Screens Aren’t Zombifying Your Children

There are worse things your kid could be doing than spending time with their iPad. And there’s plenty of research to suggest so.

A health professional visited our playgroup a little while ago. Inevitably, she bought up screen time. “It’s just so tragic to see these active children turn into a shell of themselves! They just sit there, immobile, blank looks on their faces!”

The other parents nodded. 

One mum bought up that viral Huffington Post article featuring a series of photographs of children’s faces lit by the glow of screens, mouths agape, hooded eyes. “Screens turn them into zombies!”

I hate that series of photos, partly because it’s such an aggressively invasive thing to do – to capture people’s expressions when they’re unaware and vulnerable – but also because my children don’t often act that way in front of screens.

I couldn’t help myself. “That’s interesting to me, to hear you say that. Because my kids’ favorite program is ‘Diego’, and when they watch that they are up on their feet, doing the jogging, cheering the responses. And even when it isn’t an action show, I watch my children wriggling to the edge of their seat in excitement. They are laughing and nodding and smiling.”

Funnily enough, all the parents began nodding again. “Yes! They get so in to it, it’s almost as if the characters are their friends!”

“My kids love Peppa Pig so much that they dance in their seats the whole way through it.”

“It is the highlight of their day!”

In one minute the conversation went from despair about screens to warm fuzzies about the enjoyment screens bring our children.

How to explain these reactions?

We’re in a tough situation as parents in 2017. We are breaking new ground. We are the first generation to raise children in a digital world, and we’re grappling with all the information out there about screens.
On one hand, we can see the pleasure our children get from them – and we want our children to enjoy their lives, don’t we? We also get to cook dinner without the 5 p.m. meltdowns that I suspect have haunted humankind for millennia. We can see that screens aren’t going anywhere, so we mustn’t try and act like they don’t exist.
On the other hand, almost every time we scroll through our Facebook feed, we find at least one article banging on about how screens are damaging our children’s brains or creating violent teenagers or irreparably breaking our children’s relationship with nature. All evidence-based, apparently.
We look at our hands, at the information piled up in them. We weigh the two sides, and brain damage and violence feels pretty damn heavy. So we opt in favor of our child’s brain, even knowing it will make them (and us) a little unhappier. Or we vote for happiness and feel wracked with guilt for raising a child with a slightly less than optimum brain, who will probably end up on a Most Wanted show for a violent outburst.
What if the hand holding the evidence didn’t feel so weighty?
What if that hand also held information about the neutral, or even good, side of screens?
What if recent vigorous studies showed that screentime for teenagers had no bearing on their mental health – that, even in the most extreme use, only impacted mental health by about a third of the impact of missing breakfast?
What if another recent study by the University of London found that toddlers who used tablets experienced no negative impact on developmental milestones? What if, in fact, the use of tablets correlated with the speedier development of fine motor skills?
What if it had been proven that no relationship existed between use of screens and a lack of time outdoors?
What if 100 eminent scientists were urging us to stop freaking out because the evidence used to scare us about screentime is baseless?

It’s not my business to tell you what to do about screens. We’re all forging our own path. All of our children are different. Each of our situations is different.

But as a fellow loving parent and fellow pioneer in this bold new digital world, it feels important to share with you the shaky nature of the more popular science on screentime. It feels vital that we get clear on the fact that there are far worse things for our children than an ipad.
As an advocate for child rights, I wanted to put some information into your hands that frees you up to make a decision that fits with your child’s wishes. If we dig a little deeper and open our minds a little more, it often happens that something our child wants can also be in their best interest.
Decisions based on fear are not life-giving. All the scaremongering about screens makes zombies of the parents – not the children.

Don't Worry! Homeschooling Your Kids Will Only Make Them as “Weird” as Everyone Else

Of course there are differences between homeschooling and more traditional approaches to education. But the outcome doesn’t necessarily vary.

