools in the U.S. try to encourage reading or pre-reading even prior to kindergarten. Note: these countries do tend to be much less socioeconomically, culturally, and ethnically diverse, which puts the U.S. in a different category of educational challenges.

- ADHD is complicated, but some research is showing that the fidgeting behaviors may actually help kids concentrate better than when forced to sit still. The physical movement helps "wake up" what scientists believe to be an "underarousal of the brain." You can clearly see how this finding might relate to a lack of playtime and movement in our society and schools.

- We are beginning to see the value of reasonable risk-taking for kids' development. Although it is difficult as a parent to allow your child to try something new, some degree of physical risk-taking has been linked to better psychological health, confidence, physical coordination, and ironically, less dangerous risk-taking later on.

- In a related issue, we are beginning to see the hazards of "overparenting." The first generation of children raised by "helicopter parents" are now entering college and some of what college professors are seeing is not promising. Many young adults are entering college are anxious, depressed, and unable to function well without a parent directing their lives.

After reviewing these findings, you can see how all these factors seem to center on ideas that are somewhat countercultural in our society: movement, imagination, risk, letting go. Imagine an education and parenting culture in which getting your kid to read by kindergarten was not demanded. Imagine what school would look like if kids were allowed ample time to play and move (even within the classroom perhaps). Imagine a playground where the words "don't climb on that" or "be careful" were rarely heard. Imagine teenagers who were given age-appropriate responsibility to manage some of their own affairs (like filling out their own college application).

We cannot recreate society and education by simply imagining it, but this research should help us all to keep our eyes on the goal. The goal for me is to help my children development in a way that represents the best of their abilities, personality and uniqueness. But my other goal is to raise a child that turns into a responsible, kind, well-functioning adult. Sometimes this goal can be clouded by the societal pressures we all experience. I think it's just a good reminder to understand that what might be best for our children, may not always be what our popular culture represents.

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Friday, February 12, 2016

10 Reasons to Teach Kids to Manage Stress with Exercise

By Dyan Eybergen, RN

There are a lot of reasons to be physically active – the least of which is to reduce weight – but in fact, that is exactly how we sell its benefits in society. Weight loss can be achieved through exercise, but not as readily or as importantly, as relieving stress! Recent studies are more consistent in indicating that regular exercise training has more antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects that protects against harmful consequences of stress (substance abuse, chronic disease, high blood pressure, headaches, depression and anxiety, etc) than being an effective weight loss tool. 

When we engage in rigorous physical activity we produce endorphins — a neurotransmitter or “chemical” in the brain that act as natural painkillers. When your body releases endorphins, they cause two distinct reactions: they bind to receptors in the brain which block other neurotransmitters that cause you to experience pain; and release more of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which causes you to feel pleasure.

In Canada, one in five has a mental health disorder and 75% of those disorders originate in childhood. American statistics are startlingly similar. According to the 2015 annual report, 40 million adults in the United States are affected by an anxiety disorder. In Canada in 2015, the leading prescription medications used by children and young adults (ages 6 to 24) were for attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (males), depression and anxiety (SSRI’s), and contraception (females). The same class of drugs made the top 10 most prescribed list in the United States. 

With these statistics, it is imperative that we teach our children to effectively manage anxiety. Why not start by introducing the natural anti-stress benefits to exercise! According to the research literature on the subject, here are 10 mood-improving-stress-relieving benefits to exercise:

  1. reduces fatigue
  2. improves alertness and concentration
  3. improves memory
  4. improves overall cognitive function by boosting brain cell activity
  5. improves the ability to sleep
  6. boosts the immune system
  7. reduces to clear the stress hormone cortisol 
  8. improves mood – people who exercise reported feeling “happier”
  9. improves self esteem – you feel and look better!
  10. calms the mind and reduces negative thinking

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) Children and youth aged 5–17 should accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity daily.



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