When we decided to homeschool our kids, it was widely touted that homeschooling’s individualized attention would result in better grades, higher-than-average standardized test scores, and most importantly, lots of scholarships to elite universities who would recognize my children’s inherent intellectual potential. Though they sound like a typical mother’s high hopes, these claims are not unsubstantiated.
Research studies, such as one from 2009 mentioned by US News & World Report, reveal that homeschooled youth who go to college graduate at a higher rate (over 65 percent as opposed to a little over 55 percent for those publicly schooled), while holding higher than average GPAs.
The US News article goes on to tell the story of San Diego native Jesse Orlowski who was homeschooled and later accepted into a number of name universities, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Princeton, and Vanderbilt, ultimately choosing MIT and double-majoring in physics and math.
Orlowski attributed his academic excellence to his homeschooling experience, praising its flexibility and extra opportunities to follow his curiosity. Stories like this one inspired me and fanned the flames of hope for full-ride scholarships.
I had also read that homeschooled children would be well-mannered, socially mature, and not prone to tantrums like other, well, normal children. Critics argue that public school provides the best venue for children to learn the social skills needed to get along in the real world, but homeschooling supporters point out that nowhere in the real world is a person placed within a group where everyone is the same age and doing the same tasks. In fact, some wonder if it’s really possible for children to have meaningful interactions when they’re immersed in such a large group of peers.
Though some homeschooling families pride themselves on shielding their children from any negative cultural influences, others, like professor and homeschooling parent Stephen D. Holtrop, say that guiding children’s exploration of culture is much more fruitful. Still, well-intended sheltering by some has given rise to the stereotype that homeschoolers are socially inept.
When my husband and I decided to jump on the homeschooling train, he had only one request: that our children wouldn’t grow up to be socially awkward or “weird.” So he took on the socialization and cultural studies portion of the homeschool curriculum. (I was stuck with English and algebra and it became clear who the “fun” parent was.)
My husband took our kids to movies, to play paintball, and made sure the way they dressed reflected their own unique style and taste. As a Rotarian, service opportunities like the United Way’s Day of Caring were plentiful, and he took them along to collect and sort canned goods.
One spring a nearby village was in danger of flooding, so my husband took our two boys, then ages nine and 10, to help other Rotarians and concerned community members fill sandbags to keep the flood waters at bay.
His socialization efforts were rewarded by the time our kids reached their teen years. They became involved in the local YMCA’s Teen Leaders group, an organization that connected with other YMCAs across the state and into neighboring states to plan service opportunities and fun leadership events for teens.
Several times a year, our kids would pile on a bus and travel three hours or so to sleep on the wooden gym floor at another Y. They raked leaves, painted, or played bingo with senior citizens at an assisted living home. There were some teen dances, too, and a few dress-up dinners. New acquaintances would ask where they went to school. After our kids shared that they were homeschooled, these new friends would gasp, “You’re homeschooled? But you seem so normal!”
Standing here now – 18 years, a few tantrums, and one 4:30 a.m. call from the sheriff later – I can say with confidence that all three of our kids are decidedly normal. Their bedrooms were always a mess and their standardized test scores were average. College has so far been a mixed bag with average or slightly above average grades and some failed or retaken classes.
I can testify that homeschooling will not create geniuses if they are not already geniuses. (Some have even argued that socio-economic status and a stable family probably contribute more to a child’s academic success than homeschooling does.) This observation doesn’t discredit the choice to homeschool. It simply removes homeschooling from a pedestal and places it on the same level as other educational options that parents have to choose from.
So perhaps the biggest difference is that a homeschooling parent has a front row seat to watching their children learn and grow. And then there’s the bond created among siblings who are homeschooled together. From the time we brought our daughter, the youngest, home, we taught our sons that they must always look out for each other and for their little sister. On one of their YMCA teen treks to serve at the Special Olympics in a bigger city, I charged them with staying by her side. “If she needs to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, you will escort her,” I said.
They did, and they even started including her when they invited friends over to play video games or watch movies, sparking a comment from one of their friends (whose stepsister would rival Cinderella’s), “Your sister is so cool.”
I loved every minute I spent homeschooling my children, but expecting grand outcomes – besides the joy that comes from a loving family bond – only creates unrealistic demands and pressures for both parent and child. Homeschooled children will be normal, with strengths and weaknesses, victories and mistakes, just like the parents who raised and educated them.
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Oak Meadow partnered with Parent.co to sponsor this post because they believe that a homeschool curriculum can be joyfully and artfully integrated into your life.

"Mom, Will My Penis Fit in This?" And Other Scenarios I Wasn't Prepared For

The parenting books I devoured while pregnant prepared me for a lot of things, but the ways my son was going to manipulate his member wasn’t one of them.

What do a Bavarian pretzel, a bubble wand, and a plastic syringe all have in common? If you’re in my home, they’ve all housed a small penis. Some have even housed two, though rarely simultaneously.

The parenting books I devoured while pregnant prepared me for a lot of things, but not how to properly respond to excited squeals of how wondrous a lid-less shampoo bottle feels in the bathtub.

The books covered both sides of the circumcision debate in great detail. There were a surprising number of paragraphs dedicated to the best ways to clean and care for their tiny members. Several even advised covering the “region” with washcloths during diaper changes to avoid sprayed urine landing in an open mouth.

I wasn’t ready for baby boners. I certainly wasn’t ready for the extreme pride and wonder his baby boner elicited from my first born. I never expected we’d have to wave hello and goodbye to his schlong with every single diaper change. Nor that I’d have to bend that toddler throbber down before closing the diaper to prevent my sweet angel from taking a stream of urine to the face. (But let’s be honest – better him than me.)

I made a point of reading up on how to help small kids get along with cats. What cat lover hasn’t been warned about the perils of your sweet feline unintentionally suffocating a baby? With boys, however, I quickly learned the cat was the one in jeopardy. I thought my son was chasing her to pull her tail. But no. He just wanted to drape his naked junk across her fur. And no, the metaphor is not lost on me.

None of those parenting books had suggestions on how to field the question, “Do you think my penis will fit in this?”

Or the conversation that inevitably follows:

“I dunno, sweets. I guess you could try? But honestly, I don’t know what we’ll do if it gets stuck.”

“My penis might get stuck?”

“I’ve seen it happen in movies.”

“What’s a movie?”

“A really long video.”

“My penis is longer than my brother’s.”

“Your arms are longer than your brother’s, too.”

“It’s stuck.”

“Do you have a boner?”

“It’s getting bigger.”

“Ok, just don’t touch it and let’s talk about something else. It’ll get smaller and fall right out. Probably. That’s what your dad does, anyway.”

AND HE SHOULD BE DOING THIS, I’d shout in my head while working to extract the wedged willy winkie, cringing as my ears were bombarded with both screams of terror and squeals of delight bouncing off the tile walls.

I always thought the care and keeping of penises would be the domain of my husband. But somehow, every time my kid’s pickle is in a pickle, the patriarch of this house is out bringing in the Benjamins.

Not that his contributions were particularly helpful when he was present, even in the beginning. “Is it…do you think…is it normal for him to reach for it every time I take off his diaper?” he’d ask.

“What’s the first thing you do when you pull off your drawers?” I’d counter.

“Point taken,” was his reply.

Nothing prepared me for the gasp of horror my child would emit when he caught sight of me sans britches. “WHERE IS YOUR PENIS?!?” he screamed, followed by those blue eyes welling with pity. After my explanations of moms and their vaginas he whispered, “You don’t have one? Oh Mom, that’s so sad.”

Nor did the books mention that we’d have that exact same conversation at least once a week.

Several of the books suggested that when your small child starts to offer you bites and pieces of his food, you should always take a little nibble to encourage sharing. The same principle applies when they offer you an opportunity to use their MegaBlocks or Playdoh. I take direction really well, so I’ve nibbled golden pea no-nut butter on rice cakes that make me gag while forming Paw Patrol pups out of paper mache. I’ve worn pirate hats while sipping the strawberry cheese soup he’s lovingly prepared for me. However, I draw the line at his multiple offers to share his penis with me.

“Like Daniel Tiger says, Mom! You can get a turn, and then I’ll get it back.”

“That’s super sweet, kid, but your dad is home and I don’t think you’ve offered to share with him before. Go ask him. And take him some of the soup, too.”

4 Parenting Lessons Research Taught Us in 2016

Some important themes from 2016 can guide us into happy parenting for 2017: playful, outdoors, empathy, simplicity.

The beginning of a new year is upon us and, as usual, social media is ripe with “best of” and “top 10” posts. In an attempt to be a little more creative this year, I’m focusing on information we learned last year that we can actually use in 2017 to help our parenting lives and hopefully our kids as well.

Reviewing some of the best parenting articles of the year, a few general themes kept jumping out at me. Here are a few big ideas that we learned from child development research in 2016 that can help inform us as we head into this new year.

Too much too soon isn’t helping our kids’ academic growth

Repeatedly this year, we saw how a push to include formal academics into preschool is just setting our kids up for failure. We’ve seen the research coming out on this topic over the last few years, but I think 2016 offered the clearest yet – that academic preschools are a case of “putting the cart before the horse.” Young kids need to be active learners who engage with new material primarily through play, not “rigorous instruction.” 

Playful learning means using a child’s innate interests and abilities in a setting with strong positive relationships. Guided play is a perfect example of this. Adults guide (not control) the play, and kids make it their own and thus learn through it. 

Outdoor play – for kids and adults – is key

In an era of smart phones and voice-activated shopping, it’s easy to stay inside on your couch virtually all the time. Of course, we all know this isn’t healthy for us and or our kids. Research this year pointed out how outdoor families are happier, healthier, and actually get along better.

More surprising, however, is that kids who play outside with friends gain valuable skills in empathy as well. We also learned that “risky” play can have its benefits, too. Turns out kids learn some pretty valuable lessons from a skinned knee or scratched arm. 

Emotional skills are just as important as academic

One of the best parenting books of the year (“Unselfie” by Dr. Michele Borba) focused not on how to get your kid into the best college, but on how to teach them empathy. After a tumultuous 2016, I think we can all agree that empathy should be a big goal for all of us. Empathy not only helps us be better people, but it also makes us happier, more creative, and ultimately builds a sense of unity in our communities. 

Empathy and compassion are wired into us from birth (to some degree), but they must be fostered by adults for it to grow and develop. Research showed us this year that kids pick up on our lack of consistency when it comes to emotional learning. Many teenagers feel their parents talk about kindness, but actually value academic or sports achievement more. If we just “talk the talk” but don’t actually “walk the walk,” they notice and follow suit. 

Simplification should be the new parenting buzzword

In contrast to what we may think, kids actually flourish in an atmosphere of simplicity. Too much stuff, too many activities, and overstimulation can be stressful for kids. Childhood is never stress-free, but we can do things to help our kids learn a slower pace and value meaning.

One thing I’ve learned this year, and hope to continue into 2017, is the value of simplicity. Some days I feel overwhelmed by the vicious circle that is toys, storage for toys, toys that don’t get played with, getting rids of toys, etc. When I feel stressed and the kids are cranky, I know the key is to slow down and simplify.

Although we just finished Christmas with usual onslaught of toys, I’m trying to make simplicity my goal for the new year. I’m hoping to slow down, clear the clutter, and treasure the time we have together. 

To sum up, some important themes from 2016 can guide us into happy parenting for 2017: playful, outdoors, empathy, simplicity. These are some goals I can get behind!

This post originally appeared on the author’s site, The Thoughtful Parent

Why Childhood Growth Charts Are So Easily Misinterpreted

Our systems for measuring children are often understood differently by physicians and parents.

Around their second birthdays, four to eight percent of American children previously identified as healthy are classified as underweight. What affliction is overtaking these children? Growth charts.

Obviously, the growth charts themselves aren’t responsible for children’s ill health (and, in fact, most of those children aren’t in ill health). But our systems for measuring children, often understood differently by physicians and parents, affect how we define health.

Standard versus reference

The first nationwide growth charts, developed by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) in 1977, were based on one of the world’s longest running longitudinal studies at the time, the Fels Longitudinal Study. The study, which began in 1930, measured children, and eventually, those children’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

The NCHS 1977 growth charts, based on nearly 50 years of data from the Fels study, provided a good, if imperfect, picture of childhood growth. For example, children studied during those decades were more likely to be formula fed, which made their first-year weight gains somewhat higher than comparable breastfed infants. Because of its location in Yellow Springs, Ohio, the Fels study enrolled mostly white, middle-class children, who were not representative of the U.S. population as a whole. In 2000, the CDC released revised charts based on nationwide data.

The CDC charts were not intended to be a standard all babies needed to meet, but rather a reference for physicians to monitor growth, because slow growth was understood to be a risk factor for health problems like cystic fibrosis or celiac disease. Once these charts were shared with parents who wanted more information about how their children were growing, the charts gradually became viewed as standards.

The World Health Organization, recognizing this shift toward standardization, decided that if people were going to treat the growth charts as standards, growth charts should be based on the healthiest possible kids. To create a chart that described infant growth under “optimal conditions,” the WHO gathered data about infants born in six cities around the world chosen for their high socio-economic status, breastfeeding, and other factors. Because the WHO charts more accurately reflect the U.S.’s current population of breastfed infants, the CDC and other organizations recommend the WHO charts for children aged zero to 24 months.

Shrinking children

Those newly underweight children at the top of this article are not suddenly falling ill at age two. Instead, many American two-year-olds are switching growth charts. Because they are based off of different populations, the WHO and CDC growth charts have slightly different growth curves.

When children are switched from the WHO growth chart to the CDC growth chart, they have a tendency to shrink. For example, at two years of age, a boy weighing 12kg falls at right about the 50th percentile of the WHO’s growth chart. That same boy, measured on the CDC’s growth chart, would fall closer to the 25th percentile.

The WHO and CDC charts are substantially different for children at the bottom of the curve. While the WHO chart categories under three percent of children aged six to 23 months as low weight for age, the CDC chart identifies seven to 11 percent of children as low weight for age.

Children also lose an average of about a centimeter when switching from the WHO charts to the CDC charts, not because of international differences in height, but because one chart is based on length (measured while laying down) and the other is based on height (measured while standing up).

American pediatricians, likely recognizing the potential for panic over all those shrinking two-year-olds, have developed a few workarounds when shifting from one set of growth charts to another. Many pediatricians provide parents with charts that plot their children’s height and weight over the period of multiple visits, showing a clearer progression from visit to visit.

Others shift from the WHO chart to the CDC’s birth-to-age-three chart. Still others provide additional charts (weight-for-length and BMI, for example), so that parents have a more complete picture of their children’s growth.

Is bigger better

Children on the other side of the growth curve present a different sort of interpretive problem. Percentiles merely describe how a child compares in relation to other children his or her age, but those percentiles are often interpreted as value judgments. A 2007 study in Pediatrics asked parents to interpret growth charts and found that parent-respondents were more likely to interpret a child measuring in the 90th percentile as “normal” weight than a child measuring in the 10th percentile.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that parents seem to be aiming for the higher percentiles. In a study published in JAMA Pediatrics, researchers found that parents of toddlers are remarkably poor at identifying their children’s body size: 70 percent of mothers interviewed for the study inaccurately gauged their child’s size. Parents of overweight toddlers were the worst estimators of their children’s weight, often identifying their children as being of “normal” weight.

The authors attribute this difference to the cultural perception that heavier kids are a sign of good parenting. Growth charts, which depict weight in terms of increasing percentiles, might be helping support the parental notion that bigger is better.

Charts in context

One answer to the interpretive problems presented by growth charts has been to make more growth charts for different subgroups. Some charts are better for weighing very low birth weight children. A Children’s HealthWatch study concludes that, because breastfeeding and other socio-economic factors make such an impact on the shape of growth curves, pediatricians should be cautious of using the WHO standards when evaluating low-income populations.

Any growth chart brings with it the same kinds of interpretive problems that lead us to think small is bad and big is good. It’s not unusual that, once given growth charts, both parents and physicians would come to use them as standards instead of references.

The history of anthropometry – the study of measurements of the human body – is full of examples of body measurements being used as standards, as it was throughout our darker periods of slavery and eugenics. Growth charts have, since their origin, become a tool for measuring people against one another, a source of comparison and competition.

T.J. Cole argues that a growth chart, as a graphic design, is a “road to health” trajectory that we imagine our children have to follow. Many parents receive printed copies of their child’s growth charts during visits to the pediatrician. It’s hard not to view the string of dots as a form of progress – or, depending on the results of the weigh-in, failure.

Perhaps we could develop a new design. Instead of receiving a growth chart at each visit, imagine instead receiving a punch-out paper doll, scaled according to your child’s most recent height and weight measurements. Imagine taking that doll home and adding it to the growing collection on your wall. Is the doll bigger, but proportional to the doll from the last visit? Did the doll shrink from last time? Is it widening? Is it elongating?

Your growing gallery might help you understand trends in your child’s growth without resorting to comparisons.

Ages and Stages: Your Precocious Preschooler

The preschool years are some tricky business. Let’s scratch the surface of four main areas of development, and learn how to be supportive throughout.

The preschool years are some tricky business. Our tiny toddlers are beginning to resemble actual grown people. They’re starting to sound more like them, too.

Heck, we can even legitimately “hang” with them now, due to their budding sense of humor and ability to engage in semi-normal conversation (even if the subject matter is Paw Patrol).

Then, somewhere along the way, while enjoying these new qualities and rejoicing in their newfound ability to occasionally wipe their own bottom, we mistakenly start to believe they should be able to do all of the adult stuff.

“I’ve told you ten times not to hit your brother!”

We’re shocked when they act impulsively, overemotional, or just straight up unstable. Having expectations for our preschoolers is a good thing, as long as they are realistic – unless, of course, you enjoy prolonged frustration and disappointment on the daily.

Let’s scratch the surface of four main areas of mini-me development, and learn how to be supportive throughout. Hopefully, this knowledge will leave you with a small shred of sanity at the end of a long day parenting a preschooler.

Cognitive

Ever been interrogated with so many “why” questions that you can no longer remember why? Your preschooler is becoming capable of higher thought processes by the day, due to increases in executive functioning and language development. Think of executive functioning as your brain’s air traffic control mechanism, largely responsible for your child’s mental control and self-regulation. Much executive functioning is managed by the area in the front of the brain known as our prefrontal cortex or PFC.

Growth in executive functioning can enable your child to resemble a fully functioning little person at times, who suddenly gets dressed on her own and occasionally remembers to flush the toilet. While these accomplishments should be acknowledged and celebrated, they shouldn’t be accepted as routine. Growth of the frontal lobes (largely responsible for executive functioning) happens in an uneven and unstable manner, which means an empty toilet one day and a floater the next.

Movie night just got a bit more exciting as your preschooler may be able to sit through the majority of a Pixar movie. The average 4-year-old’s attention span will increase to 15 minutes. That may not seem like much, but compare it to three or four minutes from a year or two ago. Keep these numbers in mind when you plan projects at home, or when Johnny can’t keep his hands to himself after a 20-minute story time at the library.

Social

Pack your tissues, parents, as you’ll likely send your mini-backpack-adorned child to their first structured school setting at this age. Luckily, your preschooler is becoming more interested in peer relationships, due to increased social competence, so they’re often a willing participant. They are now able to verbally engage with peers as well as participate in reciprocal and pretend play.

Your preschooler will reap many benefits from social play, including cooperation, listening, and rule following. These skills are the vital building blocks to future years of academically focused schooling. Peer relationships are also a core ingredient for your child to build resilience. 

A common moment of preschool panic for parents is being fed your child’s first Whopper – not the candy, a lie. Don’t fret though. At this age, tall tales are largely harmless and don’t indicate anything other than an actively developing imagination or an impulsive attempt to protect themselves from getting in trouble. Instead of starting a savings account in their name for future therapy, acknowledge what you saw happen and what they can do to fix their mistake.

Emotional

Your daughter blows out the candles on her fourth birthday cake. You let out a sigh of relief that your former ‘threenager’ has now joined the ranks of a more mature and worldly four-year-old crowd. But the visions of your child calmly playing with her little brother and compliantly frolicking to bed are interrupted by shrill screams. Turns out she didn’t get the piece of cake with the most sprinkles and is now stomping her feet in protest.

You haven’t raised a brat, just a child with a growing and taxed PFC. Even though she left the park willingly just yesterday, a tired and overstimulated 4-year-old stands no chance against cake tragedy. Your child is certainly making gains in her emotional regulation, yet this doesn’t mean she should or will be happy, agreeable, and calm all of the time.

Before you start feeling too sorry for yourself, it’s likely your child will soon show you an amazing new skill – the ability to empathize with others. He may show concern for his sick sibling, or try to comfort you when he sees you are sad. Parents can help foster this emotional intelligence by labeling their child’s feelings and modeling empathy for others.

Physical

The preschool years are a huge time of physical growth and development for both large and fine motor skills. Your child is aware of these strides as well, which she’ll remind you of when you try to help her with her zipper before school and she yells, “I can do it!” As parents, it can be easy to step in and help right away, but allowing your child a chance to practice the skill first will develop her confidence.

Your preschooler has likely become a decent sleeper for the most part, but it is not uncommon for nightmares or night terrors to appear now. A greater capacity to think and understand abstract concepts (again, thank the good ol’ PFC) such as death may cause nightmares. Night terrors are thought to be related to an over-aroused immature nervous system, otherwise known as sensory overload, or a child not getting enough sleep. 

Blame it on the PFC

Raising a preschooler is a whole lot of draining and awesome all wrapped up in one pint size package. Perhaps a musical mantra would help us parents make it through the preschool years – a little jingle to drown out “The Backyardigans” as we focus on all the amazing growth and development blossoming behind our child’s challenging behaviors. Something to help us feel cool, calm, and confident enough to set firm limits, while lovingly steering them in the right direction.

Maybe something along the lines of, “Blame it on the pa pa pa pa pa PFC…”.

How You Can Help Ensure Your Child’s First Memories Are Happy Ones

Most kids retain then replace memories in cycles until they begin to crystallize around 7 years old. How can we make certain they are happy ones?

We hosted a big party at our house not long ago, and our two-year-old got stuck in his closet for longer than I care to admit. A friend of ours eventually heard him calling, rescued him, and brought him to me.

Feelings of guilt, concern, and relief washed over me, as I played out increasingly dramatic “what if” scenarios in my head. I cuddled him on my lap, but he quickly perked up, anxious to wiggle away and rejoin the party.

We adults laughed off the incident, adding it to the list of near misses we’d already encountered that day. Hosting a party for 17 children with a median age of two is a battle against chaos. I wondered aloud jokingly, “I hope this didn’t scar him for life,” and my husband and I made a mental note to close off the bedrooms for the next party.

Then, I wondered privately, when do kids really form lasting memories, and what promotes certain situations to memory status over others? Basically, how much leeway do I have before I inadvertently pack an extra duffel of baggage for my kid to carry around through life?

The age of remembrance

Most of us don’t remember anything that happened before we turned three or four years old, and, even then, we only retain a handful of episodic memories. While infants and toddlers can and do form memories, they fade over time, replaced with newer “first” memories until the child is somewhere between seven and 10 years old.

At this point, early memories begin to crystallize. Researchers refer to this cycle of remember and delete as childhood amnesia. There are a lot of nuances to how it’s defined and studied, but for our purposes, just know that its occurrence is completely normal and likely a side effect of the typical brain development that children undergo.

This is good news for me. While my husband and I have certainly disqualified ourselves from being named Parents of the Year, it’s a safe bet that my son won’t remember being stuck in that dark closet by himself. However, we can’t know this for sure, since some of these early memories do manage to become lasting “first” recollections.

Emotion, meaning, and retelling

For children to retain memories for the long haul, the memory typically begins with a significant personal event, like the birth of a younger sibling, a special holiday, an injury, or a trauma. As parents, we hope that we’re creating lots of positive experiences to increase the odds that one of those will outlast a more stressful situation, like, say, an extended stay in a darkened closet. We can’t be sure what experiences children are more likely to retain, though, due to the other contributing factor of memory retention: coherence.

For a memory to be meaningful, context matters. Children have to understand concepts within the situation, so that the details of the event can stick together in a coherent way, forming a more complete story that’s easy to replay.

A friend of mine told me about her brother’s first memory: His biological mother left him at an orphanage when he was two years old. It breaks my heart to think about the significance of this moment in his life. He most definitely understood the concept of “mother” and “leaving.” The resulting confusion, sadness, and stress made this memory, unfortunately, an unforgettable one.

It puts in perspective the minor mishap my son experienced and confirms that it probably won’t be incorporated into his permanent psyche. He’s young, and I suspect he assigned minimum negative emotion to it since he wanted to go play in his closet the very next day. If he does remember being stuck in there, it’s because his older sister, his father, and I construct the memory for him by retelling it as part of family lore.

Influencing our kids’ memories

Conversations like this are how parents can have the greatest effect on our children’s memories and how we can help them develop earlier and more robust ones. While there’s much we still have to learn about how memories work, research suggests that kids who talk about themselves more frequently have the opportunity to sharpen their memory skills.

As parents, we can ask our kids to elaborate on personal experiences with open-ended questions like, “Tell me more,” and “What happened next?” This gives children the chance to better understand the feelings and concepts associated with an event, boosts the likelihood they’ll remember it, and, hopefully, increases the chance that their first memory will be a happy one.

A Sweet Tradition of Using Finger Rhymes to Help Baby Learn

Finger rhymes are a wonderful way to spend time with your baby. Here’s a list of some popular jingles and the area of child development that they address.

When I had my first baby, I remember singing and chanting to her when I changed her diaper. I don’t know where the words came from – I just somehow knew all the words to “The Little Piggy” while touching her little toes. She squealed with delight every time I chanted it.

I guess I learned the “piggy” jingle from my mother when I was a child and it was somehow lodged in my memory. Most nursery rhymes are really nonsense poems and folklore from the 17th and 18th centuries, but I found I liked singing these little rhymes so I went on a search for more. 

When you sing or chant jingles or nursery rhymes to your baby, you’re facilitating language acquisition and speech development. Furthermore, these rhymes can help develop strength and flexibility in tiny fingers and develop hand-eye coordination and familiarity with sequences and rhythm patterns. It’s also a wonderful way to spend time with your baby. Here’s a list of some popular jingles and the area of child development that they address. 

1 | Traditional nursery rhyme jingles

There are many traditional nursery or Mother Goose rhymes, which are accompanied by simple actions and finger movements. For example, “Little Turtle involves snapping motions and tickles. “Little Caterpillar uses wiggling and fluttering motions like a butterfly and in “Sleeping Bunnies,” the fingers bounce up and down and then wave goodbye. 

Other traditional rhymes include “Wiggle Fingers, Wiggle So” which teaches up, down, left and right, and “Round and Round the Garden” which involves circular motion on the baby’s palm or tummy and a surprise tickle under the chin. An excellent reference book with lots of rhymes is “Over the Hills and Far Away compiled by Elizabeth Hammill. This anthology has rhymes from around the world and beautiful illustrations by 77 different artists. 

2 | Object permanence jingles

Finger rhymes that involve hiding can help develop object permanence. Object permanence is the understanding that something exists even if the child can’t see it. For example, in “Two Little Dickie Birds,” the thumbs imitate birds flying away behind the back, and then reappearing. There is much wonder and smiles from baby while watching the “thumb” birds appear and disappear. “Where is Thumbkin” also teaches object permanence as well as finger order. At “run and hide” the fingers disappear behind the back with much to the delight of your baby. 

3 | Counting jingles

Counting and number songs provide an ideal way to practice numeral order and counting. A forward counting song is the very old rhyme “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe.” In contrast, a backward counting rhyme is “Five Little Ducks.” ‘The Bee Hive” teaches counting to five while the fingers “come out of the hive.” Other favorites are “Five Fat Sausages and “Ten in a Bed.” Babies and toddlers love these rhymes and there’s a lot of giggles and smiles while doing these counting activities together. 

4 | Make up your own jingles!

Try making up your own rhymes with your child’s favorite animal or stuffy!  Instead of “Five Little Monkeys Swinging from a Tree,” change the monkeys to “teddy bears” or “snakes.” Instead of a mouse running up and down the clock in “Hickory Dickory Dock,” try changing it to a “cat” or a “salamander.” Ask your toddler to use their creative imagination to think up other verses as their fingers move to the jingles.

Rhymes and finger play activities can occur at any time of day. Changing diapers, bath time, or snack time are excellent times to introduce a rhyme. Sing or chant the same rhymes over and over to your baby. Children love familiarity and with the repetition of the same jingles, your baby will learn about predictability.

Of course, the main reason for finger rhymes is to spend time with your child, which in turn will create happy memories. And yes, finger rhymes are just as relevant today as they were when our parents and grandparents sang them.

The Danger of Holding Our Kids to Adult Standards

“There’s a troubling kind of role reversal going on in American society today: As adults race to the bottom with childish antics…young children are the ones being forced to act like the adults.”

In a recent article published in The Atlantic, Erika Christakis, author of The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownupswrites,

The evidence is sobering. Behind the head-scratching headlines of 5-year-olds toiling at treadmill desks and a judge’s recent claim that a 3-year-old can serve as her own immigration lawyer lies a growing portrait of “adultification” of early childhood—that is, the imposition of adult beliefs and norms about how young children should behave.

Moreover, we increasingly hold our children to standards many adults fail to meet. And it’s doing them more harm than good.

When the Common Core state standards were first released without substantive input from early-childhood specialists, 500 experts published an impassioned dissent that questioned the basic foundation on which the standards were built: a gross misunderstanding of what it is like to be a young child. Since then, the evidence keeps stacking up that much of today’s preschool and kindergarten routine—including far too much scripted teaching known as “direct instruction”—may be yielding rote recall skills at the expense of the more sophisticated problem-solving skills. 

Christakis argues that our children are capable of greater profundity, empathy, and generosity than we recognize. Greater, even, than what we see exchanged among adults.

The obvious conclusion is that grownups are acting like preschoolers. But this characterization of young children is actually quite misleading. When given the opportunity, preschoolers are capable of far greater generosity and respect for their peers and sophistication of thought than people have seen on display this election season. Moreover, in today’s “no excuses” educational climate, they are held to higher performance standards, too. In fact, there’s a troubling kind of role reversal going on in American society today: As adults race to the bottom with childish antics that would have imperiled careers and marriages in previous eras, young children are the ones being forced to act like the adults.

What’s the solution?

The paradox of preschool is that young children only punch above their presumed emotional and cognitive weight when we treat them rightly as children, not mini-Me adults. This requires a more concerted effort to protect their playful, child-scaled environment and a commitment from adults to stop hounding them.

Interested in more? Click over to The Atlantic and read The New PreSchool is Crushing Kids, also by Erika Christakis.